Back to the Land in Detroit?

The city of Detroit has gotten a lot of attention recently, most of it lamenting how far its fortunes have fallen. Time
magazine has even sent reporters to live in a Detroit neighborhood for
a year, covering it as if it were a foreign country — which, in a
sense, it is. Foreign at least to the American self-image of infinite
growth and expansion.

Detroit’s population has plummeted. Huge swaths of land lie vacant. Houses have gone feral.

But Streetsblog Network member Planning Pool sees the city’s radically distressed circumstances in a different and admittedly rose-colored way — as an opportunity:

3982437635_3b783ffeaa_b.jpgPhoto by x3nomik via Flickr.

Detroit’s strength is in its weakness. By that I mean the city affords
many opportunities to artists, entrepreneurs, urban homesteaders, and
people who do not want typical 9-to-5 lifestyles. Large, vacant
commercial space can be rented out to start-ups at basement sale
prices. People can buy homes and land for almost nothing, grow their
own food, and form communities of similarly-minded people. Imagine if
residents were given financial or technical assistance to build farms,
solar panels, micro turbines, grey water systems, vermiculture compost
systems, and other household-level or block-level amenities that local
government can no longer afford to provide. Not only is the government
relieved to pursue more pressing problems, like education and crime,
but people are empowered to run their own communities. In turn, people
are relieved of having to join the 9-to-5 workforce – with no mortgage,
no car payments and insurance, little -to-no utility payments, and a
small food bill from farming, people can use their time to invest in
their community or take risks, like starting new companies or producing
works of art.

The
writer of the post cops to "youthful optimism" (who’s going to provide
that "financial and technical assistance"?) and her vision is pretty
extreme. But so is the situation on the ground in Detroit. Your
thoughts?

More news from the decaying industrial frontier: The fine blog Rust Wire has a piece on young Buffalonians who are returning to their native city with some bright ideas.

  • The “technical and financial assistance” is, of course, a childish fantasy. However, the larger thrust of the argument, that the remains of Detroit will provide enough for a less intense level of civilized activity (outside of the global resource game) is quite reasonable.

    As regards the housing required, no insane high-tech material is required – but high-tech design principles are. I’m a fan of the work of architect Michael Reynolds.

    There is a film about Mr. Reynolds, “Garbage Warrior”, that really opened my eyes to the low capital cost, hyper resource efficient, styles of housing possible. A community designed around self-sufficient farming, living in “earthships” could maintain a high standard of living and preserve some of the prosperity of the 20th century almost indefinitely.

  • The depopulation of Detroit has been an unintentional boon to bicyclists. Riding along empty four lane avenues is an exhilarating experience. I spent a week there this summer and met many energetic people working to interpret and improve the damaged cityscape. What’s wrong with optimism in the face of intense poverty and corrupt political systems? Would it be better to bulldoze the whole city and hide from our American history of racism and industry at the cost of community?

  • DLM

    A key problem in Detroit though is not how to “build” a new concept of housing, but how to deconstruct the existing city down to a functional scale for its population. Many smaller communities that have been faced with a similar large loss of people have done a good job of consciously returning sections to greenspace, farming, etc. The financial and technical issues are not really that hard. The biggest problem often seems to be that by tradition and mindset, most officials try to grow their way out of a problem. This results in the “let’s build a convention center and ‘revitalize’ the city” approach. It will be difficult for a city the size (and corruption) of Detroit to take a more radical approach.

    Detroit actually has a huge opportunity. How many cities have excess capacity of residential and commercial real estate, transportation capacity, willing employees?

    Tear down buildings and give away the land to anyone willing to farm it for a set number of years…a new homesteading act. Make the right lane of every multilane street a bike lane. Free space to any new small commercial company.

    I don’t know if the local government will have the vision to do anything with the chance they have, but someone will. Nature abhors a vacuum.

  • While Detroit’s population has declined the Metro area really has remained steady. I think it’s the classic case of an abandoned urban core and white flight leading to the weakened city center and unsustainable suburbia through America. Only in this city it’s on steroids, because it’s coupled with the evisceration of the region’s bedrock industry. The lack of a transition plan can in some respects be attributed to the poor land use.

    The sad part is, even if downtown Detriot and the surrounding urban residential ring is brought back, through whatever public assistance, programs, etc., it will just solidify the suburbs.

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