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Learning from Detroit, the City of Ruin

A city that defines urban decline was once like Seattle, built on a dominant transportation industry. Can it become a laboratory for urban reinvention?
An autoworker assembling a less-pollution car in Detroit

An autoworker assembling a less-pollution car in Detroit

Thankfully, our region is not Detroit, where a perfect storm of the wrong American urban future has brought, in Time magazine's words, "an iconic American city to its knees." But we can learn from Detroit and other places where our worst urban fears have been realized. There, consolidation is demanded from chaos, and visionaries have emerged from the ruins.

In this recessionary Puget Sound election season, there's a little whiff of Detroit in the air. Seattle councilmember newsletter emails suggest hard budget choices ahead and good reading on great urban thinkers. Candidates debate whether the auto should be king, and weigh the merits of tunnels and light rail and streetcars. Headlines reflect crime, layoffs, office vacancy rates, budget shortfalls, public service delivery and schools in need. And did I mention keeping aerospace in the region and creating a post-carbon economy?

In Detroit, the sense of urban urgency is acute. Racial injustice, flight to the suburbs, the automobile industry's political, labor, and market realities have created an unsustainable city. The unemployment rate is close to 30 percent. Vast, vacant areas resemble a natural disaster. Amid all this, the city has become a laboratory for urban reinvention.

Former NBA Detroit Pistons' star Dave Bing faces his first full term reelection as mayor. He doesn't have a transformative plan in place, but his crisis turnaround team has just released (Oct. 7) a 145-page report on how to improve urban operations and remake city government amid a $280 million deficit. The City's Planning and Development Department presides over a Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, where housing and utility payment processes are chaotic.

It's so dire that some of the most compelling writing on urban decline and revitalization emanates from the Motor City, which is trying to readjust to accommodate a new age. Daniel Okrent's "Notown" in Time tells the story of the Detroit that was, what happened, and how an adaptable American industrial policy could create the "Arsenal of the Renewable Energy Future" from the ruins of its Motown past. A Detroit native, Okrent reports on ideas that seem adaptable to less impacted American urbanized regions. He identifies the regional players who will make a difference, with names that could be substituted in Cascadia.

It's a heart-wrenching story as Okrent returns to the town he grew up in, that former Arsenal of Democracy:

The neighborhood where I lived as a child, where for decades orderly rows of sturdy brick homes lined each block, is now the urban equivalent of a boxer's mouth, more gaps than teeth. Some of the surviving houses look as if the wrecker's ball is the only thing that could relieve their pain. On the adjacent business streets, commercial activity is so palpably absent you'd think a neutron bomb had been detonated — except the burned-out storefronts and bricked-over windows suggest that something physically destructive happened as well.

Another tale is told in Mark Dowie's captivating "Food Among the Ruins" in Guernica. In the "food desert" of Detroit, there are no current produce-carrying grocery chains within the city limits. Dowie suggest transforming some of this deserted land, based on agricultural rezoning, into a haven of employment-providing urban agriculture. He provides a compelling model for the sustainable reuse of empty urban blocks in a new economy.

Last year, the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce traveled to the Arab Emirates and to Montreal for inspiration on how to innovate back home. Next Spring, it's South Korea. Might I suggest a trip to the visionaries in the City of Ruins? Motown, a classic company town built on transportation manufacturing, was once quite comparable to Jet City, dominated by a company named Boeing. We should not be too proud to learn from the once-great city of Detroit.

Charles R. (Chuck) Wolfe, is an attorney in Seattle, where he focuses on land use, environmental law and permitting. He is also an Affiliate Associate Professor in the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington, where he teaches land use law at the graduate level. He serves on the Board of Directors of Futurewise and Seattle Great City, the Management Committee of the Urban Land Institute's (ULI) Northwest District Council and has held leadership positions for the American Planning Association and the Washington State Bar Association. Chuck is an avid traveler, photographer and writer, and contributes regularly on urban development topics for The Atlantic, The Atlantic Cities, Grist, The Huffington Post, seattlepi.com and others. His book, Urbanism Without Effort (Island Press, 2013), was released in May. He blogs regularly at myurbanist.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Oct 9, 2:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Mr. Wolfe’s assertion that Detroit "was once quite comparable to" Seattle due to company-town dependencies has vaguely bothered me all day, and now at 2:15 a.m. with my work finished, the reason suddenly comes into focus.

What Mr. Wolfe is saying is rather like arguing that Tacoma is comparable to Columbus, Georgia because of each city’s economic dependence on huge adjacent military installations.

The existence of a city is indeed determined by its geopolitical and economic functions. Once those die, so does the city.

But because Seattle and Tacoma are each seaports with superb harbors, they are likely to remain functional as seaports for a very long time no matter what other economic conditions obtain -- unless of course they are destroyed by seismic or volcanic disasters and thus become modern equivalents of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Detroit -- originally a fur-trade outpost dating from the time of the Courier de Bois -- has no post-automotive economic function and probably has no way to develop one. Were the military to abandon Columbus, Georgia, it too would dwindle accordingly.

While the shrinkage of cities is always accompanied by substantial human dislocation, the fact that the United States has the most maliciously savage social-welfare policies in the industrial world always makes such suffering infinitely worse. Detroit has therefore become what sociology terms a “behavioral sink” -- a realm dominated by the worst possible forms of human misconduct.

Columbus would no doubt be similarly smitten, though the healing process would be vastly abbreviated due to its far smaller population.

On the other hand Detroit may in fact already be beyond healing, a personally saddening probability because maternal relatives showed me Detroit when it was among the nation’s best inland cities: that is, until the jobs were taken away.

Such is the fate of any city large or small that is essentially no more than a labor camp -- no matter whether the workers are housed in two-storey brick houses or clapboard shacks.

By contrast, seaports are forever.

Posted Mon, Oct 12, 5:50 a.m. Inappropriate

Detroit may be 'beyond healing', but it is not beyond reinventing itself. Already sparks of new growth are happening in some parts of the city, sometimes literally as at least one non-profit is attempting to reforest some of the areas that have been torn down.

I don't think that we can 'save' Detroit, but we can and must reinvent it as something new, maybe even something that the world has never seen before. I'm 100% serious when I suggest that huge sections of it should be walled off and saved and protected as a National Park. I've taken vacations there to go 'Urban Spelunking' and I consider it to be one of America's most fascinating cities. Anyone that truly wants to understand this country must not only visit NY and Hollywood, but Detroit should be on your short list. If for no other reason than to serve as an example of the gluttony of capitalism.

I would highly suggest the Forgotten Detroit blog for more info
http://www.forgottendetroit.com/

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