Friday, December 18th, 2009

A Plan for Detroit

The Bookings Institution published their plan for Detroit in a long article called “The Detroit Project: A Plan for Solving America’s Greatest Urban Disaster” in the New Republic. I recommend checking it out.

I’ve got to confess that I found it difficult to determine exactly what it is Brookings is recommending. They talked a lot about what worked elsewhere, but did not lay out a crisp set of recommendations for Detroit. For example, they talk a lot about the turnaround in cities like Turin and Bilbao, and some of the things those cities did. But is Detroit supposed to copy what they did, or are those just inspirational stories? It’s hard to tell.

I have a lot of respect for Brookings. They do some great work through their Metropolitan Policy Program and are one of the key sources of fantastic data about cities. Nevertheless, based on my understanding of their plan, I have some differences from Brookings. Actually, I agree with a lot of it, but have two main areas of disagreement.

1. Economic Development Paradigm. Brookings and I have a major difference of philosophy here. They explicitly call for a government-led industrial policy. I believe you have to improve the business climate. While I believe the government has an important role to play in economic development, the type of explicit direction of investment to business Brookings advocates isn’t going to work. I fundamentally don’t believe in the centrally planned economy and planners could, even if successful, could never have enough bandwidth to create as many jobs as Detroit needs.

2. Need for Bolder, Detroit-Specific Action. Brookings recommends things such as regionalism that they generally tout, as well as other standard playbook solutions. Many of these are good and I’d adopt them, but they aren’t enough for Detroit. We have to go beyond these to come up with additional “only in Detroit” ideas unique to that city.

I took a more complete look at the Brookings plan and how I would improve it in a two-part series for New Geography.

I was also featured this week in a segment on the future of Detroit on the “Detroit Today” program on WDET-FM. The audio is embedded below. My segment starts at around 31:00. If the player doesn’t show up here, you can click through the episode home page to listen. (If anyone wants to edit out just my segment for easy access, I’d welcome getting the MP3.)

In my Brookings take, I didn’t think Detroit was much like the other places it was compared to. I’m not the only one. The Overhead Wire, for example, takes issue with comparing Detroit to Turin.

Topics: Civic Branding, Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Historic Preservation, Public Policy, Regionalism, Strategic Planning, Sustainability, Talent Attraction, Transportation, Urban Culture
Cities: Detroit

16 Responses to “A Plan for Detroit”

  1. *topia says:

    It seems that the major ingredient necessary for any of the proposed reforms (whether yours or Brookings’) is leadership. Specifically, leadership that is able to rise above the “tax, regulatory, and political system that is toxic to business.” I wonder if it would be feasible for the President to declare some sort of emergency situation in Detroit and appoint a Special Commissioner to oversee reform. This person could be bound by requirements and incentives that tied his job and/or compensation to a) the voice of the people via regular polling or voting on overall satisfaction, b) long-term growth, c) a maximum time-limit (on the order of decades) before full control would be returned to local government.

    In return he would have the authority to create planning commissions/councils to overhaul Detroit’s regulatory framework, business climate, incentives for economic growth, and social institutions. These commissions would receive input from local citizens and leaders but would be separate from local government. Their recommendations, after approval by the impartial Special Commissioner, would have the force of Law.

    I wonder if such a solution would be Constitutional. Certainly it might not be immediately popular, especially with the local government. But the people of Detroit might be willing to sacrifice the current version of their representative government for the promise of a system that works. As long as the local government remains in place (but is able to be modified and restructured by the commissions) and the commissions themselves are required to be responsive to the voice of the citizens of Detroit, it might be a trade-off that benefits everyone in the long run.

  2. Thank you for the comment. I agree, leadership is the key issue. But even the best leader will have challenges in this environment.

    I think new Detroit Mayor Bing has started to shake things up. I’m cautiously optimistic he’ll be able to drive through some needed reforms. State government will probably remain status quo until the next election at least.

    Brookings suggests putting certain entities into receivership. This would probably have to be state led, not federal. I think this is a better fit for special purpose entities rather than general purpose governments where I think maintaining democratic legitimacy is paramount. The Detroit Public Schools are already under a financial receiver, it wouldn’t be that much of a leap to simply have the state take over the district entirely. Many other institutional changes could result from changes in state law alone.

    It’s not going to be easy – and leadership is clearly a necessary ingredient. Thanks again.

  3. Stephen Gross says:

    I noticed that in your articles, you often simply refer to the entity “Detroit”. Could you clarify which of your recommendations apply to the city Detroit, and which apply to the region Detroit?


  4. Good question, Steve. Most of it applies to the region. Obviously most of the historic assets are in the city, so that part of it applies to the city. Also, I do believe the city and suburbs need their own focused areas of development. I think the “frontier” idea is more applicable to the city, for example.

  5. Alon Levy says:

    First, I’m not sure Michigan’s low rank on the Forbes business climate list is such a problem. New Jersey ranks low as well, and has none of the same problems. Conversely, North Dakota, Utah, and Virginia rank high, and all live off of federal government largesse.

    Second, a few concerns with the Urbanophile plan for Detroit:

    – How can Detroit both downsize cool cities programs and have a music industry? Coming to think of it, why would musicians perform in Detroit and not Ann Arbor?

    – The main capacity problem on the border crossings is the immigration and customs process, not the bridge and tunnel themselves. Recently Detroit and Windsor committed to increasing the number of immigration/customs booth, saying that this would have the same capacity increase as a new bridge. Installing first-world signaling on the rail tunnel would increase capacity even further.

    – Turin and Bilbao are small by Detroit’s standard and are not good comparisons of industrial reinvention, but the Ruhr region isn’t. Detroit should seek a sister city relationship with Essen, Dortmund, Dusseldorf, or Cologne and learn.

    – It’s hard to shrink Detroit on the one hand and improve race relations on the other. To improve race relations you’d want to increase integration, which would require moving white middle-class people back to the city. The opposite process, moving the black underclass to the suburbs, has always triggered further white flight.

  6. Carl says:

    Isn’t Toronto the Rustbelt/Frostbite/Midwest model for large city diversity and prosperity?

  7. Dave says:

    Toronto isn’t the best example. We’re Canada’s main financial center, the main corporate HQ center and the capital of the biggest province (and our Province’s have more relative spending per capita than your states, so it actually matters). Might be hard to lure Goldman Sachs away from Manhattan. Certainly our car industry hasn’t done much better than Michigan’s.

    I also don’t know how much you can compare our ethnic diversity to Detroit’s. For starters, it doesn’t look like Detroit is very diverse at all being overwhelmingly African-American. As a Canadian, I will just say I don’t understand American race relations. Toronto was pretty much white as snow until the 60s, so we never had any serious history of discrimination or any major civil rights issues. Maybe a more appropriate comparison would be Anglo/Franco tensions in Montreal, which has over the years scared away a lot of capital from the City (much to our benefit in Toronto).

    All that said, as a Torontonian, I really do wish Detroit ‘got better.’ It’s the closest major American city to us unless you count Buffalo (which isn’t exactly Rome), so it seems bizarre we aren’t more connected. There’s always talk of a Windsor-Quebec Bullet Train. I’m not the biggest fan of HSR, but it’s always seemed weird to me that a relatively cheap bridge over the Detroit River (which would add a *major*, by Canadian standards, city) is never considered at all.

  8. Carl says:

    Dave, thanks for your follow up.

    My perception is that Toronto is a city that has embraced diversity, and that it’s downtown area is prospering. That’s why I thought it might be a model for for Rustbelt American cities.

    Perhaps my perceptions are wrong. I know lots of Americans who like cities really like Toronto, and that city’s image and identity have been largely positive.

    Regardless of who comprises the majority population, I think Midwestern cities have to find a way to embrace and leverage diverse ethnic and racial populations. To do so is difficult, but to not do so will be an economic disaster.

    Per your example of Montreal, investor confidence is everything, and without a programmatic approach, confidence will continue to wane. Even if conditions are far from perfect, the knowledge that issues are being systematically addressed at the highest levels can have a profound affect in the marketplace.

  9. Alon Levy says:

    Toronto is the third fastest-growing Canadian metro region, after Calgary and Edmonton. However, it also suffers from white flight at its core, and city-suburb relations are toxic. The current mayor, David Miller (who Jane Jacobs campaigned for and served on the transition team of) has done a lot to defuse racial issues and be more inclusive toward immigrants, who are now about half of the city’s population. However, the suburbanites have blasted him for doing so.

    Also: there’s a two-track railway tunnel between Detroit and Windsor, which feeds directly into the old Michigan Central station. It’s used for freight service, and could be used for passenger service if immigration and customs didn’t add an hour to train schedules.

  10. Don K says:

    I agree there should be some way to get the Detroit area to a reasonable population (and to get excess houses off the market BTW), but it’s never going to happen, for reasons of politics. Recipient states (assuming they’re friendly towards growth, like Texas) will be in favor, but every single Michigan politician will be opposed, and politicians from other states will oppose yet another bailout of Michigan (or Michiganians).

    Having said that, I think this plan would be as good as I’ve seen. In particular, stopping construction of new highways (or expansion of existing highways) is imperative. What in the world are we doing building highways when we can’t maintain what we’ve already got?

  11. anonymous says:

    I never thought of Toronto as being wholly dependent on a single industry like Detroit was.

    I never thought of Toronto as ever being a real industrial powerhouse like the rust belt cities were. (Obviously there were some factories, but that’s not what I mean.) I thought it really came up when capital started moving down from Montreal.

  12. TS says:

    The Constitutional issues may run against the 10 (not being an attourney). I would think the Governor and state legislature would balk. The militia and state would not look kindly on the fed co-opting a major city. The local government would love a little support. Eminant Domain at will; replace rebuild.

    The radical rethinking process takes shape when they realize they really have nothing to lose and only then will the real extent of the latitude available manifest itself. You may recall St Bernard Parrish seceded and declared itself independant to receive federal and international aid post Hurricane and flood. Could Detroit vote to become a district or request protectorate status?

    Aaron, in your free time would it be possible to include a reply link for the commentary? It would be easier to address an individual concern. Thanks TS

  13. TS says:

    I would like to see a compare/contrast with respect to the evolution of Chicago and Detroit. I believe the two cities had a parallel development post industrial revolution: Chicago with packing and rail and Detroit with automobiles. Chicago appears to have diversified after the Great Fire and reaped the benefits of the turn of the century commerce. Detroit also grew into a powewhouse midwest industrial city but remained a one trick pony until the decline started to show through the cracks after the Oil Embargo. Huberis, poor planning and myopic avarice seem to have gotten Detroit where it is.

  14. John says:

    Where did you get the data for the percentage of employment taking place in the urban core? You noted that Detroit is only 4.5%.

  15. John, you can get 1990 CBD data here:

    Yes, that’s Wendell Cox’s site, but I’ve found his data to be accurate (once you know the actual measure). Let me put it to you this way, if 4.5% is too low, it’s certainly not materially off such that it would affect the logic. Detroit’s CBD employment probably isn’t much different from Columbus, but the metro employment base is vastly higher.

  16. pete-rock says:

    I’ve read the Brookings Institute’s Detroit strategy, as well as Aaron’s critique and alternative strategy. I think both do a good job of acknowledging the impact of segregation, poor race relations and non-existent regional cooperation on the social and economic health of the region. But there is nothing out there that gives the region a blueprint for moving forward on this.

    I have an idea that might work. What about a Detroit Regional Reconciliation Commission, maybe loosely based on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission after apartheid rule was overturned?

    I can envision a commission comprised of persons from throughout the Detroit metro area, whose task would be to publically compile a biography or memoir of Detroit race relations over the last 60 years. The commission would conduct public hearings for a determined period of time. It would be an opportunity to publically acknowledge all the grievances that have plagued cooperation over that period — from housing and job discrimination to police brutality; from Coleman Young’s alienation of white residents and the business community to Kwame Kilpatrick’s corruption and scandals. After the public hearing process is over, a writer or team of writers assembles the memoir, which is then reviewed by the commission and released through possibly another public hearing process for community review and comment. This would literally be the book on how Detroit got to where it is today.

    But it would also be the first step toward where the city and region will eventually go. My hope would be that the process would lead to the kind of community consensus and identity that simply doesn’t exist right now. I would also hope that membership on the commission would be broad enough and participation strong enough to lead to actual regional cooperation.

    This idea may be a little Pollyanna-ish, but I’ve long believed that Detroit’s challenges are social — even spiritual — in nature, and even radical economic restructuring and rebranding won’t solve all its ills.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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