Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Reimagining Detroit

Here's a book I got for Christmas, Reimagining Detroit. What bothers me is that he basically says how Detroit can't be this fantasy city that will rise from the ashes like other books tout, and then goes on to elaborate (and useless) scenarios. In a nutshell, part of the book is realistic and addresses real problems, and some parts aren't. Let's start with the positive: a significant part of the book is about urban gardening in vacant lots and its benefits, including some drawbacks like:

- The soil in Detroit has all sorts of broken glass and trash, that is, if the soil isn't poisoned with toxic heavy metals
- Not a lot of people: people with jobs, young people, really want to do urban farming
- A lack of a local food economy

It also talks about how Detroit itself (not even counting the suburbs like Grosse Pointe or Dearborn) is huge. Boston, San Francisco, and Manhattan could all fit rather comfortably in the city limits. This sprawling size allows it to become more of an urban/suburban/rural hybrid, complete with large yards, lots of wildlife (enough to be hunted, even), and room for neighborhood parks.

Unfortunately, for every good part of the book, there's a bad side.

For example, it has a chapter on "Road Diets", and how the roads can be altered to make them more pedestrian-friendly. He also mentions converting some of the outside lanes on the main Detroit roads into bike lanes, which is pretty worthless if no one rides bikes, plus the pavement is so awful in Detroit that it would be difficult anyway. Some of the problems he mentions, like how seniors and parents with children find it very difficult to cross the huge roads before the light changes can simply be fixed by installing pedestrian crossings at major intersections. By simply reducing the lanes people need to cross, it also encourages jaywalking, which is never a good thing.

There's also a section about roundabouts, but while the cost savings of installing roundabouts vs. intersections is debatable, there is a downside. Sure, roundabouts cost nothing to run and maintain and it does slow down traffic, but there's always the dark side to slowing down traffic, specifically, emergency vehicle response times, which in a city with a decent amount of crime is bad (also bad: a city just about bankrupt). Bottom line: it's a bad, delusional idea.

There's another section about "daylighting" streams, streams that were simply buried with dirt (causing flooding and sewage problems) and restoring them. The problem is, while he gives plenty of examples in other cities, from St. Paul to Kalamazoo (Michigan) to Seoul, a rather large creek is buried underneath Detroit, and daylighting it would be a tremendous cost that the city simply cannot afford (or would want to do).

The more pressing problems, like the financial problems of Detroit (which is a complicated process in itself) simply isn't mentioned. It does address some ideas are not realistic, like a retail mecca downtown or a big Internet company establishing a branch.

The other thing that was left out entirely is how some people living in Detroit simply don't care, and are nothing but a hindrance to the city's overall development. Even in some of the better neighborhoods, a foreclosed home selling for cheap will be stripped of EVERYTHING of value. We're not just talking about copper wiring, here: these people will steal even the siding off of the front, and in plain view. These aren't the type of people that are willing to band together and make their neighborhood a better community. These are people who would rob the corner liquor store.

Overall, Reimagining Detroit really has little to separate it from the pack, with only a list of ideas grounded by the fact that most of them won't work.


  1. Cool review. I guess it's a chicken-and-egg scenario: how can you even make improvements when you have no funding, and how can you increase your tax base without people moving into an improved city?

    1. You could always do the "SimCity" method: set taxes to zero to encourage growth, then crank up the tax rate when everyone's settled in.