Barren Detroit blocks

SOURCE: Stephen Peters
SUBHEAD: The Motor City is returning to wilderness.

by John Gallager on 15 December 2008 in Detroit Free Press -

Image above: Vacant land in the city of Detriot. Photo by Susan Tusa from original article.

Detroit, where the population peaked at 2 million in the early 1950s, is home to about 900,000 today and is still losing people. The depopulation and demolition of abandoned properties has left the city dotted with thousands of vacant parcels, ranging from single home lots to open fields of many acres.
To see for yourself: Use Google Earth or a similar computer program to fly over the city and see how many vacant parcels you can find. Dan Pitera, a professor of architecture at University of Detroit Mercy, estimates that all that empty land adds up to about 40 square miles -- nearly the land mass of San Francisco.

His conclusion: Hopes and plans to repopulate the city and to redevelop all the city's vacant land, are unrealistic, at least for another generation. Some redevelopment deals will succeed, but realistic Detroiters should seize the opportunity to become a leaner, greener city for the 21st Century. "What if a lot of the vacant land was allowed to begin to become green?" Pitera said. "Could Detroit truly become the greenest city in the United States?" This abundance of vacant land has people talking about new uses, such as urban farming, reforesting the city, and large-scale recreational areas.

Urban farming is getting the most buzz. Michigan State University's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources is among the groups touting urban farms as a solution for Detroit's vacant land. "Given the amount of open land, I think there's a real opportunity for Detroit to provide a significant amount of its fruits and vegetables for its population and the surrounding area," said Mike Hamm, the C.S. Mott Chair of Sustainable Agriculture at MSU. Besides providing nutritional value for Detroiters, Hamm said, "I think it can help create jobs and some small businesses in the city, with the potential for spin-off businesses in processing and distribution."

 Good question for candidates
Detroiters are in the early stages of a spirited mayoral campaign. Pitera's map shows the tough-love reality that candidates might consider as part of the debate about the city's future. "If I were the moderator at the mayoral debate, I'd put that question early on: How do we take some of the land out of the pipeline?" said Robin Boyle, chairman of Wayne State University's geography and urban planning department. The Free Press called several of the mayoral candidates to talk about the city's vacant land but none returned the calls.

Other Detroit leaders, though, told the Free Press that using vacant land for recreation, farming and other projects makes sense. "If it comes to pass that there is a development that would be in the best interest of the city, then it could always be redeveloped," former Mayor Dennis Archer said last week. "But in the meantime you could have great pocket parks, you could have children understanding how to raise a garden, harvest a fruit, vegetables. Those are invaluable things. I think it has a lot of merit."  

Finding the right words
Getting a debate started could be difficult because Boyle said Detroit lacks a vocabulary to create a new policy. Words like "shrinkage" and "downsizing" carry a whiff of defeat, he said. "Rightsizing" sounds bureaucratic and negative. "Wise use of resources" comes closer but is vague. "So we've got a language problem,"

Boyle says. "How do we talk about something that we don't really know how to deal with? We can see it, we can feel it, but we don't really know what to do about it." Doug Diggs, director of the city's planning and development department, says that "everything's on the table" when it comes to finding new uses for Detroit's empty spaces. "The city had been built for up to 2 million people. Certainly we're under a million right now. We have to think of new uses for those properties left behind to eliminate the blight." 

Onetime City of Elms
Ironically, Detroit during its mid-20th-Century heyday was then known as the City of Elms, a green city known for its parks. That reputation was lost as the city's deteriorated. The city still has about 9 square miles of parks, including Belle Isle, but much more vacant land than parks. As far back as 1993, the late Marie Farrell-Donaldson, then the city's ombudsman, sparked a tempest by suggesting that entire swathes of the city be cordoned off and returned to nature.

Farrell-Donaldson made her quickly ridiculed suggestion when Detroit's population was still about 1 million. The regional planning agency Southeast Michigan Council of Governments now estimates that Detroit will have no more than about 700,000 residents by 2035.  

89 square miles
Earlier this fall, some out-of-town planners recruited by the American Institute of Architects visited Detroit for a brainstorming session. The leader, Alan Mallach, research director of the National Housing Institute in Maplewood, N.J., concluded that Detroit needs no more than about 50 square miles of its land for its current population. The remaining 89 square miles could be used entirely for other purposes, he said. Mallach's group liked the suggestion of large-scale commercial farming, both as a way to put the space to good use and to generate new income and jobs for the cash-starved city.

Others aren't so sure. Ashley Atkinson, director of project development in urban agriculture at the nonprofit Greening of Detroit, supports small family and neighborhood plots of no larger than 3 acres. But she says that commercial farming would exploit Detroiters and their land. Instead, she supports widespread use of open spaces for recreation, hobby gardens and other uses.  

Opportunity to evolve
Something, though, must be done. "We're looking at a city that's over 50% vacant within the next five to 10 years. It's this huge, huge issue," Atkinson says. Whatever happens, clearly Detroit is evolving early in the 21st Century as a sort of blank slate. Instead of looking at shrinkage as a problem, many planners see it as an opportunity.

Detroit has a chance to invent an entirely new urban model, they say. Whether it's farming or greenways or a network of thriving urban villages connected by transit lines, the solution could be uniquely Detroit's. And the likelihood is that the rest of the world, already fascinated by Detroit's urban drama, would take notice.


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