With Miles Of Blight, What's The Best Way To Reimagine Detroit?

Melissa Block talks to Dan Kinkead, executive director of Detroit Future City, about how the sprawling and bankrupt city can start from scratch and reimagine its liabilities into assets.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In Detroit, scenes of urban blight are everywhere: blocks of dilapidated houses with only a handful still occupied, huge swaths of the city with storefronts boarded up, paint peeling. Detroit's population has fallen from a peak of nearly two million in its heyday to about a third of that, 700,000, and it's estimated that 20 square miles of city land lies vacant.

Well, with the city now declaring bankruptcy, this question is once again facing urban planners: What's the best way to shrink Detroit? We're going to ask Dan Kinkead about that. He's executive director of Detroit Future City. That's a citywide planning effort to guide the transformation of Detroit. Dan Kinkead, welcome to the program.

DAN KINKEAD: Thank you.

BLOCK: And what do you think about the notion of shrinking Detroit, first of all? Is that an idea that you say, well, that's absolutely what we need to do?

KINKEAD: Well, I think it's a bit of a misnomer in some ways. You know, we're truly not focused on shrinking the city. We don't really think, you know, that's something we need to work toward. But, in fact, what we really need to do is to begin to make key decisions within our city much more strategically and in a much more coordinated fashion in a way in which the city, once at the center of the American Industrial Revolution, can return to a moment where it can actually provide a value proposition to its residents and to its businesses.

BLOCK: Well, Detroit is a huge, sprawling city. It was designed to hold those two million people we talked about, about 140 square miles total. And you do hear this, that Boston, Manhattan and San Francisco could all fit into Detroit with room to spare. So don't you have to, at some point, think about, we need to make the city physically smaller, the boundaries need to change?

KINKEAD: Right. I mean, I can understand that proposition, but, of course, it's not really achievable. The city cannot shrink. Its political border will remain what it is. But what we have to really do is re-evaluate how we use our land in the city. Today, as you're noting, there are many parts of our city in which we have tremendous degrees of low density, right, high vacancy overall.

These are areas in which you have one, two or three homes on a given block in a significant area. We need to understand that the quality of life in these areas is compromised, that we need to do things today to affect that quality of life, and we need to begin to reconsider how we utilize the land. How can that land be utilized, for instance, to be more productive, to grow food or to grow energy?

And where we grow food, how can that provide employment opportunities for a wider array of Detroiters and connect it with food processing, transportation, distribution and logistics networks that can provide additional opportunities coming out of that?

BLOCK: This idea has been out there for some time, which is that you should really think about relocating people. If you're going to make Detroit work, you need to consolidate where people live. Do you think that's a good idea?

KINKEAD: Yes. Largely we believe that that is a good idea, but it's an idea that needs to have its genesis from within the community itself. This is not a project that puts out an active relocation strategy at all.

With that being said, we want Detroiters to kind of evaluate where they would want to live. They need to have that choice. It's an important part of being here. But as they do it, we want to make sure that folks have options. And already in some communities here, folks are considering this in our Brightmoor neighborhood, on our northwest side, an area that is really defined by a high vacancy in some degrees of struggle. There, that neighborhood is actually beginning to outline ways in which neighbors can do housing swaps to kind of consolidate the population a little bit.

BLOCK: And what about if people don't want to move? I was reading a column in The Washington Post by a native Detroiter, Keith Richburg. And he talked about old-time residents who say they never plan to move even though they say city services are virtually nonexistent and most of the neighbors are gone. They're proud, and they're stubborn, and they won't move.

KINKEAD: Right, right. And, you know, we understand that. We would hope that all Detroiters, myself being one, would evaluate our options and understand what's not only best for us but what's best for our city at large. I mean, we need to recognize that there is a real high cost to serve those populations that live in these higher vacancy areas. In fact, up to five, to six, to seven times the cost to serve one home in a high vacancy area as it is to serve a home in a regular density area.

There are challenges that are posed there, but it's important that people have the option. And ultimately, the land use regulation that we have within the city of Detroit does need to change. It needs to accommodate different land uses, particularly in these areas, but folks will always have the opportunity to stay where they are if they choose so.

BLOCK: And when you talk about cost to serve, are you talking about things like garbage removal, snow removal, things like that?

KINKEAD: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. You know, there are a number of parts of the city in which people lived and now they don't. Those same systems exist, right? So there are one to two homes in a scattershot of blocks across the city that requires police and fire protection. There are streetlights there. There is trash pickup that's there. There are all the other city services that go along with being in a city that are still provided there, and that's what leads to that kind of exponential rise in the cost to serve.

And at the same time, in many cases, these households, the tax revenue that comes off of them is near a 20th of what might be gained in other parts of the city. And so you really have a cost and revenue mismatch, which we need to objectively look at and understand how we can begin to correct that moving forward.

BLOCK: This isn't a new conversation for Detroit, right? I mean, this has been a process that's been going on for decades in terms of the decline. A lot of discussion has happened about the way forward. Do you get the sense that there really is an appetite and motivation and the means to really transform the city, to make it into something else?

KINKEAD: We do. We really do. I mean, look, I'll be honest. I don't think anyone has been in this position before, so no one has a clear understanding exactly how this is going to turn out.

But I can tell you here within the city, there is a groundswell of action from really dramatic growth within our core business districts here to strong neighborhoods emerging with their own programs, a focus on key policy changes that have to occur, a new form of governance coming in here with counsel now being elected by districts this fall and a new mayor. The opportunities are all around us.

And this is a point of time for every Detroiter to actually, you know, write their own story, to write the new narrative about our city, to write about where we're going in the future and not about what we're trying to escape from in our past.

BLOCK: Dan Kinkead is executive director of Detroit Future City. Dan, thanks so much for talking with us.

KINKEAD: You got it. Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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