Detroit’s woes can be eased, but region's officials avert their eyes

Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

Regional problems needing regional solutions

Detroit’s structural deficit could be reduced in part by “right-sizing” (see box below). If that occurred, there would be less pressure on the city to cut badly-needed services and ignore necessary long-term investments, Bradley said. But, she added, “the future growth and development of the area is in the hands of the region” and will require significant changes in how Detroit interacts with its suburbs.

Myron Orfield of the University of Minnesota, who has long studied Detroit and is one of the country’s foremost experts on regional planning, said that the fragmentation of the region and the isolation of the city will make it impossible for Detroit to thrive in the future. “Detroit is like the Balkans,” he said. “As long as that place is so isolated and so separated, it’s never going to grow.”

“One of the first things Detroit needs is some kind of strong regional body to do planning and [to] coordinate investment,” Orfield said. The current regional planning body — the Southeastern Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) — is a relatively weak, voluntary institution with few powers.

“Detroit is like the Balkans. As long as that place is so isolated and so separated, it’s never going to grow.” — Myron Orfield, University of Minnesota

“SEMCOG has not instituted a single regional solution to the problems that face this area,” said John Mogk, a professor of law at Wayne State University and an expert in urban planning. “Not a single one.”

“We know that economies are regional and not divided by municipal boundaries,” Mogk added. “We need to be competing as a region, not against each other.”

That is the opposite of what has happened over time. A now decades-long process has seen suburbs seeking to encourage businesses with low taxes and incentives that Detroit could not match, a process that has fostered sprawl, and, according to Orfield, has drawn investment away from the city.

In addition to land-use planning, the regional governance entity should plan for the long-term economic development of the region, Mogk said. Currently, the largest entity aimed at regional development is the Economic Growth Alliance, which was put together by Patterson and includes six suburban counties, but does not include the City of Detroit.

Mogk and Orfield agree that SEMCOG needs to be significantly strengthened and given the authority to provide comprehensive, long-term planning for the region, especially in terms of land use.

Orfield also said that regionalizing the area’s tax policy would yield additional benefits — most obviously to Detroit, but also to the suburbs. The current, fragmented system pushes jurisdictions to outdo each other in offering incentives to lure business and investment, thus reducing tax revenue for all.  Over time, that competition contributed to disinvestment in Detroit.  A more regional tax system, Orfield said, would encourage the constituent parts of the metro area to cooperate for mutual gain.

Right-sizing the city

Remapping Debate asked a range of experts on urban and regional policy what steps the Detroit region needs to take to alleviate the city’s structural problems and put it on solid footing going forward.

Many believe that a fundamental problem facing Detroit is that it is simply too big for itself. “Detroit was built for almost two million people,” said Brian Connolly, an urban planner. “The severity of the city’s population loss has meant that there are huge areas that are basically abandoned, but the city still has the responsibility of servicing them.”

That has led many experts to embrace the idea of “right-sizing” or “planned shrinkage” — an arrangement by which the city would concentrate residents in denser neighborhoods and stop or reduce services to abandoned ones.

There are obvious pitfalls to the proper implementation of right-sizing. “This would clearly need to be done not only as a money-saver but explicitly in the interests of the people who would need to move,” Connolly said. The process would include providing those who are displaced access to high-quality replacement housing, compensating them monetarily for moving costs and for losses on their homes as a result of right-sizing, and offering them significant logistical support in connection with relocation, he said.

The Citizen’s Research Council’s Betty Buss cautioned that right-sizing should not involve abandoning altogether the areas outside the redrawn city. “If we’re trying to imagine how to do this successfully, I don’t think that would mean just leaving those neighborhoods in their current state.” She was also concerned that those implementing right-sizing recognize that there is potential value to be unlocked even in neighborhoods that currently are not doing well.  She, along with others, thinks that potential ought to be developed in the public interest, and rejects the idea of effectively  “giving [those neighborhoods] away to private investors.”

One proposal would turn some neighborhoods into urban forests. Another would use some land for food production. “We need to do it in a way that these parts of the city become [public] assets,” Buss reiterated.

While the exact form that right-sizing should take is debated among experts, but there is no dispute that right-sizing the city in the interests of residents would be an enormously expensive capital undertaking. “It’s going to be an incredibly expensive proposition,” Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institution said. No precise estimates exist for the total cost of the project, but several experts agree that it could easily run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Bradley said that making the initial capital investment is “an appropriate role for the federal government.” But despite Mayor Bing’s support for the concept of right-sizing, no comprehensive plan to deal with issues of equity and cost is currently on the table or even on the horizon.

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