On Studying Planning in the Detroit Region

The building of cities is one of man’s greatest achievements. The form of his city always has been and always will be a pitiless indicator of the state of his civilization.

— Edmund Bacon, Design of Cities (p. 13)

This quotation, by the famous Philadelphia architect and planner Edmund Bacon, has always been one of my favorites (gendered language aside). Indeed, cities are the shared, visible creation of societies, and in them the careful observer can find evidence of their innermost dynamics. I was reminded of the quote after attending an event recently to launch a new book, Mapping Detroit, an edited volume mostly written by colleagues at the University of Michigan.

As discussions of Detroit typically do, the book and the discussion it engendered was incredibly wide-ranging. The book authors discussed the city’s industrial history, neighborhood activism and revitalization efforts, the city’s buried streams, and the lack of transportation options which results in low accessibility for many city residents — dramatized recently by the account of James Robertson, a man who until recently walked 21 miles most days to reach a suburban job. The audience questions widened the scope still further, with comments about the city’s bankruptcy, high insurance rates, and the inability of homebuyers or investors to secure loans, among other topics.

Such expansiveness is not unique to this discussion of Detroit, but nearly required for it. While simple explanations are often attempted, there is quite simply no simple explanation for Detroit’s evolution. Classic works, like Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis, or June Thomas’ Redevelopment and Race weave together the threads of threads of social, economic, and political history needed to tell the story, especially how racial discrimination and public policies shaped opportunity. Thomas in particular describes the many efforts to improve the city, reflecting on which were successful and why.

Leaving the event, I saw an intersection where the city of Ann Arbor had re-constructed the curb last year. The old concrete met the new in perfect alignment, and the repair stood as a visible reminder of the routine maintenance that all cities rely on. Behind it stood detailed databases, contracting laws, and a system of taxation to generate the revenue to pay for the repair. The infrastructure upon which urban life relies is often taken for granted, a point humorously made on comedian John Oliver’s show recently. Beyond infrastructure, cities also reflect system of real estate development, itself a product of systems of law, finance, engineering, and design which make our capitalist civilization possible. The academic term for seeing cities this way — as the product of many separate interlinked processes — is systems thinking.

In the scenario planning class I have been teaching this semester, my students and I are learning exactly how fiendishly complex urban systems can be. Even the most mundane planning choices, such as how to develop a vacant plot of land, can be analyzed using dozens of analysis tools, producing thousands of possible indicators to consider. In the case of Detroit, intelligent explanations of the city’s spatial evolution requires reflecting on the city’s complex systems. Where they are frayed or broken — or in the case of suburban sprawl and socioeconomic segregation, greatly exaggerated — Detroit allows us to see these inner workings in sharp detail. The city’s socioeconomic hardship lays bare what is mundane, and thus invisible, in most cities. (This basic argument is made in a forthcoming work by  Dewar et al. titled “Learning from Detroit: How Research on a Declining City Enriches Urban Studies.”)

However instructive the decline of the center city and sprawling suburbs are, it does not necessarily follow that Detroit will spark alternative models or solutions. Amid the perception of decline, the most common response is nostalgia, the illusion that a return to the past is possible. The title of a wonderful article by planning scholar Howell Baum observes we often need “Forgetting to Plan.” He argues planning thus requires not only data, but the ability for communities to change their relationship with the past, and in doing so see the present and the future in a new light. Beyond this psychological argument, the slow crises of sprawl and decline creates practical roadblocks to innovation. As Joe Grengs eloquently observed at the event, inaccessibility itself has produced a shared regional burden of huge amounts of time wasted in travel. In addition, creativity and the willingness for change are remarkably elusive, easily overlooked or squelched when basic needs are pressing or conflict looms.

Thus we arrive at the paradox of studying urban planning in metropolitan Detroit: no other city presents such an instructive case into the intricate logic of American urbanization, embedded within systems of government, law, industry, and social stratification and segregation. Yet the enormity of the problem saps the region’s ability and will to generate solutions or see see how things might be done differently. Therefore my research strategy remains twofold: to pay careful attention to the Detroit region, even as I continue to look elsewhere for models of good planning — and good cities.

Author: Rob Goodspeed