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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Urbanophile: The Reasons Behind Detroit’s Decline by Pete Saunders

This evening we take another virtual trip to the great American city of Detroit, Michigan. The Urbanophile blog offers 9 reasons why Detroit fell as far as they had. One of those reasons was that unlike most other cities around the nation, Detroiters (?) didn't identify with a particular neighborhood. Different neighborhoods and their characters certainly could make any particular city unique.

I've always wondered why a city such as Detroit had fallen as hard as it had while other cities seem to be doing alright. Or in cities like sweet home Chicago, you can ask why some neighborhoods are doing worse than others. Here's an interesting reason why Detroit has declined:
Another unique, if indirectly related facet of Detroit is its current local government organization. Like most major American cities of the late 19th century, Detroit elected city council members from districts or wards across the city. And like most of those cities, Detroit experienced its share of graft and corruption in the political arena. But the Progressive Movement that pursued local government reform throughout the nation had perhaps its greatest achievement in Detroit. In 1918, a new city charter was established that led to the reorganization of local government to have Council members elected city-wide, instead of by wards. This governance system has been in place ever since, but is slated to end with the establishment of a new charter in 2013 that will now elect council members from seven districts and two at-large spots.

This has been a double-edged sword for Detroit. While it may have kept a lid on some of the possible corruption that could have happened, it likely created greater distance between residents and city government. I believe this led to two significant impacts. First, it allowed the influence of the auto industry to travel unfettered within local government through the first two-thirds of the 20th century, without the countervailing influence of local residents. Second, without representation and support, neighborhoods were unable to mature in Detroit as they had in other major cities. They never had champions at the local government level, as elected officials had to view the city in its entirety and abstractly, and not represent and develop a unique part of the city.

The seven reasons outlined above would be enough to hurt the future development prospects of most cities. However, the last two reasons I cite, which look at land use actions and policy decisions from more than 100 years ago, are what distinguishes Detroit from any other city in America.
 Detroit was dominated by the auto industry. And most of the reasons stated on the blog related to the auto industry. The auto industry lobbied Detroit government to dismantle their street car lines, the auto industry contributed to a poor public realm, and it's possible Detroit may have more freeway mileage than any other city in the nation!

It's safe to say Detroit didn't catch up to many cities in the nation. Now they must, but it'll be a very tough go of it. I've heard about how Detroit must contract and in this piece the city didn't plan very well for the territory they had annexed. Hopefully they will come up with a plan in the near future!

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