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Detroit: A New American Frontier

Detroit, Michigan. (Photo: dharder9475)

Detroit has become a byword for extreme urban contraction.

Yet as the population, industry, and built environment of the city of Detroit have collapsed, Detroit’s urban footprint has continued to expand. In Detroit, even the dead are sprawling, as families disinter bodies from urban cemeteries to rebury them in the suburbs. Is there any greater sign of both the physical and psychological abandonment of the city?

In the urban core, once-proud neighborhoods are now vacant. Even the most cursory of Internet searches will turn up dozens of photos of the devastation: Vacant, weedy lots; bombed-out shopping districts; urban prairie reclaiming the land, often with just a few decayed and forlorn buildings to remind us that this was once a city.

Detroit and other struggling Rust Belt regions are attempting to plan their shrinkage, with the Youngstown experiment being the best known example. This only recognizes the painful truth: these places are not coming back, at least not anytime soon, and certainly not in their previous form. Detroit has a bit over 900,000 residents in an area geographically bigger than Manhattan, Boston, and San Francisco—combined.

Yet as we talk about “shrinking cities,” the other side of the equation is often lost—expanding suburbs and an ever-growing urban footprint.

In a region with stagnant to declining population, Southeast Michigan is nevertheless investing significant dollars to build brand new infrastructure to support new fringe development. The 2035 transportation plan developed by the regional Metropolitan Planning Organization has numerous planned roadway capacity expansions designed to relieve congestion.

In a region that cannot support the infrastructure it currently has, building even more (which it will have to maintain in the future) only adds to the significant fiscal burden the region has to bear.

The ironies aren’t hard to spot: As the auto industry shrinks, the center dissolves, the region sprawls, and the number of private cars on the roads grows. As people spread out, they share less, and the region loses the environmental, economic, and social benefits of density.

This leaves Southeast Michigan facing two fundamental challenges.

First, how to revitalize the fortunes of the urban core and the regional economy as the auto industry continues to downsize. And second, how to build that future on a new and sustainable platform: environmentally, economically, and fiscally. A movement aimed at shrinking the urban core alone fails to address the fiscal headwind that comes from having to expand and maintain infrastructure elsewhere in the metro area.

Even so, the first step has to be renewing core vitality—and then developing dense satellite villages around it.?

Population decline in Detroit appears to be leveling off. A program of right-sizing the infrastructure and service levels of city government clearly must be undertaken in order to match today’s lower populations—as this plan from the American Institute of Architects suggests.

But how do we reposition the city to once again start attracting residents and investments?

In my years as a management consultant, I have always tried to look at problems from the standpoint of the client and its situation. What are its unique strengths and weaknesses? How can it best leverage its position to strategic advantage?

Believe it or not, though Detroit suffers from both real and image problems, it also has a great opportunity to stake out a unique claim to be America’s next great frontier and leverage that to fuel its renewal.

A nascent movement perhaps shows the way, of people interested in the blank canvass Detroit seems to offer. Its reputation for extreme urban collapse is, like a train wreck, attracting plenty of gawkers. Media and artists from around the world have descended to witness the disaster.

Often they’ve fetishized the decline, photographing yet again, for example, the Michigan Central Depot in its decayed glory, notwithstanding the reality that it is owned by a billionaire who has simply elected not to fix it up. But a message is getting out nevertheless, that there is free and open space available in Detroit—and that message is attracting people, many of them uncommonly creative and entrepreneurial.

Detroit, for all its problems—or perhaps because of them—has become nothing less than a new American frontier. Once, easterners heeded the call to “Go West, young man,” to leave behind the comforts and sophistication of the established citadels in search of adventure and fortune and to tame this great continent.

Now, that same whisper is starting to build around Detroit. Today, for those seeking out an alternative vision of urban success, with new and innovative ideas about what the city of tomorrow should be, it’s Detroit, not New York, that offers the ultimate arena in which to prove yourself.

One of those visions is urban agriculture, where Detroit is a national leader.

“Were I an aspiring farmer in search of fertile land to buy and plow, I would seriously consider moving to Detroit,” writes journalist Mark Dowie. He continues:

There is open land, fertile soil, ample water, willing labor, and a desperate demand for decent food. And there is plenty of community will behind the idea of turning the capital of American industry into an agrarian paradise. In fact, of all the cities in the world, Detroit may be best positioned to become the world’s first one hundred percent food self-sufficient city.

This isn’t just a crazy idea from some guy who lives in California. Dowie documents examples of people right now, today, growing food in Detroit. It wouldn’t surprise me, frankly, if Detroit produces more food inside its borders than any other traditional American city. As Dowie writes:

About five hundred small plots have been created by an international organization called Urban Farming, founded by acclaimed songwriter Taja Sevelle. Realizing that Detroit was the most agriculturally promising of the fourteen cities in five countries where Urban Farming now exists, Sevelle moved herself and her organization’s headquarters there last year. Her goal is to triple the amount of land under cultivation in Detroit every year. All food grown by Urban Farming is given free to the poor. According to Urban Farming’s Detroit manager, Michael Travis, that won’t change.

The Toronto Star also documented Detroit’s urban agriculture movement, and its intersection with community need—most of the city is a food desert, and there is not a single major chain supermarket inside the city limits—as well as social justice. The Star reports:

Detroit has become ground zero for North America’s local food movement. Last year there were roughly 550 gardens in the city’s urban farming network. This year there are more than 850. Driving around the city, you can see everything that will make up your dinner—chickens, goats, mushrooms, plum trees, honeybee hives…. Here, a locavore doesn’t eat food that’s travelled 100 kilometres. She eats food that’s travelled 10.

But in Detroit, it’s about more than just food.

“We’re not just into farming. We’re into community self-determination,” says Malik Yakini, one of the leaders of Detroit’s nascent farming movement. The self-described “social architect” runs an Afrocentric school and chairs the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. He talks about food justice—where the community reaps both the nutritional and financial rewards of the food it buys.

This unique blend is bringing together African American community activists with local food trends more often associated with upscale whites, raising the prospect of not just environmentally and socially sustainable development, but also perhaps a rapprochement of the city’s famed racial divide.

Artists, too, are attracted to Detroit, largely by virtually free land. The New York Times documented the case of a couple from Chicago buying a house for $100—along with other tales of artists attracted by the prospect of not just cheap rents, but actually being able to own property. As the Times put it:

The city offers a much greater attraction for artists than $100 houses. Detroit right now is just this vast, enormous canvas where anything imaginable can be accomplished. From Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project to Matthew Barney’s “Ancient Evenings” project (think Egyptian gods reincarnated as Ford Mustangs and you’re kind of close), local and international artists are already leveraging Detroit’s complex textures and landscapes to their own surreal ends.

The Times piece highlights another of Detroit’s absolutely crucial advantages—artists and other cultural creatives are attracted by the freedom to do what they want without excessive interference from the city. It’s possible to do things in Detroit.

The Wild West might have been lawless, but it had its attractions too. Much of the South Side of Chicago has Detroit-like characteristics, but the techniques of renewal in Detroit won’t work there because they are likely against code and would be shut down the minute someone complained. In many cities where strong city government still functions effectively, citizens are tied down by an array of regulations and permits that are actually enforced in most cases. Not in Detroit.

Whether this trend really pumps life back into Detroit remains to be seen. But it has done one essential thing: it has created an aspirational narrative of success in Detroit that other Americans might imagine themselves being a part of. If that starts to attract people in sufficient numbers to reverse core city population decline, Detroit could be at the start of the long road back.

Whether that road leads anywhere depends on whether the region musters the courage to pair that renewed core vitality with a commitment to investing precious dollars in the core instead of making it even easier to live even further away. Does Detroit have a future?

Yes, if it can find a way to stay shareable.

This article originally appeared on

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