Who stole Detroit?


More than 30 percent of Detroit is now vacant land.

Yeah. That’s what I said.

The story putting this whole issue into perspective actually ran last December, but I missed it because I was headed home for the holidays. But then today I’m in this heavyweight political discussion with several friends over at a buddy’s house, and one of them mentions this statistic. I thought he was lying. But then I remembered hearing mayoral candidate Freman Hendrix mention something along those lines during a candidate debate or questionnaire or something. So like most dedicated in-depth researchers I decided to Google it, and that’s where I found out that I’ll be damned if it ain’t true.

But just saying that more than 30 percent of Detroit is now missing doesn’t quite offer the visuals one needs to picture what this really means, so the story goes on to point out that you could literally squeeze the land mass of Manhattan, Boston, and San Francisco into the combined space occupied by vacant land in Detroit and you would still have square miles left over.

Yeah. That’s what I said.

Which is to say that somebody done stole Detroit. Or at least the Detroit that we once knew. And it’s not coming back. Ever.

This doesn’t mean that Detroit is dead. Far from it. But what it does mean is that it’s way past time for those of us who live here to accept the reality that the Detroit of  sweat, smokestacks, Motown, and King Car is no more. It was what it was for better and for worse while it was here. But it is now extinct. And whoever Detroit turns out to be over the next 10-15-20 years, you can bet it will look nothing like what it does now.

It better not. Because if it does, then the only thing rolling down the freeway lanes will be tumbleweeds and high winds.

Maybe urban farming is the answer. Maybe some new development, with different types of industries more compatible with the future than the past. Who knows? We’ll see. But one thing is for certain, and that is that we are getting smaller all the time, and that even when the evacuation finally levels off,  our population will never swell back up to the near 2 million it once was. Hell, we may not see 1 million again for who knows how long. But there are quite a few cities with fewer than a million people that are doing just fine because those cities are designed to function for the size of their population. We’re still bouncing around inside the ring trying to throw punches like Joe Louis when we’ve shrunk to the size of someone who could use his towel for a bathrobe.

The reality is we have entire blocks with only one home occupying that block. Which means police protection is required for that block just for the sake of that one person or family. Even though our police force has been cut to the bone and can barely police the city as it is. It may be hard, and possibly harsh, but we’ve gotta find a way to relocate some folks and shrink this city to its true size. I most definitely don’t want to see anyone dragged from a home, and I can identify more than I want to with the attachment folks have to their property and not wanting to ever leave, even if it’s to a better location. And no politician wants to even consider touching this because it’s a grenade that will blow up right in his/her face.

But either we get real – and real small – or we will just fade altogether…

If you didn’t feel like clicking the link, check out the Detroit Free Press story below…

December 15, 2008

Acres of barren blocks offer chance to reinvent Detroit


EDITOR’S NOTE: This report has been corrected since its initial publication. The photo should have said about 30% of Detroit is now vacant land.

Detroit’s thinning population is vividly — some would say disturbingly — illustrated in a new map that is creating a buzz in local planning circles.

The map shows how to tuck the land mass of Manhattan (23 square miles), San Francisco (47 square miles) and Boston (48 square miles) — and their combined populations of nearly 3 million people — into Detroit. All three urban areas fit snugly within Detroit’s 139 square miles with room to spare.

Detroit, where the population peaked at 2 million in the early 1950s, is home to about 900,000 today and is still losing people. The depopulation and demolition of abandoned properties has left the city dotted with thousands of vacant parcels, ranging from single home lots to open fields of many acres.

The map is the handiwork of Dan Pitera, a professor of architecture at University of Detroit Mercy. He says he created it as a simple and dramatic illustration of how underpopulated Detroit has become.

To see for yourself: Use Google Earth or a similar computer program to fly over the city and see how many vacant parcels you can find. Pitera estimates that all that empty land adds up to about 40 square miles — nearly the land mass of San Francisco.

His conclusion: Hopes and plans to repopulate the city and to redevelop all the city’s vacant land, are unrealistic, at least for another generation. Some redevelopment deals will succeed, but realistic Detroiters should seize the opportunity to become a leaner, greener city for the 21st Century.

“What if a lot of the vacant land was allowed to begin to become green?” Pitera said. “Could Detroit truly become the greenest city in the United States?”

This abundance of vacant land has people talking about new uses, such as urban farming, reforesting the city, and large-scale recreational areas. Urban farming is getting the most buzz. Michigan State University’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources is among the groups touting urban farms as a solution for Detroit’s vacant land.

“Given the amount of open land, I think there’s a real opportunity for Detroit to provide a significant amount of its fruits and vegetables for its population and the surrounding area,” said Mike Hamm, the C.S. Mott Chair of Sustainable Agriculture at MSU.

Besides providing nutritional value for Detroiters, Hamm said, “I think it can help create jobs and some small businesses in the city, with the potential for spin-off businesses in processing and distribution.”

Good question for candidates

Detroiters are in the early stages of a spirited mayoral campaign. Pitera’s map shows the tough-love reality that candidates might consider as part of the debate about the city’s future.

“If I were the moderator at the mayoral debate, I’d put that question early on: How do we take some of the land out of the pipeline?” said Robin Boyle, chairman of Wayne State University’s geography and urban planning department.

The Free Press called several of the mayoral candidates to talk about the city’s vacant land but none returned the calls. Other Detroit leaders, though, told the Free Press that using vacant land for recreation, farming and other projects makes sense.

“If it comes to pass that there is a development that would be in the best interest of the city, then it could always be redeveloped,” former Mayor Dennis Archer said last week. “But in the meantime you could have great pocket parks, you could have children understanding how to raise a garden, harvest a fruit, vegetables. Those are invaluable things. I think it has a lot of merit.”

Finding the right words

Getting a debate started could be difficult because Boyle said Detroit lacks a vocabulary to create a new policy. Words like “shrinkage” and “downsizing” carry a whiff of defeat, he said. “Rightsizing” sounds bureaucratic and negative. “Wise use of resources” comes closer but is vague.

“So we’ve got a language problem,” Boyle says. “How do we talk about something that we don’t really know how to deal with? We can see it, we can feel it, but we don’t really know what to do about it.”

Doug Diggs, director of the city’s planning and development department, says that “everything’s on the table” when it comes to finding new uses for Detroit’s empty spaces.

“The city had been built for up to 2 million people. Certainly we’re under a million right now. We have to think of new uses for those properties left behind to eliminate the blight.”

Onetime City of Elms

Ironically, Detroit during its mid-20th-Century heyday was then known as the City of Elms, a green city known for its parks. That reputation was lost as the city’s deteriorated. The city still has about 9 square miles of parks, including Belle Isle, but much more vacant land than parks.

As far back as 1993, the late Marie Farrell-Donaldson, then the city’s ombudsman, sparked a tempest by suggesting that entire swathes of the city be cordoned off and returned to nature.

Farrell-Donaldson made her quickly ridiculed suggestion when Detroit’s population was still about 1 million. The regional planning agency Southeast Michigan Council of Governments now estimates that Detroit will have no more than about 700,000 residents by 2035.

89 square miles

Earlier this fall, some out-of-town planners recruited by the American Institute of Architects visited Detroit for a brainstorming session. The leader, Alan Mallach, research director of the National Housing Institute in Maplewood, N.J., concluded that Detroit needs no more than about 50 square miles of its land for its current population.

The remaining 89 square miles could be used entirely for other purposes, he said.

Mallach’s group liked the suggestion of large-scale commercial farming, both as a way to put the space to good use and to generate new income and jobs for the cash-starved city.

Others aren’t so sure. Ashley Atkinson, director of project development in urban agriculture at the nonprofit Greening of Detroit, supports small family and neighborhood plots of no larger than 3 acres. But she says that commercial farming would exploit Detroiters and their land.

Instead, she supports widespread use of open spaces for recreation, hobby gardens and other uses.

Opportunity to evolve

Something, though, must be done.

“We’re looking at a city that’s over 50% vacant within the next five to 10 years. It’s this huge, huge issue,” Atkinson says.

Whatever happens, clearly Detroit is evolving early in the 21st Century as a sort of blank slate. Instead of looking at shrinkage as a problem, many planners see it as an opportunity. Detroit has a chance to invent an entirely new urban model, they say.

Whether it’s farming or greenways or a network of thriving urban villages connected by transit lines, the solution could be uniquely Detroit’s. And the likelihood is that the rest of the world, already fascinated by Detroit’s urban drama, would take notice.

Contact JOHN GALLAGHER at 313-222-5173 or jgallagher@freepress.com.


~ by Keith A. Owens on February 9, 2009.

4 Responses to “Who stole Detroit?”

  1. Wow, that is depressing.

    The only way out of this is too have some new industry pop up but what can you put up there that would be more cost effective in production than anywhere else?

    The reality is the city is going to have to start down grading, starting by moving out the home owners isolated on those blocks of land and offering them homes in communities.

    • Hey Mike.

      You’re right, it’s sad and it’s harsh. But reality is what reality is. And there’s no way the City can continue to sustain entire blocks with only one resident living on those blocks. That’s just not going to work. We have to face up to where we are, not keep trying to fit back into where we were. Past is done. It’s time to adjust and move forward.

  2. Improvise, adjust, and move on has been our historical prescription for survival. It may require making scraps of the discarded parts into delicacies i.e. chitlins, etc. but it helped us survive until we transitioned into new areas. We may have to do something similar from a practical sense in our communities and cities.

    • Rev,

      I think you’re absolutely right. These are definitely extraordinary times we’re living in and not in a good way. The only way to make it is by employing some extraordinary remedies to match. This is gonna test us like most of the country has never been tested before…

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