Lets Grow, Not Shrink, Detroit

Detroit needs a growth agenda. And the rest of us need to support it. There is a clear pattern across the country: the most prosperous states are either rich in energy resources or are anchored by an even more prosperous big metro with a vibrant central city. As I have written previously it’s Detroit that must lead Michigan’s return to prosperity, not the other way around.

Clearly one barrier to making Detroit’s growth a priority is that most Michiganians don’t believe the city’s success is important to their future. We have not learned the lesson that it’s highly unlikely that we can have a prosperous state economy without metro Detroit working and for metro Detroit to succeed we need a vibrant city of Detroit. The other barrier which may be tougher to break through is, even for those who understand the centrality of Detroit to the region’s and state’s success, there is a prevailing sense that it can’t work. That the disfunction of the city is so bad that it is beyond repair. This pessimism about Detroit’s future is overwhelming outside of the city, but deep seated in the city as well.

So we end up with shrinking the city as the priority. Too much land, too few people, too little demand – now and in the future – for that land so we need to turn large sections of the city into open space or farms. Shrinking the city may be necessary, but not as the goal. Rather as a means to a very different end.  A way of freeing up resources to invest in the actions that will grow the city.

Detroit’s problem is not that there is no demand for central city living. The last two decades have seen a rebirth of urban neighborhoods that were written off as dead across the country. They have largely been revitalized by a combination of immigrants and college educated households – mainly young and without children. Detroit’s problem is that it has not participated at any scale with these trends. Detroit needs an agenda to take advantage of the renewed demand for city living.

We will explore in future posts in more detail what a growth agenda for Detroit should look like. As we laid out in our Revitalizing Michigan’s Central Cities report in 2003 the pillars of the agenda need to be a culture that is welcoming to all, the delivery of high quality basic services and being development friendly. None are strengths of the city today.

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