A Poll With Promise: What one study says about our hope for the future

Detroit has become the poster-child for a 21st Century, post-industrial region searching for a future. We are under the microscopes of the media, the federal government, the academic and research communities, national and local foundations, and ordinary residents.  While we don’t always take kindly to what others have to say about us, we need to separate the wheat from the chaff—there is often much to learn from criticism. 

Here’s one poll that contained a welcome surprise. A November 2009 poll was conducted by the (http://www.kff.org/kaiserpolls/8039.cfm) Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University revealed that “almost all residents of the main three-county metropolitan area of Detroit see their economy as in ruins.”

That’s hardly news, and frankly, feels a little like piling on. But here’s something else the poll found:

“A large majority of residents expect that things will get better, with 63 percent optimistic about the area’s future and the same percentage expecting their finances to improve over the next decade.”

That’s the kind of poll that we cling to around here. Good news is hard to come by. And yet…

How exactly will the region’s outlook improve over the next decade?  The same poll takes a hard look at a critical issue we must face before we can really be optimistic: the divide between Detroit and its suburbs.

The most disturbing finding (see Figure 1) was the fact that half of suburban respondents stated that they never come to the city – primarily because they have no reason to visit or because they fear crime (studies that this author began in 2004 have shown that downtown Detroit is safer than many suburban communities http://www.visitdetroit.com/images/stories/docs/2007realityvsperceptionscrimereport.pdf).   When asked whether their visits had increased or decreased over the last year, 39 percent reported a decrease, while only 12 percent reported an increase. 

While it is true that the City of Detroit lacks the presence of a regional shopping mall, big box chain stores or multi-screen cinema complexes – all magnets for visitors–where else can you go to match the offerings of the DIA, Detroit Science Center, African-American Museum and Detroit Historical Museum? We know that suburban residents will visit for that occasional sporting event – Tigers, Red Wings or Lions – but do they ever stay to explore Campus Martius, stroll the River Walk, visit the many exciting new restaurants and night spots?  We may not have big boxes, but we have a number of unique venues that should be visited – Avalon Bakery, Bureau of Urban Living, City Bird, Detroit Artists Market, and many others.  And, rather than taking the expressway in and out of the city, why not take a little time to explore the unique neighborhoods that Detroit provides – from Corktown to Morningside; from Palmer Woods to Indian Village; from Woodbridge to East English Village; from Rosedale Park to Lafayette Park; and many, many more.

The evidence is overwhelming –a successful region requires a successful central city. Those areas that are growing economically across the country have shared regional visions that are structured around cities that are attractive to all segments of the population.  They are regions that, through successful public transportation and planning, have strong central business districts and facilitate the movement of city residents to employment in the suburbs, and vice versa.  How will we be able to develop a shared vision around Detroit when so many people are unconvinced that Detroit matters?

It is only through increased interaction that we can begin to break down the barriers – racial, socioeconomic and geographic – that have held us back for so long.

We need your thoughts.  How do we encourage increased cross-boundary traffic?