Downtown Detroit has more vacant buildings over 10 storeys than any city in the world.
Early Monday morning, as a winter storm finished burying the U.S. Midwest in snow heavy enough to collapse the roof of the Minneapolis Metrodome, the ever-chipper Gordon Deal (Wall Street This Morning) announced to his predawn radio audience that Detroit had decided to cease serving 20% of its residents. “Officials bristle when their efforts are described as downsizing,” writes WSJ’s Matthew Dolan in a related article. “Their aim is to repurpose portions of the city, not redraw its borders.” But the residents of the sparsely populated neighborhoods losing police patrols, road repairs, garbage pick up and streetlights might not be so keen to the arrangement.
So it’s come to this – “Motor City,” once a thriving boom-town, now busting to pieces as it cedes almost a quarter of its municipality to gang rule, in the hope that residents will move inward – huddling together to form a more dense, possibly more productive, city. But administration officials are fighting against both the opposite trend (decades of urban sprawl) and holdouts hoping for handouts. Mayor Bing: “I don’t want people to think that, if they hold out, there’s going to be a pot full of money somewhere, because there’s not.”
Hence the denial of services in a city which has been teetering on the brink of bankruptcy for years. However, this decision is just the tip of an historical iceberg of events. Detroit serves as an excellent case study in initial conditions determining the fate of a system (a city). After all, it was in 1805, when the town burned to the ground, that Detroit’s motto originated:Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus (“We hope for better things, it will rise from the ashes”). Since then, the city’s history has been a rocky fractal of innovation, population growth, and violence: (Thanks to Allison Lumb’s post for some of the following facts.)
A Timeline of Detroit (Innovations, Growth, and Violence:
-1806: City of Detroit incorporated,
-1820 First Census: 1,422 (over the next 60 years the cities population doubles each decade),
-1837: Detroit becomes the capital of Michigan (until 1847),
-1840 Census: 9,102 and growing,
-1863: Anti-draft/race riot,
-1877: Detroit College founded,
-1903-1950: A period of great innovation and productivity starting with the founding of the Ford Motor Company,
-1943: Race riot over wartime factory jobs,
-1950 Census: The city’s population peaks at 1,849,568 (while the metro area continues to grow, the city shrinks in population),
-1967: The 12th Street Riot (one of the worst in U.S. history),
-1996: Michigan votes to allow three casinos in Detroit,
Last month we highlighted a speech recently given by Geoffrey West, in which he talked about “why companies fail but cities survive.” He was primarily discussing discoveries regarding scalability as it applies to that ever-popular buzzword these days, sustainability. His data indicated the existence of what he called a “finite time singularity,” which is a fancy way of saying growth which reaches an unsustainable pace…
When you have a growing city… it’s within a cultural paradigm that’s to do with a major innovation like coal or oil…. As you approach the singularity, you must innovate and start again.~Geoffrey West
This sounds great. “Refill your tank” with innovation every now and then, and you’re back on the road to success (productivity). However, West goes on to say that these finite time singularities systematically grow closer and closer together in time. “If you want to have continuous growth,” he warns, “you have to have continuous innovation. This system is destined to collapse.” Detroit seems to be making his case beautifully, reaching their singularity in the 1950′s, leveling off, and now in decline.
What’s been happening up in Michigan has people wondering if Detroit is a leading indicator of things to come in other cities. This might not be as pressing an issue, if the trend were not toward increased urbanization, but it is. The lessons Detroit can teach us are not just about innovation and growth, but also a need for population density in order for scalability to have any chance. The world might be becoming more urban, but, as West is eager to point out, it is not doing so in an organized manner. (One need only visit southern California to see a city that sprawls out for miles.)
The question remains: is city living sustainable? We’ll stay tuned to Detroit’s struggle with scale to see if they find a solution.