Building Detroit Back Up May Mean Downsizing Detroit is a vast city of more than 140 square miles. That makes the challenge of "downsizing" the city to fit a smaller population even more daunting. Most of the remaining viable neighborhoods are spread out from each other and clustered around the edges of the city.

Building Detroit Back Up May Mean Downsizing

Building Detroit Back Up May Mean Downsizing

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Detroit is a vast city of more than 140 square miles. That makes the challenge of "downsizing" the city to fit a smaller population even more daunting. Most of the remaining viable neighborhoods are spread out from each other and clustered around the edges of the city.


We're taking time this week to consider the many challenges facing Detroit. One is a shrinking population. Detroit has fewer than half the people it had at its peak. That's left vast stretches of deserted buildings and lots of empty land. Some community groups say their city should be reconfigured in an entirely new way. Michigan Radio's Sarah Cwiek reports.

SARAH CWIEK: Even when Detroit was a city of nearly two million people, it was always a sprawling one. You could fit Boston, San Francisco and Manhattan within Detroit city limits and still have room left over. Now, there's likely about 800,000 people scattered through all of that space. Thirty-five percent of it is just vacant.

(Soundbite of children chattering)

CWIEK: You wouldn't know that if you were just looking at this scene in northwest Detroit on a recent beautiful spring day. Children and parents crowd a shiny new playground in a neighborhood of broad, tree-lined streets with beautiful brick homes built in the 1920s and '30s.

This is the Grandmont Rosedale area, one of Detroit's most vibrant, stable communities.

Mr. TOM GODDEERIS (Executive Director, Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation): Even though we've been a strong neighborhood, it's going to still take effort to keep it that way.

CWIEK: Tom Goddeeris is executive director of the Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation. Driving the streets, he slows down as he approaches one of the very few vacant land parcels in the neighborhood.

Mr. GODDEERIS: We're going to put a tree nursery in here.

CWIEK: Oh, cool.

Mr. GODDEERIS: The intention was to build some more houses there. But we're finding, you know, other productive uses for the land already, on just a small scale.

CWIEK: Goddeeris and other Detroit community leaders hope to reproduce similar efforts on a much larger scale. They have come up with what they call a strategic revitalization framework for the entire city. The framework agrees with the basic downsizing premise. The city must adjust to a shrinking population and concentrate services in dense neighborhoods. But it also insists that every part of the city be in some way repurposed, even if it's consciously turned back over to nature. Stronger areas like Grandmont, Rosedale would remain traditional residential neighborhoods. But some blighted areas would undergo radical transformation.

Ms. MAGGIE DESANTIS (Executive Director, Warren/Conner Development Coalition): What you're going to start to see, this is still a little bit industrial but look at right here. I mean, this is just a crime that this is allowed to happen.

CWIEK: Maggie DeSantis is president of the Warren Conner/Development Coalition on Detroit's eastside. And the crime she's talking about is a bunch of tires scattered in the street. This part of the city is littered with abandoned factories, trash-filled vacant lots and burned out homes. In some areas, the vacancy rate approach is 80 percent. Still, you can turn a corner and come upon a nice looking residential neighborhood seemingly out of nowhere. But DeSantis says it's often a two or three square block island in a sea of blight.

Ms. DESANTIS: You'll get a few blocks in a row of, you know, good dense housing and then you'll see two or three blocks that have just collapsed and, you know, some crack house took over, some drug dealers took over, people started getting afraid and they left.

CWIEK: DeSantis says the idea is to let data drive land use decisions, but she admits that will lead to some close judgment calls. She says the long-term ideal is a Detroit that offers all kinds of living styles, from sprawling natural landscapes to traditional urban centers.

Ms. DESANTIS: And it either stays that way and it becomes a really unusual city that a lot of people enjoy living in, or it becomes a magnet for more, you know, for people to move back and repopulate. But if we don't handle, now, what's going on now, shame on us.

CWIEK: DeSantis says there will inevitably be some resistance to such a radical reconfiguration. But she says it will be less than most people think if residents are offered enough choices and incentives.

Detroiter Chelsea Davis agrees. She loves her neighborhood on the city's far east side but admits it's an oasis in a largely desolate area.

Ms. CHELSEA DAVIS: That's scary because you, you know, when you invite people from other places you don't want to route them through that way because they're not going to want to come to your home.

CWIEK: Davis argues that the status quo just isn't sustainable anymore.

Ms. DAVIS: I think for a lot of people, especially myself, I want to stay. I don't want to move. I don't want to leave the city, but I do want things to change.

CWIEK: Proponents of the revitalization framework insist that drastic level of change is necessary for Detroit's survival, but they're quick to acknowledge that it won't be easy. In fact, it will amount to urban reinvention on a scale that's never been tried in any American city.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Cwiek, in Detroit.

MONTAGNE: And our series on Detroit continues on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED this evening, with a look at efforts to retrain former autoworkers.

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