The shrinking city: Detroit considers concentrating growth, letting vacant areas go rural

New Urban News, October-November 2010

Resources may be focused along a light-rail line and on downtown, Midtown, and the better-positioned neighborhoods.

Mayor Dave Bing launched a community outreach process in September that will probably result in a plan for returning parts of Detroit to almost rural conditions.

By some estimates, 40 square miles of the 139-square-mile Motor City currently lie vacant. Roughly 33,000 houses reportedly stand empty, and 91,000 residential lots are unoccupied. Once the nation’s fifth-largest city, home to 1,849,568 people at its peak in 1950, Detroit is now down, by one count, to fewer than 800,000 inhabitants.

With Michigan’s auto industry stripped of its former muscle, many believe Detroit must concentrate its resources and population in fewer, well-chosen places — and encourage some of the semi-abandoned areas to revert to farm fields or nature. The test of how far Detroit goes in that direction will be a new city vision — a strategy for “right-sizing” Detroit — scheduled to be released in December 2011.

In recent months, debate among those with extensive knowledge of Detroit’s situation has favored strengthening the urban qualities of downtown, Midtown — where institutions like the Detroit Institute of Art and Wayne State University are clustered — and other districts that have mostly remained stable.

Midtown, north of downtown, has experienced an influx of young people, artists, and others in recent years as old buildings have been converted to lofts, and other housing has been built from scratch. In all, 3,500 dwellings have been created in Midtown in the past decade, says Mark Nickita, principal of Archive Design Studio, a Detroit architecture and urban design firm. Restaurants, cafes, and music venues have flourished in part because Wayne State, with more than 30,000 students, functions as a permanent anchor, making Midtown one of the most stimulating sections of the city.

“Midtown is going to be a dense area, especially once we get light rail down Woodward Avenue,” says Samuel Butler, who co-chaired the Futures Task Force of Community Development Advocates of Detroit — a group that in late 2008 began devising ideas to “reinvent” the city.

Leaders in government and the private sector succeeded this year in winning a $25 million federal TIGER grant to build an initial 3.4-mile segment of the Woodward Light Rail Line. That sum, when combined with approximately $125 million already raised from philanthropic sources, should make it possible to begin construction within the next two to three years on the segment from the Detroit River through downtown and Midtown to West Grand Boulevard.

If additional funds are secured, a second phase, extending the line to Eight Mile Road (for a total length of 9.3 miles) could be operating by 2016. The full line is estimated to cost $450 to $500 million, much of which would have to come from the Federal Transit Administration.

Andre Brumfield, director of urban design and planning at the Chicago office of the design firm AECOM, led a team looking at how to transform the Northend neighborhood, a distressed area that would be served by the light-rail line. “The new neighborhood plan calls for high-density, mixed-use development oriented around [Northend’s] three transit stations,” Brumfield explained in Model D, a Detroit online periodical.

Northend’s housing would include townhouses and three-story walk-ups, which could have retail on the ground floor. “The area will also include new community parks, space for high-tech or light industrial businesses, and some land for urban agriculture,” said Brumfield. “It’s a big transformation for an area that was historically dominated by the single-family home.”

Nickita sees Eastern Market, a produce market whose historic sheds have been restored, as another focal point of Detroit’s future urban life, benefiting from the surge of interest in “Detroit-grown” agricultural products. Hundreds of community gardens have been established in the city in the past few years.

Dying neighborhoods, tomorrow’s farms?

There has been talk about offering incentives to entice the remaining residents of largely abandoned areas to move into denser neighborhoods, where they would enjoy access to a greater range of nearby services and might feel safer because of more neighbors and more eyes on the street.

It has been suggested that hold-outs might be forcibly relocated — an idea repeated many times by the news media. However, forcing people to leave their homes — except in the case of dangerous code violations — seems unlikely. Memories of the urban renewal’s dislocations remain too painful, especially in a city where at least 76 percent of the population is African-American.

Certainly some deteriorated neighborhoods will lose their last vestiges of urbanism. Mayor Bing has pledged to demolish 3,000 empty residential buildings by the end of this year and to raze a total of 10,000 over four years — a big jump from recent years.

Some of the cleared land could be turned into individual or community gardens, parks, recreation areas, or, in more extreme cases, assembled into tracts large enough for commercial farming.

Businessman John Hantz, who built up a financial holding company called Hantz Group, in nearby Southfield, has in the past two years established a company called Hantz Farms LLC with the intention of creating in Detroit “the largest urban farm in the world.”

Hantz says he will spend up to $30 million on his farming venture. He dismissed some competing ideas for the use of empty land, telling an interviewer, “If you turn it over to parks and recreation, you add costs to an overburdened city government that can’t afford to teach its children, police its streets, or maintain the infrastructure it already has.”

In late September, Michael Score, president of Hantz Farms, told an architects’ gathering that the company is working at assembling 120 acres — the size of tract the company believes is needed to make a farm profitable. Acquiring clear title to such a large contiguous expanse of urban land has proven to be a challenge, but Score said the farm can work around hold-out properties, just as farms in rural areas work around scattered buildings in the landscape.

The company is considering a variety of things to plant, including Christmas trees and an apple orchard. Score has said the company would deploy the latest in farm technology, such as compost-heated greenhouses and hydroponic and aeroponic growing systems. 

It’s possible that farms and gardens will be merely a holding stage, until more lucrative or job-generating use of vacant land turns up — factories, for example.

“I don’t think urban agriculture is the silver bullet,” says Butler, who is now working with a committee that’s fleshing out Community Development Advocates’ vision of the future. Even if the persistent problem of pollution of the land is overcome — many urban gardens have to use raised beds filled with new soil — “urban agriculture isn’t going to produce the jobs,” Butler says. “I’m not convinced it’s going to give Detroit an economic advantage. We need to compete with other post-industrial cities around the nation, like Cleveland.”

Urban and community gardening seems mostly to excite educated white people, Butler observes, while African-Americans, many of whose grandparents were sharecroppers, are often not eager to get into farming.

Shrinking a city’s costs

A leading reason why cities talk about “shrinking” is that they can no longer afford all the things they’ve customarily paid for. If large areas become uninhabited or very lightly populated, a number of expenses can be reduced.

“A road that gets very little traffic doesn’t need the same kind of paving,” says Margaret Dewar, a University of Michigan planning professor. “It may not need curbs.”

Where residents are sparse, garbage collection could be done in one run — down just one side of the street, saving a trip, Dewar says. “Maybe you have to wheel your garbage to the end of your street,” where, she hypothesizes, the block’s garbage could be collected from a single location. If an area were largely emptied of residents, it might be possible to cut off water and sewer service — and have any stragglers convert to wells and septic tanks.

“It’s possible to scale down police, fire, garbage hauls,” says Hunter Morrison, longtime planning director for Cleveland before he accepted a position as Youngstown State University’s liaison to the City of Youngstown on development issues. Other operations are more difficult to reduce effectively. Open land requires basic maintenance “unless you plant wildflowers,” Morrison says.

“Some systems are not paid for by the city at all,” he points out. “The gas lines are operated by the gas company, so you’re not saving the city money” by having them removed.

With one-third of Detroit’s population living in poverty, quite a few residents don’t have cars. Partly because of that, Nickita’s firm produced a plan for a “nonmotorized transportation network” that bicyclists and others can use to get from place to place, separate from the streets.

A 1.35-mile segment of that network, the Dequindre Cut Greenway, opened in May 2009, featuring a 20-foot-wide paved pathway with separate lanes for cyclists and pedestrians. It runs below grade on the former right-of-way of the Grand Trunk Railroad. Splashed on some of the remaining structures along its route is graffiti, regarded by some as urban art. “All the overpasses are sort of ruined,” Nickita acknowledges. A shrinking city has its own aesthetic.

See also: The 11 types of Detroit neighborhoods

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