My hometown of Detroit has been studied obsessively for years by writers and researchers of all types to gain insight into the Motor City’s decline. Indeed, it seems to have become a favorite pastime for urbanists of all stripes. How could such an economic powerhouse, a uniquely American city, so utterly collapse?
Most analysis tends to focus on the economic, social and political reasons for the downfall. One of my favorite treatises on Detroit is The Origins of the Urban Crisis by Thomas Sugrue, who argues that housing and racial discrimination practices put in place after World War II played a primary role in the decline of Motown. I’d argue that it’s closest to the truth of an explanation for Detroit today, but not quite there.
Everyone seems to know the shorthand narrative for Detroit’s fall. Industrial output declines; racial tensions rise. White residents leave; an unapologetic black leadership assumes control. And there’s quite a bit of truth to that narrative. Yes, the auto industry faced stiff competition, moved jobs to the suburbs, moved jobs down south, and later moved jobs out of the country. And all that happened with fewer jobs at each stop. Yes, Detroit does have a regrettably complex racial history and the legacy of two perception-forming riots since World War II (in 1943 and 1967). Yes, Detroit has had its share of political corruption, often tied to the tumultuous mayoral administrations of Coleman Young and Kwame Kilpatrick.
But here’s the thing. Buffalo and Cleveland have suffered the same kind of economic loss, but have not (quite) fallen to the same depths as Detroit. In fact, Pittsburgh suffered as much economically as Detroit, and is now poised for an amazing Rust Belt comeback. Any number of cities has had as troubled a racial legacy as Detroit, without being as adversely impacted. And Detroit certainly hasn’t cornered the market on political corruption, as long as Chicago exists.
So why has Detroit suffered unlike any other major city? Planning, or the lack thereof for more than a century, is why Detroit stands out. While cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles (don’t laugh – Detroit and LA essentially boomed at the same time) put a premium on creating pleasant built environments for their residents, Detroit was unique in putting all its eggs in the corporate caretaker basket. Once the auto industry became established in Detroit, political and business leaders abdicated their responsibility on sound urban planning and design, and elected to let the booming economy do the work for them.
Detroit’s decline has been going on far longer than most people realize, because of the city’s lack of attention to creating a pleasant built environment. Evidence? A Time Magazine article entitled “Decline in Detroit” from 1961 – yes, 1961 – had the following to say in its opening paragraph:
If ever a city stood as a symbol of the dynamic U.S. economy, it was Detroit. It was not pretty. It was, in fact, a combination of the grey and the garish: its downtown area was a warren of dingy, twisting streets; the used-car lots along Livernois Avenue raised an aurora of neon. But Detroit cared less about how it looked than about what it did—and it did plenty.
So what exactly did Detroit get wrong on the planning side of things? I outline nine direct and indirect planning and land use reasons for the Motor City’s current state. Here they are below.
1. Poor neighborhood identification. Ask a Chicagoan where they’re from, and they will likely give you a neighborhood name – Wrigleyville, Jefferson Park, Chatham. The same is true in other neighborhood-oriented cities like New York, Boston, even Washington, D.C. However, ask a Detroiter where they’re from, and they will likely tell you East Side or West Side; if pressed, they might note a key intersection. While the Motor City does have its share of traditional enclaves (Indian Village and English Village) and emerging hot spots (Midtown), Detroit is notable among large U.S. cities for having very poorly defined neighborhoods.
Neighborhood identification is important because ideally residents live in a neighborhood context. Schools, convenience shopping, social activities and recreational uses, all connected and shared by locals in a defined area, can provide a sense of community ownership. An argument can be made that’s been lacking in Detroit for decades.
2. Poor housing stock. Detroit may be well-known for its so-called ruins, but much of the city is relentlessly covered with small, Cape Cod-style, 3-bedroom and one-bath single family homes on slabs that are not in keeping with contemporary standards for size and quality.
The general national perception of Detroit’s housing might be of a city that resembles the South Bronx in the late 1970’s – long stretches of dense but abandoned walk-up apartment buildings with a smattering of deteriorated single-family homes. The truth, however, is that Detroit may have one of the greatest concentrations of post-World War II tract housing of any major U.S. city. Two random images from Google Earth effectively demonstrate this. Detroit’s residential areas look pretty much like this, from the city’s northeast side:
3. A poor public realm. Detroit’s streetscape is unbearable in many places. Major corridors have long stretches of anonymous single-story commercial buildings, with few trees or other landscaping. Signs, banners, awnings and decorative lighting are noticeably lacking. Overhead electrical wires extend for miles, and streets have been rigidly engineered with road signs and markings. The city’s corridors are hardly pedestrian friendly. Again, images from Google Earth can demonstrate this. Here is an area just blocks from where I grew up:
4. A downtown that was allowed to become weak. Detroit did not always have a relatively weak downtown. The city’s core was a strong retail and commercial center through much of the 20th century, with the advertising, legal and financial offices that supported the auto industry. At some point, Detroit’s downtown became secondary as an employment center to the factory locations scattered throughout the city and metro area. Just like homeowners, offices began relocating to the suburbs. By the ‘60s more and more people saw downtown as a retail center as opposed to an office center, and one that could not compete with suburban malls.
5. Freeway expansion. This is something a little more familiar to planners when explaining the decline of central cities, but it’s acutely relevant in Detroit. I have no documentation to support it, but I suspect Detroit has more freeway miles per land area than most cities in the nation. The auto-dominated economy wanted a landscape that supported its values.
6. Lack of/loss of a transit network. Detroit had an elaborate streetcar network that was in existence until the 1950’s, but was largely replaced by buses. The auto industry took special interest in the conversion of the streetcar network to buses. General Motors lobbied the city’s Department of Street Railways (DSR) throughout much of the ‘50s, stressing that diesel-fueled buses were an effective lower-cost alternative to streetcars (no more rail maintenance costs!) and could provide much greater flexibility to meet shifting travel demands. Coincidentally, GM produced exactly the kind of buses that would easily facilitate the transition. By 1953, the DSR began a three-year effort to convert streetcars to buses, and the last streetcar route was completed in April 1956.
The kind of lobbying (coercion?) exhibited by GM happened in many other cities across the country. However, Detroit had no other alternative in place, like subways and elevated systems, in the way that New York, Chicago, Philadelphia or Boston did. Also, Detroit had no history of commuter rail reaching from the outer portions of the metro area to the downtown core, also like the afore-mentioned cities. And lastly, as demonstrated earlier downtown Detroit was already beginning its decline and was unable to be the kind of “pull” that would have supported alternative transportation uses there.
7. Local government organization. Another unique, if indirectly related facet of Detroit is its current local government organization. Like most major American cities of the late 19th century, Detroit elected city council members from districts or wards across the city. And like most of those cities, Detroit experienced its share of graft and corruption in the political arena. But the Progressive Movement that pursued local government reform throughout the nation had perhaps its greatest achievement in Detroit. In 1918, a new city charter was established that led to the reorganization of local government to have Council members elected city-wide, instead of by wards. This governance system has been in place ever since, but is slated to end with the establishment of a new charter in 2013 that will now elect council members from seven districts and two at-large spots.
This has been a double-edged sword for Detroit. While it may have kept a lid on some of the possible corruption that could have happened, it likely created greater distance between residents and city government. I believe this led to two significant impacts. First, it allowed the influence of the auto industry to travel unfettered within local government through the first two-thirds of the 20th century, without the countervailing influence of local residents. Second, without representation and support, neighborhoods were unable to mature in Detroit as they had in other major cities. They never had champions at the local government level, as elected officials had to view the city in its entirety and abstractly, and not represent and develop a unique part of the city.
The seven reasons outlined above would be enough to hurt the future development prospects of most cities. However, the last two reasons I cite, which look at land use actions and policy decisions from more than 100 years ago, are what distinguishes Detroit from any other city in America.
8. An industrial landscape that constrained the city’s core. A unique aspect of land use in Detroit that’s often discussed but rarely explored fully is the huge amount of industrial and manufacturing land in the city. It’s not surprising, really, since the city did give itself over to the industrial gods. Detroit was not only the home of the auto industry, but all the suppliers that made assembly there viable – producing everything from windshields to exhaust pipes.
Most cities across the nation, even most other Rust Belt cities, concentrated industrial lands in certain districts or corridors, often in just one part of a city. Usually the industrial lands followed waterfronts or rail corridors and connected with downtowns, and other parts of the city were spared the negative externalities of industrial use. But Detroit circa 1905 was faced with a critical decision – how could the city expand its industrial lands to capitalize on its emerging role as the Automobile Capital of the World?
To see how Detroit arrived at its solution one must understand the primary transportation system for manufacturing at the time – the railroads. By 1900 a dense network of rail lines had developed around Detroit. The principal lines that moved products in and out of Detroit, the Michigan Central and Grand Trunk Western, entered the city from the southwest and exited to the northeast, all just beyond the growing city’s limits. While numerous other lines existed throughout the city, the MC and Grand Trunk lines were critical because they connected Detroit with the rest of the nation. An article I found from the Railway Age Gazette, from June 1914, stated that:
The unusually rapid growth in the number and size of industrial plants along the main lines of the railways entering the city has caused serious congestion in practically all of the area within the city limits suitable for such development. (M)any railway and business men who had given the subject careful consideration were of the opinion that the only permanent relief was to be secured by building a complete outer belt line outside of the city limits.
This is pretty well illustrated in the map below, with the Michigan Central and Grand Trunk Western lines highlighted in red. The city’s boundaries prior to 1915 are highlighted in green (please forgive my simple graphics):
Source: detroittransithistory.info website
Source: detroittransithistory.info website
While it could not have been envisioned at the time, this led directly to another planning reason for the city’s decline:
9. Ill-timed and unfulfilled annexation policy. The two maps above show (in green) the city’s boundaries as of 1915. Bear in mind that Detroit’s population exploded from 205,000 in 1890 to almost 1 million by 1920, but not much new territory was added to the city during that time. In fact, between 1892 and 1905, the city did not annex any new land, all while rapid growth was happening. With the DTR now wrapped around the city with a wall of industrial land, city leaders began looking for new lands to annex to support the expanding population.
Huge annexations began occurring in the late 1910’s but accelerated during the ‘20s. This is purely my own speculation here, but my guess is that Detroit city leaders wanted to annex areas beyond the DTR arc to establish new neighborhoods for residents working in those very factories. That, I’m sure, was the plan.
Then the Great Depression and World War II hit.
Suddenly all the farmland that was supposed to be developed into new Detroit neighborhoods in the ‘30s and ‘40s was deferred by as much as twenty years. No new neighborhoods meant that the city core that existed in 1915 was essentially the same core that existed in 1945. Sure, a very strong demand for housing developed during that 30-year period, but tensions – race, management vs. union, among others – likely grew at an even faster pace.
The industrial wall and annexation policy had four impacts on Detroit. First, it created the push for suburbanization in Detroit, as residents sought to move away from the noisy, smelly and smoky factories that dotted the landscape. Secondly, the pressure to rapidly meet the pent-up housing demand in the ‘40s and ‘50s led to the vast spread of homes that today lack contemporary appeal. Thirdly, once industrial decline occurred it contributed mightily to the blight of the city as factories became abandoned – that’s largely how the city got its famed “ruins”. A pattern was established – industrial abandonment begat adjacent residential abandonment, which begat commercial abandonment, and begat even more residential abandonment. I would argue that the vast majority of vacant, “return-to-prairie” lands in Detroit are within a two-mile radius of the DTR. And lastly, the sheer amount of industrial land, with all associated cleanup concerns, made the decommission and consolidation of industrial land for other uses extremely difficult. Not that Detroit demonstrated the will to do so. There likely was a period during the ‘70s and ‘80s when the city could have effectively redeveloped industrial land to other uses, but again Detroit doubled down on the prospect of industrial jobs.
There’s an old saying that when you have a hammer, every problem is a nail. Granted, I am a planner, and I see planning problems as key to Detroit’s demise. While this point of view hasn’t been clearly articulated before, it’s clear that given this planning and land use legacy, it’s readily apparent how Detroit got to where it is today. Detroit’s problems began precisely with the rise of the auto industry during the 1900s and 1910s, not from the beginnings of its decline 50 years later or from ill-fated attempts to resuscitate it since. The seeds of Detroit’s decline had been sown long before suburbanization accelerated in the ‘50s, or racial tensions exploded in the ‘60s.
Detroit circa 1890 was a moderately-sized Great Lakes port whose economy revolved around shipbuilding and carriage-building. It was eerily similar in size, scale and character to Milwaukee at that time. But the work of Henry Ford, William C. Durant and the Dodge brothers altered that forever.
The rise of the automobile enriched the corporations and created the template for the expansion of the middle class around the country, but it transformed the city, to its astounding detriment. Left untreated, any improvement in Detroit’s economic, social or political fortunes would still leave the city with a troubled planning legacy.
Pete Saunders is a Detroit native who current works as an urban planner in Chicago.