The vanishing city

We live in an increasingly urbanized age.  For the first time in the history of man, more people live in cities than not.  China’s meteoric economic growth has been fueled by the large rural migrants taking city factory jobs, while gentrification and revitalization has transformed downtowns into livable areas, New York being the most obvious case.  A housing bubble collapse has made suburbs and exurbs less fashionable while the environmental movement sees more and more young people flocking to “green” living in cities.

So when the numbers came out today that Detroit had lost 25% of its population, I was stunned.  To clarify, the difference between the 2000 and 2010 census for the city of Detroit (not its metro area) shows a 25% drop.

If any city epitomizes this recession it’s the Motor City.  A city that bet it all on its hometown auto industry, it’s seen foreign competitors and entrenched unions chip away at that prosperity.  Being one of the largest cities in land area, Detroit has had to stretch its infrastructure and utilities budget further than most.  But to think one-quarter of its population got up and simply abandoned their neighbors is shocking.

Part of this was purposeful.  The mayor, Dave Bing, made a conscious decision not to spend money assisting in the census.  Usually, cities spend a decent amount of money encouraging their citizens to fill out the forms and meet with census workers.  The motivation is clear: more people mean more federal dollars and greater representation (which means even more dollars).  For the 2010 census, Detroit had only its churches and community groups putting the extra effort, so its likely the loss is only slightly less dramatic.

I admire mayor Bing and that tough decision.  He believes federal funds aren’t going to be what saves Detroit, even though two of its major employers found solace in bailouts.  Instead, Bing has used the opportunity to be frank about the need to cut services and redevelop an inner core, to build a new Detroit rather than wait to be rescued.  Wild ideas like urban farms have become serious national talking points and encouraged innovators to at least look at the area.  Taking a cue from its mayor, we are beginning to see the city and its state find an inner strength and pride in these trying times.

In an urban world, we may start to see the rise of the city-state governing structure with mayors gaining increasing control.  Cities like Detroit will have to play fast and loose and give daring yet competent mayors new powers to break the institutionalized impediments that have slowly drained them.  He can take a cue from Bloomberg’s deft touch on New York, bringing innovative ideas to education; DC’s former mayor Fenty who took on the teacher’s unions and won; and Chicago’s Daly who’s heavy handed decades-reign transformed Chicago from another rust-belt city into a city in the ranks of New York and San Francisco.

Media type: Podcast
From: NPR 7AM News Summary
Title: NPR News: 03-23-2011 7AM ET
Listen at: NPR