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Beyond the beats: the U.S. city that’s shrinking faster than any other

CATEGORY: city + migration as mutation + urbanism

Detroit is known by many as the birthplace of techno, a reputation that has preceded the shrinking city among music-savvy youth for 20+ years. Like most twenty-something Americans,  I have never really considered visiting the city of Detroit – that’s why, when i was asked “what Detroit is like” while living in the other techno-capital, Berlin, I didn’t have much of anything to say – except for something along the lines of “i hear it’s pretty cold”.

Other than to be credited for its music history, Detroit is not one of those U.S. cities that makes contemporary culture news too often. It doesn’t boast notable American monuments (unless you count the first headquarters of auto Industry which, admittedly, unfortunately have shaped our nation quite significantly). It is not, either, one of those U.S. cities that generates tourism like New York, Los Angeles, Miami or Boston.

In fact, the most recent U.S. census report shows that people are migrating away from Detroit at a higher rate than ever before. It’s now estimated to hold 18th place for the largest U.S. City, and Detroit’s population loss has made Michigan (Detroit’s state) the only state to register a net population loss since 2000. While recent census data shows that the total U.S. population has grown 9.7 percent, Michigan’s has fallen by 0.6 percent.

It wasn’t always like this.  Before 1920, Detroit was a modest, compact city that situated its manufacturing along the river, taking advantage of water provided transportation for incoming supplies and outgoing goods. Most of its population lived within a few mile radius of downtown and no one industry dominated-  until the 1920s, when the booming auto industry settled into Detroit.

1914 announcement of Ford’s $5 day sent hordes of job-seekers to the company’s factory in Highland Park (images from the Collections of Henry Ford via. www.autolife.umd)

This initiated a growth spurt for the city, making Detroit, also known as Motor City, the fourth-largest city in the country.  At the cities peak in the 1950’s, it held the title of 5th place.

Ford’s Ford’s Highland Park Plant. (Image from the Collections of Henry Ford via. www.autolife.umd)

Some attribute Detroit’s population loss over the last decade to the travails of the auto industry and the collapse of the industrial-based economy. Others blame a Michigan brain-drain due to a low-quality of life in Detroit. The educated and financially stable residents of Michigan are migrating to other, more attractive cities for work, leaving Detroit-based companies at a loss for qualified employees. Eventually, these companies are forced to move themselves – and unemployment ensues.

A recent New York Times article titled “Detroit Population Down 25 Percent, Census Finds”, quotes 32-year-old Samantha Howell who expresses concern about Detroit’s population decline, “Yes, the city feels empty physically, empty of people, empty of ambition, drive. It feels empty.”. The dramatic scale of population loss (237,500 people in one decade) that the 2010 census has revealed seems to finally be pushing Michigan’s need of an urban face-lift onto the wider radar.

Andrew Basile, Jr, owner of a growing Michigan-based law firm recently shared his story with Rustwire, a blogging site dedicated to consolidating thoughtful, constructive stories about post-industrial cities across the Rust Belt. “We have a lot to learn from each other”, the blog reads.

Basile ‘s essay thoughtfully explains recent migration statistics, the lack of shared developmental values between older governmental officials and younger residents, Michigan’s population’s growing poverty, and the “lack of quality living options other than tract suburbia” – what he calls “poor quality of space”

“The fundamental problem it seems to me”, he writes,“ is that our region has gone
berserk on suburbia to the expense of having any type of nearby open
space or viable urban communities, which are the two primary spatial
assets that attract and retain the best human capital.”

Basile ‘s Images of Metro Detroit, “we have built a very bad physical place”.

As the first region with a automobile freeway, Detroit has adopted an automobile culture and produced Michigan leaders who support urban sprawl rather than work to curb it. As I mentioned in my last Ecological Design Fundamentals post, American cities have been severely influenced by automobile-accommodating design. Michigan is a very good example of the problems that automobile-focused sprawl can bring to space.

Despite Basile’s admitting that he doesn’t see any forward progress or even a meaningful attempt at forward progress to reclaim Detroit’s brain-drained population and better develop urban areas, his term, “poor quality of space”, is still hopeful. With this word choice, Basile is acknowledging the potential that a more ecological re-design of the city space has to re-attract workforce, mitigate poverty problems, and stop environmentally damaging urban sprawl. The problem isn’t Detroit, it’s the special spacial planning, or lack thereof, that has made this urban space undesirable.

Of course, creative efforts to call attention to the the need to improve the under-resourced and intensely blighted Detroit community have been hatching for years. In the 1980s, artist Tyree Guyton and his grandfather began transforming vacant lots and abandoned houses into gigantic art sculptures, integrating the street, sidewalks and trees. This work become known as the Heidelberg Project.

This year marks the Art initiative´s 25th year anniversary. Set in one of the most economically depressed zip codes in the country, with over  90% of people living below the poverty level, the Heidelberg Project has developed as a engine for social and economic change. HP’s goal is to inspire people to appreciate and use artistic expression to enrich their lives and to improve the social and economic health of the greater community. HP’s Beautifying of Heidelberg Street has made it one of the safest places in the area, not to mention one of the best quality spaces in the city.

The city of Detroit is experiencing a low point, Basile has gone so far as to say that the city is approaching the point of no return “where the constituency for reform dwindles below a critical threshold and the region’s path of self destruction becomes unalterable”. Still, that point hasn’t been reached- just yet. And initiatives like the Heidelberg Project prove that it doesn’t take much for individuals to bring great change with creative efforts and re-design.

Detroit will likely present the biggest American urban planning challenge of the next decade. But, i believe, that clever re-design and a few more hands up for Detroit, as Basile and Guyton have proved, could revitalize the city dramatically.

And that’s what I plan to tell people when I get back to techno-pumping Berlin.

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