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Rebuilding Detroit

Gregory Harris, LASN

Downtown Detroit, highlighted by the Renaissance Center - now home to GM's world headquarters - hides the increasingly barren city in this view from neighboring Windsor, Ontario Canada. The city's population dropped 25 percent from the years 2000 to 2010.
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Monarch Stone Int'l Came America

In the heyday of Detroit, the Motor City's population was well over one million residents. After World War II, the automobile industry was booming. Detroit was a major metropolitan area with more than 1.8 million residents according to the 1950 census.

Detroit was consistently the fourth or fifth most populous city from the 1920s through the 1970s, dropping to the sixth largest city in the 1980s and seventh largest in the 1990s. As the auto industry moved its manufacturing plants out of Michigan and residents moved to the suburbs, Detroit's population dropped. The 2010 census has Detroit as the 18th largest city with 713,777 residents.

Large sections of Detroit that used to be neighborhoods are now barren. NASA Astronaut and Detroit Native Jerry Linenger proposes transforming these areas into forested green belts that separate the city from the suburbs.

Although the population has dropped, the city's 139 square miles of land has remained the same, resulting in large swaths of vacant land. Although swift, the population decline was slow enough for city leaders to plan for the future by tearing down old buildings and revitalizing older neighborhoods. Unfortunately, this did not happen and as a result, many areas of the city resemble a vast wasteland. (When the city had 1.8 million residents, the population density was about 13,249 residents per square mile. Now, it's 5,136 people per square mile.)

Growing up in Detroit, I am shocked by the images of the city in the 21st Century, though not surprised that the city is in its current condition. Like many, my family moved from Detroit to the suburbs - this was 1978 - and I recall seeing some areas of the city with vacant homes and businesses back then. (One glaring example is the old Packard Plant which closed in 1956 but still sits abandoned today).

I moved away from the Detroit area in the mid 1980s to attend college out of state and at that time, the city still had more than 1.2 million residents. Plans were always pitched to revitalize the city, but these ideas rarely came to fruition. If a sensible plan ever made it from the conceptual stage to reality, landscape architects and landscape contractors would undoubtedly play a key role in the revitalization.

Jerry Linenger, an astronaut who flew on three space shuttle missions and spent 132 days on the International Space Station, recently penned an editorial in The Detroit News comparing the changes being made by NASA after the retirement of the space shuttle fleet and changes necessary to rebuild Detroit.

Detroit has many nice neighborhoods that are not too far from the barren areas. Several plans for the city have called from residents living in some of the more barren areas to be relocated to the established neighborhoods in an effort to have a more concentrated city.

Linenger, also a native Detroiter, described retiring the shuttle fleet as "a tough decision for NASA that boiled down to economics: You cannot build the next generation spacecraft without phasing out the present one."

He went on to say the you cannot be bold and move technology and mankind forward without letting go of the past.

"Use your limited resources -- brainpower, engineering facilities and budget -- wisely. Short-term sacrifice (the inability of the U.S. to send a person to space for perhaps as long as five years) for long-term progress (the ability to send an astronaut to Mars and beyond)."

In the opinion piece, Linenger said Detroit needs to make tough choices and institute bold changes in order to move forward.

"Let's be blunt: Detroit proper will never be a two million-person city. Detroit was north of 900,000 people in 2000, but the 2010 census shows us at just over 700,000. Less tax base, less revenue, tougher decisions," he said. "From the space perspective, Detroit is just too big, too sprawling. It has swallowed up some of the most fertile land in Michigan with ever-expanding city and suburbs. Blight, with more to come (60,000 home foreclosures since 2005, 1.5 percent of the U.S. total, according to Forbes) rims the inner city. Cuts have already been made, businesses and individuals are already making sacrifices to the limit of their endurance, and huge challenges persist."

Linenger's solution incorporates some of the changes that were proposed by Detroit Mayor Dave Bing earlier this year. One change that Bing recommended was moving residents from sparsely populated neighborhoods to areas that are more concentrated.

"Take a map of Detroit. Starting at the Renaissance Center, draw a 3.5-mile radius arc. Then draw another arc at a 7-mile radius. Within that territory identify large blocks of land, in at least one-mile by one-mile squares, that are in extremis," Linenger opined. "Be bold, uncompromising, honest and non-sentimental. I suspect you could find quite a few squares. Now identify contiguous ones, and preferably land adjacent to the major arteries that flow into Detroit, such as Gratiot, Woodward, I-94 and I-75."

He continued, "Sit down with forest product companies. Offer the land for sale or 100-year lease. Let them plant trees, tear down old structures (and perhaps hire scrap metal or recycling companies if it's economically feasible) and remove roads. Make this project attractive for them by getting out of their way and keeping regulation to a minimum. Make it clear that they are not building parks but building a business. Close freeway exit ramps to those areas."

Linenger and Bing believe relocating residents to more viable neighborhoods will allow the city to concentrate city services to these areas rather than providing public works and emergency services to sparse areas.

Linenger's ultimate goal for Detroit in his plan is to have a green space surrounding Detroit shrinking the footprint of the city to a more manageable size. The green space would serve as a border between Detroit and the suburbs, but not a negative border as 8 Mile Road turned out to be.

The plan is bold but Detroit leaders need to act rather than talk. I think the time is right (and has been for 20 years) for an aggressive plan like this to happen. As landscape architects and landscape contractors, what do you think? Can a bold plan like this work? Please click on the link at the bottom of this article to give us your opinion.

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December 11, 2019, 1:12 pm PDT

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