Kaid Benfield Archive


Detroit's prospects may be better than we think

Kaid Benfield

Posted May 30, 2012 at 1:29PM

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  Campus Martius Park in downtown Detroit (by: jodelli, creative commons license)

As almost everyone knows, Detroit is a city with some serious problems.  But, as I have written before, it's more complicated than some pundits allow:  while it is true that the central city has been famously "shrinking," its suburbs have actually been growing in recent decades.  Looking at Detroit the region rather than Detroit the central city, the situation is still far from rosy, but not as dramatically dire as some suggest.

I find it nothing short of tragic that so many people are writing off the city's prospects - and concentrating mainly on how to adapt to a decline of population and economic activity that they believe is essentially permanent - when the region has been expanding.  Hollowed-out centers accompanied by sprawl on the fringe are horrible for the environment and for people.  The last thing we should be doing is institutionalizing that pattern.

Urban thinker Richard Florida has a more optimistic view.  Writing in Atlantic Cities, he notes that things in the Motor City may be more promising than most people think:

"We’ve all read the story of Detroit’s downfall by now. Once a booming hub for automotive manufacturing and a center for technological innovation, the veritable Silicon Valley of its day, Detroit (by: Liza Lagman Sperl, creative commons license)the city has witnessed devastating economic changes. Between 2000 and 2010, the city's population fell by 25 percent, the largest drop of any city with a population over 100,000. Even New Orleans, despite Hurricane Katrina, didn’t see a population plunge as dramatic. At the height of the recent economic crisis, Detroit’s unemployment rate was 18.2 percent.

"But the other story of Detroit, the bigger one – is of its rebirth, its rising. Given the austerity of these times, this is less a story of top-down government efforts, and much more a story of the organic efforts of the entrepreneurs and artists, designers and musicians who have chosen to live in Detroit and be the stewards of its resurgence . . .

"Detroit is still a part of a large, diverse metro region. With a population of more than five million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s combined statistical area (which includes Ann Arbor), and an economic output of more than $200 billion when you add Ann Arbor, greater Detroit is the nation’s 14th largest metropolitan economy. It remains one of the world’s leading centers of automotive technology and industrial design and with its recently expanded and renovated airport, it has aerotropolis-style connections to the world. Nearby Ann Arbor and Lansing, home to the University of Michigan and Michigan State, respectively, provide research and development assets that few places can match. If Detroit has lost much, it still has much to build on—and it is."  

All that is by way of introduction to what looks to be a terrific video series on the city's uprising.  Here is the most recent installment:


Go here for the full series (three of five installments have been published so far).

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  Please also visit NRDC’s sustainable communities video channel.