Detroit: The Next American Ghost Town?

Urbanist and Author
Richard Florida worries about the notion that you can rebuild Detroit around an urban farm. Why would you turn a great city into a cornfield?
  • Transcript


Question: Will Americans ever get over their dependence on automobiles? 

Richard Florida: I think we’re already seeing Americans start to get over their dependence on the automobile, and on the big house, in certainly the surveys of younger people. I was just looking at the data the other day. About 67 percent of Americans own their house, but the lowest rate in a long time, of people under 35, only 38 percent, now they’re young. 38 percent of people under 35 own their house. When you look at surveys of younger people, younger Americans, they don’t want the house. My students tell me this all the time, they don’t want the debt. They don’t want the space that they’re not going to use, that’s just there to impress people. They don’t want two, three cars. Actually the studies show that if you want to look at who saves versus the spends? The people who save are the ones who don’t have cars. Cars are killers, one in two and three of those are killers for family budgets. So younger people are already saying, “Enough’s enough! I’ll use a ZIP car, I might have one car, it’ll be a small car, we may carpool and share. “ 

And I think one of the things that we’re going to have to do is remake our geography. It’s not that we’re going to live out there in the suburbs with no car and try to get around on our bicycles. I think what’s happening now is 60 percent of Americans say if they had a choice, they’d want to live in a walk-able community. And I think we have kind of a false choice now. And I think it’s one of the things that’s really important about the next great reset and the next spatial fix. 

People think, well we’re either going to move back to the city, or we’re going to go to the suburb and they’re in conflict. There’s a suburban way of life and there’s the urban way of life, and this has been played out in so many conversations and narratives. The suburban and rural versus the urban, it’s part of our history. I think what’s actually happened is, in some ways, and I say this gently, that conflict doesn’t exist. Many of our cities are becoming more suburban, and I say that gently. I had a caller today on an NPR Show saying, “My neighborhood in Brooklyn is starting to look less edgy and all these people with strollers and I feel like I live in an older, inner-ring suburb.” Well, that’s true! Cities are becoming safer, they’re becoming more family friendly. Where I live in Toronto, it’s a completely family friendly city, with young people, old people, immigrant families, wealthy families, low income families... But our cities in the United States are becoming more family friendly, many of them, and they need to do more, need to fix their schools and so forth. At the same time, our suburbs are becoming more urbanized. When I lived in greater Washington, D.C., it wasn’t only the District of Columbia that was becoming changed and transformed or perhaps overly gentrified: Arlington, Virginia; Bethesda, Maryland; and then Tyson’s Corner, the old, what they called the Boom Burg, the Ex-Urb, the Edge City—it was trying to make itself a more walkable, mixed live/work/learn/play community; Silver Spring, and Prince George’s County, largely African-American, or predominantly African-American, trying to remake as walkable, denser communities around transit. 

In some ways, the history of capitalism is really a history of the more intensive and expansive use of land and space. So what we’re seeing is, what we used to think of city versus suburb is going away and we’re getting denser, more mixed, more—and I think this is a 20 or 30-year process—the word I use for this, is we’re going to see the birth of the "mega-region." The mega-region. We grew up with "metropolis," the city and the suburb, New York and its suburbs, LA and it’s suburbs, San Francisco, Chicago and their suburbs, that hinterland. Now, I think we’re seeing these more large-scale units, like the New York/Boston/Washington corridor, the mega-region that runs throughout northern California, Cascadia from Portland to Seattle to Vancouver, across the border. Where I live that goes from Toronto to Buffalo to Rochester, up to Ottawa, across to Montreal. And then Char-Atlanta, you know, from Charlotte to Atlanta. These mega-regions are becoming much more integrated economic units, and over time, I think that’s what we’re looking at, a denser place where, yes, certain parts of it are more city, certain parts are more suburban, but its much more of an integrated economic field, if you will. 

Question: What do you envision for Detroit? 

Richard Florida: Looking at the new economic geography and the new economic landscape of America, suggests that two types of communities in the United States have been very, very hard hit by this economic reset and actually this shift has been going on for a long time. I often say that the world is not flat: it’s not that the world is becoming more spread out, in fact, the world is becoming more concentrated and spiky and our economic geography is becoming much more uneven. In fact, our economic inequality, our class, economic class, is becoming reflected in our geography. 

I think on the one hand, the Sun Belt cities, the cities of the sand, that really thought they could be built around real estate, whether it was Miami in Southern Florida or whether it was Phoenix, whether it was Las Vegas, the Inland Empire in California, whatever. People sort of believed real estate could become an economy, that you could grow an economy by moving and selling and shifting around real estate and those economies had 30, 35, 40 percent of their people working in or around real estate construction, real estate finance, real estate deals. That’s over. That’s over. And those economies are working hard and I believe they can rebuild themselves. Even Las Vegas, around conferencing and business networking, global conference center, and then gaming technology. 

And the other one that was hard hit were the old Rust Belt centers. Detroit is the poster child; it by no means has the highest rate of unemployment. Other cities in Michigan have higher: Flint. In Ohio, Toledo. In Elkhart Indiana. Many of these old rust belt auto-dependent, heavy industry towns have been buffeted because of the off-shoring and the movement of manufacturing work, not only it’s becoming more automated, but the movement to China and other places. The reality is those places are hard hit. They’ve lost their economic reason and I lived in Pittsburgh for 20 years, I saw what happened when Pittsburgh lost its steel industry. And for years and years and years, Pittsburgh thought it could protect its steel industry and go to Washington and put up tariff barriers and somehow we’re going to rebuild. And people finally accepted the fact that steel was going to be a much smaller part of the economy, they had to rebuild around universities, high tech, Carnegie-Mellon, the University of Pittsburgh. And the other thing that these cities, and in Detroit, with the auto bail-outs, the idea that auto can be, it’ll come back... it can’t. It’s certainly a part of the economy and the economy has robust research and technology and design in automotive and it has... what’s nice, it has globalization, so global headquarters have come in and Fiat and the Korean manufacturers and Japanese, but it’ll never be the manufacturing backbone that it was and you can’t prop that back up. 

But the other mistake those cities make is they think that they can rebuild in a quick fix, silver bullet. And the thing that really drove me crazy in Pittsburgh, and I see it in Detroit. "We’re going to build a new baseball stadium and that’s going to bring our city back. We’re going to build a new football stadium. No, we need a convention center. You know, a casino now. The casino’s going to bring the city back with two hotels attached to it." It’s insane. That stuff just, it’s like just burning money. 

So what happens, of course, and I think what will happen... what happened in Pittsburgh, is people said, "Well, what can work to build our city?" Focus on research, technology, build our clusters, but also help to strengthen the neighborhoods, adaptive reuse, historic preservation, all these small things, arts and culture, begin—and one economic developer, I quote him in the book said, “If you believe that you can bring back these industries with mega projects, move to China.” That’s where all the big, industrial mega projects have gone. Economic development today is about literally hundreds and thousands of little things that you do to slowly and cumulatively at the neighborhood and community level. Building partnerships involving universities, building clusters, many, many small things that accumulate, that create some economic viability. It’s the stuff Jane Jacobs, the great urbanist, called just plain old "good urbanism." That’s what Detroit has to do and in the book, I talk about all the assets Detroit has. It has a spectacular airport. That’s still a hub for global commerce. It is the 11th largest region in the country, it’s still much bigger than Pittsburgh ever was. It has large constellations of human capital in many of its outlying regions. I talk about Birmingham, Michigan having a similar level of Bethesda, Maryland. It has spectacular universities like Wayne State, it has the Cranbrook Academy, the center of modern design, industrial design, and furniture design. It has two of the greatest research universities on the planet, very close by at Ann Arbor and Lansing, the University of Michigan and Michigan State. And it has a fabulous design/architecture community, creative energy in its low income communities, a tremendous, really resilient African-American community, a phenomenal Arabic community that will do anything to save and pitch in... but it has this legacy of musical talent that is just incredible and it continues to propulsively create new musical styles. 

All of those things add up to kind of creativity and innovation being in Detroit’s DNA. But it’s not going to come from a federal bail-out from the auto industry, it’s not going to come from a big casino and convention and stadium project, it’s going to come from really the small-scale efforts that when people are empowered, where neighborhoods are empowered. I do worry. And I’m so passionate about this, because my wife’s family, they all live there and I visit so much and I so care about Detroit. I think there’s some mistakes being made, I think this idea that you can grow a city by shrinking it, I don’t like it. And a woman named Roberta Gratz has just written a fantastic piece on this, it’s on my Web site if people want a link to it, about the urban renewal and shrinking cities has never, demolishing things, that’s always been an abomination. Where those bulldozers have gone has been a disaster. 

And the other thing that really worries me, although I believe that you can do some level of farming, I think it’s nice and people have a garden and a roof garden, the idea that you can rebuild Detroit around an urban farm. Why would you turn a great city into a corn field? And I’m not trying to be overly dramatic, but the whole approach just strikes me as bizarre. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have more urban farming, that you shouldn’t have more urban gardening, that sustainability is critical, but the idea that Detroit is going to somehow come back by shrinking into oblivion, annihilating neighborhoods and starting urban farms, when you have some of the greatest research universities on the planet, some of the greatest design talent, where you have people with manufacturing knowhow in that community... it all has a role. But the ideas that are being discussed just leave me so perplexed and I find that now some of us urbanists are beginning to speak out and say, but I think that Detroit can be rebuilt and the lessons there—you can learn from Europe, you can learn from Pittsburgh—they’re going to come from empowering people and neighborhoods and communities and as I said, not giving big federal bail-outs or big state bail-outs to all declining industries or all declining sports stadiums. 

Recorded on April 27, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman