Detroit urban landscape architecture, planning and design

Detroit urban landscape architecture and design

Detroit is bankrupt, derelict, ruined and dangerous to know. So anyone with an interest in urban landscape design and planning should ask two questions

  • Why did it happen?
  • What can be done about it?

Many people are in fact asking these questions and they could put be on school curricula – in Europe, in America and, most of all, in China. Similar catastrophes happened in Europe yesterday and may be expected in China tomorrow. In Britain, as the Guardian explains, the school history curriculum is too focussed in Hitler. It is a preposterous state of affaris: the man is dead. His ideas are dead. Everyone hates him. Really, one would think school history teachers had heard about this.
So why is Detroit going down the drain?

  • Is the CIA behind it? (Probably not)
  • Is it because American engineers don’t know how to design cars? (Probably not)
  • Is it because Detroit is, largely, an African American city? (Probably not)
  • Is it because American managers are obese? (Probably not)
  • Is it because American trade unions are so strong? (Probably not)
  • Is it because Asian workers work much harder for lower rates? (Probably not)
  • Is it because the US has dumb policies on gun control and drugs (Probably not)

So I cannot answer the question – but other cities have found ways of dealing with the declines of their auto industries and, in due course, it will be interesting to see what policy China adopts for its soon-to-be rustbelt industries. Karl Marx explained that creative destruction is integral to capitalism – and China has become a capitalist country.
So what can be done about Detroit? Edward Glaeser, in Triumph of the city (2011 pp 64-7) recommends a policy of ‘shrinking to greatness’. Following the examples of Leipzig in Germany, and Youngstown in Ohio, he recommends demolishing empty buildings. He writes that Mayor Bing, ‘knows that Detroit can be a great city if it cares for its people well even if it has far fewer structures’. Instead of ‘demolition’ I recommend a plan for regenerating the city’s ecosystem. It needs a habitat plan: for humans, fauna and flora. Humans need safety. Perhaps the 25% of the city which is now un-inhabited should be demolished, or perhaps the empty buildings should be fenced off. I don’t know – but high schools would surely learn more from studying Detroit than from studying Hitler. A class could begin with an old Detroit-made car. Kids could learn to take it apart, clean it up,  put it back together and drive round the playground. While doing this they would learn about physics,  architecture, chemistry, industrial design, labour relations, politics, economics, trade unions, finance, pensions, international trade, entrepreneurship, urban design, database management, landscape architecture, ecology – and, of course, an approach to art and music which draws upon the Nature of Detroit. ‘Ah’, you may say, ‘good idea –  but school teachers know nothing of these subjects’. Well then: they should not be teaching kids who need to know about these subjects.

(Images courtesy nic-r and LHOON)

11 thoughts on “Detroit urban landscape architecture, planning and design

  1. Christine

    Good question. Why do cities fail? [ ]

    This article seems to suggest that Detroit was too dependent on the auto industry for its economic well-being.

    John Gallagher does not address these fundamental economic issues in his book Re-imagining Detroit. But he does have some interesting ideas about how the remaining citizens can reclaim the city. [ ]

    The Gold Rush and its subsequent boom and bust cycle produced the phenomenon of Ghost Towns in Australia. There may be some interesting lessons for cities to be learnt from them?
    [ ]

    It seems Australia does well and has many entries in the world list of ghost towns!
    [ ] That should provide a good opportunity to develop expertise in the area!

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Gallagher has the great advantage of knowing what he is talking about – and I hope his remedies work. But I also wonder if Detroit should go back to the days before the frontier ‘closed’. A public fund could buy land back into public ownership (like the Louisianna Purchase and the Alaska Purchase) and then find a way of re-distributing it to ‘pioneers’. But maybe it is better to let the place return to the occupancy by its native flora and fauna, not mention Native Americans.
      Very interesting about Australia: I had no idea Australia had any Ghost Towns and I think it is a great idea to let them return to the dust from whence they came. Why should settlements be permanent? It worries me that we are over-building the planet and I love the idea that some places are being de-populated.
      If barriers to migration continue to rise and birth rates in rich countries continue to decline then de-commisioning cities could become a major aspect of ‘urban design’. Many landscape architects in East Germany are already engaged in this. The population is drifting west and even imigrants from poor countries do not want to live in the east – despite there being great cities, like Dresden.

  2. Christine

    I am wondering whether you are suggesting that the American Federal government buy back private land in Detroit?

    Perhaps, there would be people winning to pioneer the re-invention of Detroit: particularly young people who may have some entrepreneurial ideas for its renaissance. It is a great suggestion. And there is no reason why these people might not be indigenous Americans!

    It could include returning some of the land to nature. I am thinking that there is an amazing opportunity to implement Haussmann like schemes without the social dislocation and disruption. Detroit could truly emerge from the current period of decline like a butterfly!

    The issues associated with depopulation of cities are very interesting. I am going to read some more on this phenomenon in Germany, thankyou.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I am suggesting that a government agency should buy the land but since the government has run out of cash maybe they should invite Chinese investment. It could be in return for a Hong Kong style 100-year lease. Apart from the fact that there is no realism in Chinese historical analysis, I cannot undrstand why the Chinese are so bitter about the Hong Kong deal. It gave them one of the world’s most dynamic cities and it set the pattern for the entire modernisation of China. What’s to grumble about? But since a Chinese solution to Detroit is 100% unrealistic then a Federal solution may be best – they have fabulous skills in borrowing money at low rates and once they appeared on the scene as a ‘buyer of last resort’ it would restore confidence to the Detroit land market. Also, as you say, a great opportunity for supporting native Americans and the native flora and fauna of America.
      Edward Glaeser admires Haussmann for his unsentimental destruction of medieval Paris but also admires the Parisian authorities’ sentimental protection of Haussmann’s Paris! For most cities, he thinks there should be no restrictions on building heights. Instead, he recommends costing the externalities of loss-of-views, loss-of-sunlight etc and then making developers pay this money to those who have been affected. My guess is that the complications of the sums would cause the policy to collapse after one attempt.

  3. Lawrence

    For a personal, amusing and useful analysis of Detroit´s woes I can recommend “The Last Days of Detroit: Motor Cars, Motown and the Collapse of an Industrial Giant” by Mark Binelli (Bodley Head, January 2013). “Whenever I told people I´d grown up in metropolitan Detroit, they expressed a morbid curiosity, as if I´d revealed having been raised the next town over from Chernobyl…” I hadn´t heard the term “Urban Prairie” before, used to describe inner-city conglomerations of derelict land that were once built neighbourhoods, now demolished in the “downsizing” programme. The tone of the book is surprisingly optimistic.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I will look out Binelli’s book thank you but on the whole I prefer the idea of Detroit becoming a ghost town. Our planet’s population is not going to go up and up for ever and ever so we might as well learn how to decommission cities.

  4. Christine

    It is interesting to read that the sons of Detroit are rather attached to their city despite all of its contemporary problems. So, if it is not a question of the population continuing to go up – it might be a question of some of the population of American cities choosing to relocate?

    It would be worth comparing the direction (population or de-population) and rate of growth (economic and demographic) of all the American cities.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Yes, but I too am attracted to the idea of living in a city where the population was falling, houses were being knocked down and new open spaces were being created. Maybe I should move to Dresden (I also like cities with trains, police and hospitals).
      I can’t remember its name but I remember spending a morning in what had once been a very large city on the south coast of Turkey. It was completely deserted and empty. Now it is probably full of Russian and Arab villas. If fracking diminishes the wealth of Russia and the Gulf it will be interesting to see what happens to the wider Middle East.

  5. Christine

    Dresden is interested in researchers with an interest in resilient cities.[ ] Although somewhere it is also said that the Dresden now has the fastest growing population in the former East Germany.

    However they are asking:
    “How do cities adapt to depopulation? A number of cities around the world are suffering from depopulation due to demographic change, suburbanization and economic decline. It is not clear which strategies will prove to be more successful in these cases: strategies of adaptation or strategies to resist depopulation? Also, under which conditions will the strategies be deployed? How can the provision of infrastructure and services be adjusted or maintained?”

    The Landscape Assessment methodology is very interesting as it makes a very clear distinction between description and evaluation. This would be a very useful approach to considering the question of de-population.

    [ ] Perhaps the city in Turkey you visited had a similar history to this one?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Dresden has the great advantage of being a beautiful city, despite the harsh treatment by the Royal Air Force. I remember a British student telling the Mayor of Stuttgart that it was his first visit to the city but that his dad had been there in 1942, with the RAF. This produced a wry smile from the then Mayor – who was the son of Field Marshall Rommel.
      ‘Distinction’ is exactly the right relationship between landscape description and assessment. They are separate but related judgements.
      Thank you for the link but it was elsewhere – probably Anemurium. The figs and carob beans were excellent – and there was no entrance fee and no other visitors.

  6. Christine

    Dresden is a beautiful city.

    So the problem of depopulation was most probably not related to aesthetic considerations. There is some discussion about many of the women of marriageable age leaving town because of a lack of work for females. [ ]

    It is very interesting that this has been linked to former communist education which promoted equality of gender. It seems that girls want equality and the boys don’t (even with a communist background in gender equality!)


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