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The Planning Perspective on Detroit’s Decline

by Louis Bach, Communications

Source: detroittransithistory.info

The Urbanophile has an interesting piece by urban planner and Detroit native Pete Saunders on poor urban planning’s contribution to the decline of Detroit. He offers nine patterns related to planning and land use that exacerbated the social, economic, and political reason’s for the city’s fall.

Some of the patterns sound familiar, like the absence of regional transit or the at-large election of City Council members. Others may be quite novel (at least to non-planners like me), like the temporal mismatch between Detroit’s population growth and its land annexation:

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 [Detroit Terminal Railroad] 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…

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.

One response to “The Planning Perspective on Detroit’s Decline”

  1. Dave says:

    I take issue with the “return to prairie” cliché that is so often used. Prairies are ecosystems of native plants and animals. What we have in Detroit is NOT prairie. It is mostly what may more accurately be described as waste meadow. This landscape is overwhelmingly occupied by exotic and invasive species that contribute little to the ecology of this place. Please refrain from mis-identifying this phenomenon, which romanticizes both it’s function and appearance in an inaccurate manner.