Shrinking Detroit while retaining its social capital

Flickr photo by buckshot.jones

Detroit faces a painful decision.  Its population has crumbled over the last decade, shedding 25% of its residents (or 235,000 people).  What was once the fourth largest city in America in 1920 and which had nearly 2 million residents in 1950, now has only 713,777 residents.  As the NY Times observes, “Detroit is now smaller than Austin, Tex., Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla.”

The challenge is that people, as one might expect, are not neatly leaving from one or two neighborhoods, instead leaving vacant lots scattered throughout a 139 square mile city.  This complicates government’s ability to police, educate, collect trash, etc. all with lower tax revenue.  (Vacancy rates are obviously highest in general in the downtown area and in the east side, areas generally inhabited by poorer and less educated residents.)

The Mayor is trying to figure out how to demolish 10,000 structures, given that there is a 20% vacancy rate in housing across the city.

The challenges are two-fold: 1) the city lacks any power of eminent domain to force these people to leave but the city plans to focus its investments on neighborhoods it considers more vibrant and healthy; and 2) the city doesn’t seem to focus on what the “social capital” consequences will be of all these people moving.  In fact, they seem to be measuring almost everything except for that, tracking “population densities, foreclosed homes, disease, parks, roads, water lines, sewer lines, bus routes, publicly owned lands, and on and on.”  The city may also cut back services to these less “viable” neighborhoods.

We should bear in mind the horrible lessons of slum clearing in the 1950s where “slum” neighborhoods like Boston’s West End were razed to build new housing.  Herbert Gans in his book Urban Villagers details the high social cost of this ill-conceived experiment as thousands of social ties and the vibrant life of this community was extinguished.  It seems like Detroit Mayor Dave Bing would be wise to hire some ethnographers or social networks students to map out people’s social networks and identify sociometric clusters of individuals that could be encouraged to move together; this would maximize the happiness and sense of engagement of those who moved and minimize the social costs from dislocated friendships.

Of course, even if Mayor Bing does this, one overarching question of the Detroit plan is whether poor residents will largely be asked to move to more affluent neighborhoods, and if so, how they will be able to afford this, and what the city will do to try to build more bridging social capital between the existing residents and the new in-movers.

See “The Odd Challenge for Detroit Planners” (NY Times, 4/5/11)

See maps of where demolitions are proposed: (NY Times graphic, 4/5/11)

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