I recently spent a week exploring the depopulated areas of Detroit on foot and by bicycle, including an excellent stay with some young homesteaders. At the end of the trip I had an exchange with noted civil engineer and city planner Chuck Marohn of the group Strong Towns, who had spent time in Detroit’s newly revitalized downtown attending the Congress for New Urbanism. Marohn and I had very different interpretations of what he called the “Doughnut of Despair” in the penumbra outside the urban core.

Detroit lost 60 percent of its population from its peak in 1950. Most of the residual empty buildings are single-family homes and the civic buildings that once served them. The city has far too much public infrastructure to maintain and entirely too little tax revenue with which to do it. Marohn proposed cherry picking the remaining viable buildings and transporting them to a single close-in neighborhood where municipal services could be more efficiently provided. I rolled my eyes. This is right up there with the suggestion made by others that the city should just cut off power and water to people in big chunks of the city to “encourage” them to migrate. Try that on rich white people living in far flung suburbs that also have negative tax-to-municipal-services ratios and see how that goes.

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The goal of Marohn’s proposal—ostensibly to save scarce municipal resources through physical consolidation—sounds good on paper. But I see trouble. First, someone needs to be authorized to determine which buildings are worthy of being saved. While individual engineers and architects may be good at the technical aspects of this sort of work, they’ll almost certainly be working within the constraints of a committee’s check list. Politicized bureaucracies have a bad track record with such things since they’re rife with perverse incentives.

Then there’s the up front cost of jacking up whole buildings and transporting them to a new neighborhood. That’s not a trivial undertaking. I have to assume that to have any impact on the city’s budget, more than a token number of structures will need to be relocated. Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands? What might it cost per unit to lift a building off its foundation and truck it across town? Then, once the wide load flat beds start to arrive in the new location there will need to be new foundations and utility services to receive the recycled structures. That will be substantially more expensive than the move itself.

Let’s not forget the soft costs of insurance, as well as various professional certifications and studies. I have to ask if the ultimate value of the resulting properties will be high enough to justify the endeavor. Is this really a cost savings scheme for a cash strapped town? And then, who will own these properties once they’ve been resettled into their little refugee camp? It’s a giant can of worms and someone will have to eat each and every one of the wigglers. I doubt it will be an engineer, planner, or administrator.

But the real problem with the whole concept is that it fails to acknowledge one profound truth. Cities aren’t made of buildings—at least not successful durable ones. Productive, vibrant, lasting cities are formed by the dynamic and largely invisible interconnections of humans as they go about their daily lives. I strongly suspect that the best remaining buildings in Marohn’s “Doughnut of Despair” are in such relatively good condition because they’ve actually been cared for by the rare and special people who stuck it out in Detroit even as America turned its back and left the city for dead. These are the last people that anyone should poke at. In fact, these are the broadly distributed seeds of regeneration that need to be nurtured, not uprooted from the landscape.

Let’s look at how previous plans to “save” Detroit worked out:

Option 1: The Great Society

 

Bulldoze entire blocks of historic urban fabric. Concentrate the poorest people into giant high rise towers managed by unresponsive and underfunded bureaucracies. Intentionally cut them off from jobs, good schools, and the wider culture. Then blame the residents for failing to thrive after everything that was done for them.

 

Option 2: The Ownership Society

 

Create an imitation of the suburbs complete with cul-de-sacs and gated communities. Give subprime mortgages and multiple auto loans to low income families. Then blame the residents for failing to thrive in spite of all the opportunities that were offered to them.

 

Option 3: Back to the Future

 

These homes and families are the survivors of decades of white flight, the collapse of the auto industry, benign neglect, the criminalization of poverty, and a dozen plans to reform the city and “rescue” the poor unfortunates left behind. All these photos were taken within walking distance of each other in the same general part of the city. The ruined husks, the high-rise projects, and the plastic subdivisions are all cheek by jowl with little islands of normal life, charming old homes, and neatly tended gardens. These are the people the next wave of self-appointed do-gooders are looking to “help.”

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The Return to a Rural Landscape

 

But there’s that lingering problem. Detroit can’t maintain all of its infrastructure, so something has to change. But what? If we were to go back to the Detroit of 1880 the population would have been smaller and concentrated near downtown—just as the engineers/planners propose. But all around the nascent industrial metropolis were farms and small rural hamlets. Cities need large scale municipal facilities for water, sewer, and transportation. They also need abundant regulations and multiple bureaucracies to oversee them. Country villages don’t.

Significant portions of Detroit are now essentially rural again. On any given block there may only be two or three occupied homes. The official options are to fill the space with new construction of a dubious nature or scrape the landscape clean. But there’s a third option. What would it take to allow these rural properties to revert to rural utilities? Homes in the country have private wells or rainwater catchment with cisterns instead of city water mains, septic systems instead of city sewerage treatment plants, and propane tanks instead of piped natural gas. Rural houses are on narrow paved roads or gravel lanes. Converting the remaining viable homes to these smaller independent systems would be significantly less expensive than trying to maintain the endless miles of municipal infrastructure across the entire city. Rural cooperatives could be established to serve such homes and businesses rather than the existing utilities.

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Block-by-Block Solutions

 

There are also emerging clusters of viable urbanism. These are nascent small towns out in the dregs of what used to be big swaths of Detroit. They’re emerging in unlikely spots that wouldn’t necessarily occur to an engineer or city planner. Grand old homes are being renovated in close proximity to each other and shops are reopening to serve the boomeranging population. These areas may still benefit from cost-effective city services, particularly if the momentum continues with small-scale incremental infill development that thickens over time.

That slow, organic, iterative process is the real revitalization of Detroit—not the highway improvement projects, new streetcar lines, casinos, stadiums, or anything else dreamed up by folks in City Hall. In fact, the one “amenity” that Detroit currently offers that most other cities of its size and stature don’t is a conspicuous absence of public funds, a situation that has seriously relaxed the usual obstructionist regulatory environment. For the self-selecting population that is willing to overcome Detroit’s drawbacks, that’s a huge draw.

This slow, dispersed, incremental approach is asking a great deal from city regulators. This isn’t a broad sweeping program with a lot of flash and ribbon cutting ceremonies. These individual block-by-block solutions are unique rather than easily standardized and mass produced. But this is the most economical and civilized policy moving forward for the citizenry—if not the bureaucrats.

So do we want to make life easy on the experts with huge sums of state and federal grant money, or do we want to make the city a better place that can also pay its bills on its own?

John Sanphillippo is an amateur architecture buff with a passionate interest in where and how we all live and occupy the landscape. He blogs at Granola Shotgun. New Urbs is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.