Detroit’s Decline as an Opportunity

Detroit Decay by Flickr user x3nomik

Detroit Decay by Flickr user x3nomik

Time Magazine this month is focusing on Detroit – why the city is in decline, what it is like to live there now, and what can be done to make life better for residents who are still there.

I’m not going to lie. I find Detroit’s decline truly fascinating. Home of the mythical $1,000 house (Wait! Make that the mythical $100 house!!!), Detroit is attracting artists and people seeking community-based rather than job-based lifestyles.

At the same time, what Detroit has become is appalling. Time has some amazing photo essays that depict the state of once gorgeous historic buildings. The photo I found most shocking was the 1926-built Michigan Theater that had been converted into a parking lot. What could be a more apt analogy for Detroit? A city overcome by an obsession with cars.

Nevertheless, Detroit has so much potential. A 138 square mile city, Detroit’s former population of 1.85 million has drastically shrunk to just 912,000 people. Approximately one third of the city is empty or unused, and this is an area about the size of San Francisco. Detroit’s sparse population and vacant spaces means that the city is receiving much less revenue from taxes and other sources, but it has to support municipal services, like fire, police, sanitation, and schools, that are way too spread out. Realizing that the city’s population isn’t going to grow any time soon, Detroit either has to become denser, or it has to decentralize power, water, and waste services to the block level. Densifying Detroit is problematic, because it involves moving people in ways that could be forceful and unpopular, like condemning quality houses in half demolished areas and moving residents elsewhere.

On the other hand, decentralizing services offers a great opportunity. Vacant lots can be turned into small farms. Vacant streets can turn into greenways. People can learn how to build and run micro water, waste, and energy facilities. Low-cost lifestyles can ease the work burden on people who can then reinvest extra time back into their community.

A number of people, including authors of various Detroit-related articles in this month’s Time believe that Detroit needs a new, modern industry to get the city on its feet. I demur. Monocultures, even in economies, are ill-advised. Detroit’s auto-centric history can attest to that. Besides, with an unemployment rate of 28.9 percent, the city needs something more drastic than hydrogen fuel cell car factories or car factories converted into wind farm manufacturing facilities.

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. Perhaps this is my youthful optimism, but I see great potential in Detroit.

If you’re interested, here are more links to some of Time’s articles:

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14 Responses to “Detroit’s Decline as an Opportunity”

  1. Streetsblog San Francisco » Back to the Land in Detroit? said:

    Oct 06, 09 at 7:58 am

    [...] Streetsblog Network member Planning Pool sees the city's radically distressed circumstances in a different and admittedly rose-colored way [...]

  2. Aaron M. Renn said:

    Oct 06, 09 at 12:10 pm

    I wrote on a similar theme here:

    Detroit’s weakness is a strength in that if you want to do something, there is far less barrier to doing so in Detroit than almost any city in America.

  3. Back To The Land In Detroit? | Climate Vine said:

    Oct 06, 09 at 2:05 pm

    [...] Streetsblog Network member Planning Pool sees the city’s radically distressed circumstances in a different and admittedly rose-colored [...]

  4. Stacy Passmore said:

    Oct 06, 09 at 5:19 pm

    Hey! Great post – what a fascinating case study! Check out this video about “Detroit Wildlife”

  5. Daniella said:

    Oct 06, 09 at 5:43 pm

    Thanks Stacy!!

    I just watched that video. Really interesting! It warmed my heart to see people in Detroit talking about the same sorts of issues – that on one hand things aren’t great, but on the other hand they’re leading lives they enjoy that aren’t centered around money. Pretty interesting…

  6. Stacy Passmore said:

    Oct 06, 09 at 8:28 pm

    I love the idea that what was once the forefront of industry is now completely the opposite – or maybe on the forefront of the future? It’s really an optimistic actually. P.S. I loved the video ya’ll made with Farzine in the Pool!

  7. Houses for $100 in Detroit « John’s notebook… said:

    Oct 07, 09 at 11:33 am

    [...] Detroit is going through a miserable time. Check out the Time magazine photo story, including this picture of a classic theater now a parking lot: [...]

  8. Chris said:

    Oct 15, 09 at 5:09 am

    Planning is great but it’s near impossible in a city that’s struggling just to survive. It has extreme current budget woes and the Mayor and Labor Unions are at each other’s throats deciding on jobs and service levels. We’re talking about stabilizing a patient before any surgery can be performed and at this point blood is gushing from every artery.

  9. matt said:

    Oct 16, 09 at 11:29 am

    Nice post, Daniella. I like how you highlighted some of the opportunities available to a declining city.

    Those Time Magazine photo essays are pretty amazing, and they do illustrate some brutal realities of the post-industrial city, but they have been criticized by some. Check out NPR’s On The Media for a clip about what some are calling “Ruin Porn”.


  10. Daniella said:

    Oct 18, 09 at 3:43 pm

    Matt, Thanks so much for the radio clip! I love NPR and On the Media! I think the “Ruin Porn” point is entirely valid, especially as On the Media points out that many of the photos are of buildings that have been closed for decades. Here’s a link to the article they talk about in the clip:

  11. cw said:

    Oct 18, 09 at 7:11 pm

    i respect your point of view but i dont think any of your microliving ideas will fly. never in history have people voluntarily shrunk their way of life. it only occurs under duress. certainly the city of detroit is under duress but people are mobile. i can see business people moving in to make some money. but the utopia of inner city farms and solar off the grid living just ain’t happening, esp with a crime rate the way it is…
    a little to pinko, but i understand the desire, it just isnt going to happen.

  12. Daniella said:

    Oct 18, 09 at 7:39 pm

    Well nothing happens without a bit of imagination, and we’re living in extraordinary times! Anyway, it is just an idea.

    On another note, I find the term “pinko” both offensive and ignorant.

  13. Design New Haven said:

    Oct 22, 09 at 11:16 am

    In New Haven and other cities, we’ve been using “SeeClickFix” to document issues and propose solutions (anyone can do this for free). It works very well – the stuff I report often gets fixed very quickly since so many people are watching.

    I think this would work very well in Detroit, where there are a lot of issues of concern (policing, transportation, historic preservation) but not enough people working collaboratively to solve them.

    Check out for an example. Detroit may be cheap, but only if you don’t own a car!

  14. Daniella said:

    Jan 17, 10 at 11:36 pm

    Here’s an article about urban farming in Detroit:,0,7336715.story