Shrink to Grow

Shrink to Grow

Looking downtown from a typically derelict neighborhood.
Trey Campbell

In terms of urban decline, Detroit has experienced it pretty much longer, harder, and faster than any other city in the country. From its peak in the 1950s at the height of the highway boom, Detroit has lost nearly half its population, falling from 1.85 million then to barely 900,000 in 2008. As the city’s tax base fled to the suburbs and beyond, its politicians have grown venal and corrupt, culminating with the ouster last year of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick for sexting with an aide, among other offenses.

His replacement David Bing has vowed to fix the sprawling 140-square-mile urban area, and on March 24 he proposed an unprecedented if controversial plan to condense the city. While specifics remain unpublished, the thrust would be to concentrate resources in certain neighborhoods while allowing others to grow fallow as open space, sites for future development and possibly even urban agriculture. The hope is to create a network of villages within a vibrant city.

“The harsh reality is that some areas are no longer viable neighborhoods, with the population loss and financial situation our city faces,” Bing said. “But instead of looking at our land as a liability, we need to begin to think creatively about how it can be a resource as we rebuild.”

A forlorn house is all that remains on this abandoned block.

The first major piece of the initiative is a plan to demolish 3,000 of the city’s most dangerous abandoned structures this year and a total of 10,000 by 2013. This effort is being supported by a $20 million Neighborhood Stabilization Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, though it will only address a fraction of the city’s derelict properties.

The bigger challenge will be deciding what to do with the houses that are still occupied in areas to be abandoned. In February, Bing acknowledged in a radio interview that there would be “winners and losers,” though he also stressed the need to offer incentives to get people to move. “If we don’t do it, you know this whole city is going to go down,” said Bing of the shrinkage plan. “I’m hopeful people will understand that.” The comments created a stir, particularly from Bing’s political opponents, but criticism has been limited, both because no specific areas have been targeted and also because there seems to be a willingness, even a desperate need, to see what happens.

Glen LeRoy, dean of the College of Architecture and Design at Lawrence Tech in nearby Southfield, believes Detroiters are finally prepared to make the necessary sacrifices to save their city. “Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before people will buy the vision,” he said. “I think we’ve reached a point where people are willing to try anything.”

Tens of thousands of abandoned properties plague the city.

Part of the challenge facing what everyone refuses to call a shrinkage plan is what necessitates it as well—a lack of resources. Fortunately, the city has a strong philanthropic community dating back to its industrial days, and many have pledged their support. Among these, the Kresge Foundation has already stepped in, hiring hotshot planner Toni Griffin, who most recently worked for Cory Booker in Newark, to help guide the Bing plan.

The public sector has taken interest, too, beginning with a $125 million light rail system, seen as a key to the new hub-and-spoke approach to Detroit’s urban environment. “That’s right,” said Raymond Cekauskas, president of AIA Detroit, “we’re investing in mass transit in Detroit. But it really is essential to this plan, and it shows the new thinking this administration is serious about.”

But the key ingredient may be an essential mix of hope and faith. “There are little pockets of urban idealists that still live in the city, and there are more coming—artists, planners, people from New York and Europe and all over,” Cekauskas said. “This is a fascinating, exciting place. It’s also why people are tired of being criticized. We’re going to make a stand here. We’re going to make it work.”