An abandoned playground in Detroit. A\J – Alternatives Journal An abandoned playground in Detroit. Photo: Angela Anderson-Cobb on flickr.

Urban form is crucial to environmental outcomes including habitat, climate change and air quality. In compact cities with commerce and residential neighborhoods in close proximity, travel is reduced and people are more likely to walk, cycle or use transit when they do travel within the city. In sprawling cities automobiles are essential, greenhouse emissions rise and more land is removed from nature.

In North America most eastern cities were laid out before automobile dominance, western cities mostly since. European cities, being much older, have cores that are residentially and commercially dense. European cities are the most energy and land efficient, western North American cities the least. Eastern North American cities are in between. Detroit is a notable exception to this pattern. It is one of the least dense cities in the world. How did this come about in the only large American city that looks south to Canada (across the Detroit River)?

Detroit’s history is fascinating. Urban analyst George Galster, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in Detroit a few weeks ago, tells the tale in his new book, Driving Detroit: The Quest for Respect in Motor City. Detroit, a city crucial to the emergence of industrial America, has half the residential density of Toronto. It has no fixed rail transportation – no streetcars or subways and its once beautiful intercity train station has been abandoned.

There are vast amounts of empty land within the city of Detroit (which has been losing population for decades to suburban sprawl). Detroit is in a sense now an anti-city, shaped like a donut with much empty space at its core. Windsor completes the donut to the south and east.

Detroit is truly the motor city. Freeways and wide boulevards dominate and only 1% of trips are taken on public transit (compared to 24% in Toronto and a much higher proportion in Europe and elsewhere). The auto industry had some hand in this outcome, but Galster makes clear that there are other causes. Three key sources of today’s unsustainable Detroit are: 1) economic dominance by a single highly cyclical industry, 2) a multiplicity of municipal governments that created what Gamester calls a housing disassembly line that has destroyed older, downtown residences and 3) racial tensions that have made metropolitan governance an almost impossible challenge.

The housing disassembly line is key to understanding Detroit’s problems, both environmental and economic. There are 221 different municipal governments in greater Detroit. For decades they have blithely, and with no coordination to speak of, approved excessive housing construction at the suburban fringes. New houses have been built in the region much faster than the rate of new household formation. Indeed, at least 10,000 houses in excess of the number of new households have been added every year for 50 years!

And what has been the result? The older housing, virtually all of it within the city of Detroit, was simply abandoned. This eroded the property tax base of the city and created an urban core where 30% of the land is taken up by vacant lots and the nearly bankrupt government of the city has lost its tax base and has been challenged to even afford to tear down its abandoned buildings.

In many places core cities have too little influence on the overall design of an urban area. In Detroit this pattern has been pathological, compounded by a decline in industrial jobs from 233,000 in 1947 to 23,000 in 2007 and magnified by the politics of race (which Galster eloquently traces from anti-black riots in 1833 forward to today).

I can only provide a brief snapshot of this discussion here. Only 4% of the white population of greater Detroit lives within Detroit’s city limits. Many suburbanites do not identify with Detroit and this has impeded building a functioning urban region. The principal connection many white suburbanites have with Detroit is as fans of hockey and other professional sports. As NBA player Grant Hill once commented after attending a Red Wings hockey game: he really enjoyed the game but could not help noticing that the only other Black there was the puck.

Recently, however, there are some glimmers of hope for Detroit’s future despite the recent state appointment of an administrator to oversee the city’s finances.

The North American auto industry’s near-death experience has passed and Michigan’s solar and wind energy industries are growing rapidly. Wayne State University, in downtown Detroit, is active regarding sustainable urban futures relevant to the city. For example, in season there is a farmer’s market on campus that can serve neighborhoods with limited retail food options. Much of the food is grown on restored soils within the city of Detroit. Others on campus are working to improve live theatre and historic museums. Recently the famed Detroit Institute of Arts that houses one of America’s great art collections, the second largest municipally owned art museum in America, has gained some financial help from suburban governments. If Detroit can begin to function as an urban region regarding the museum perhaps it can come together in other ways.

Detroit’s unused land and buildings in the center of the city impose a heavy cost on municipal finances, but they are also potentially an opportunity to create a more sustainable, post-industrial city from scratch. Pittsburg has rebounded from the decline of the steel industry, Motown can find a way to build on its rich cultural past and incorporate it into something new.

Robert Paehlke is a professor emeritus at Trent University where he taught environmental policy and politics for 35 years. About 40 years ago, he envisioned a magazine that was both scientifically sound and journalistically interesting, and Alternatives was born. “Bob P,” as we call him, sits on the magazine’s editorial board and he contributes articles and blog posts as often as we can trick him into it.

He is the author of Environmentalism and the Future of Progressive Politics (1989), Democracy's Dilemma: Environment, Social Equity and the Global Economy (2004), Some Like It Cold: The Politics of Climate Change in Canada (2008) and Hegemony and Global Citizenship (2014).  

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