Detroit: City of the Future?

Could Detroit be a model for a city of the future? Seems unlikely at first glance. After all, we’re talking about the city that declared bankruptcy in 2013 (the only major city to ever do so).

To begin, what does a city of the future look like? Eric Sanderson’s Mannahatta, a book exploring New York City’s natural history, devotes its final section to an exploration of the future of the city, and he gives this rendering of what the future may hold:


“Mannahatta” – Eric Sanderson

It’s quite a vision. A small, über-urban center, very tall buildings, tram-lined streets, green roofs and balconies. Much of the power comes from sustainable energy. The riverways are clean. Much of suburbia is transformed into park and farmland. Assuming we can avoid nuclear war, cyber catastrophes, gamma rays, or any other prepper fantasies, it’s something to look forward to. In fact, Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore had this to say: “I have always believed that a blighted urban landscape, a concrete jungle destroys the human spirit.” (His policies are why Singapore is sometimes referred to as “the Garden City.”) To anyone who has spent too long in a city, and finally heads up to the country for a weekend, this is all too obvious. However, do we really see this trend occurring, or is it just a pipe-dream?

The answer seems to be… a little. The growth of suburbs after World War II has certainly slowed or stopped altogether. Millennials, while not abandoning the suburbs, seem to prefer urban centers. The Hudson River in New York is cleaner, but not necessarily the place you want to take your family for a summer day swim (thanks to the city’s combined sewage overflow events). What is accelerating everywhere on the globe, however, is general urbanization (defined as moving to a city’s metropolitan area). Rural areas continually empty out, which would be natural first step towards the above process. But the real limiting factor for this vision of the future is population growth. Sure, increased urban population may spur “building up,” but more people means that suburbs aren’t being cleared out. There are too many people to have the luxury of farmland between Manhattan and JFK airport. So, unless population growth slows drastically, that vision is going nowhere.

Except, maybe, in Detroit. Since the 1950s, Detroit has lost approximately sixty percent of its population. We’ve heard stories of entire blighted neighborhoods lying empty, and since 2013, the city of detroit has demolished nearly 40,000 homes. Not only that, the Land Bank of Detroit has instituted the side lots program, where homeowners can purchase adjacent vacant lots for a mere $100, with the hope that they will revitalize and plant it. And apart from the suburban areas, Downtown Detroit is seeing a revitalization. The Q-Line, a new 3.3 mile tram system, is expected to begin operation late this year. Just last week, a plan was approved by the Detroit City Council to build a ten-acre solar field on vacant public property in the west of the city.

Solar panels, trams, large green areas, and old suburbia demolished. Not to mention the dozens of other projects, including a plan to install bike parking all around the city. A few interesting building concepts underway in Detroit can be seen here.

So, yes, it seems that by accident Detroit just may be a model city for the future. The question is, can this model work for a city that hasn’t lost half of its population? I believe the answer is yes, but if we are to see a full chance in our lifetime, it will have to be by intentional urban planning– and the mayor who implements it won’t be popular. As technology improves (like 3-D printing) and building costs are reduced, it can be done conservatively. Of course, whatever we do, we will slowly see it naturally happening… but I know that’s not soon enough for me.

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