Detroit may be bankrupt, but it’s 600 feet above sea level

Last time I wrote about how we all might do better as a "Detroiters" if we stopped dividing ourselves by municipal boundaries and lived more like a region of neighbors. Since then I've seen an even more compelling graphic that illustrates a version of this idea, taken to the next level, where state, and even national boundaries melt away in favor of "megaregional" economies. This view has us sharing common destiny as much with folks in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Indianapolis as folks on either side of Eight Mile Road.
At this scale, Detroit sits squarely in the center of the Great Lakes region, one of the largest of 11 such regions in the United States and Canada. The Regional Plan Association, an urban research institute in New York, suggests as part of its America 2050 project, that there is growing rationale to shift from thinking solely about discrete metropolitan areas, to larger megaregions as, "interlocking economic systems, sharing natural resources and ecosystems, and common transportation systems."
In 50 years time, Detroit seems to be well positioned between the poles of Chicago and Toronto in the constellation of places in the Great Lakes Megaregion. And it would seem to be wise for Detroit and its suburban counterparts to embrace this idea going forward. But since we’re talking about the future, let’s look out a little further. It also worth noting that Detroit, however it’s defined, is especially well positioned in the context of a slightly longer timeframe, say 100 years, and within the context of an issue that promises to have serious and potentially very troubling consequences -- global warming.
Sure, 2114 might seem like a long way off. And it is, sort of. Barring some disturbing advance in cryogenics, everyone reading this post will be gone to a (hopefully) better place, where the Lions win Super Bowls and the Pistons play downtown. But possibly a few of our children, and very likely many of our grandchildren will be alive to witness and contend with a world in the throes of rising tides, where global cities are forced to adapt, or be abandoned, at least in part. It’s incredible to think that places like London, Tokyo or Mumbai could be gone altogether, or hanging on as radically altered landscapes if the worst predictions of climate change come to pass.
In the United States alone, over 300 municipalities, including cities all along the Eastern seaboard and Gulf Coast, as well as stretches of the Pacific coast could be affected. In fact, 3.6 million Americans live in places that are considered "high risk," according to a recent report. And it’s not just coastal areas, as more extreme weather events will negatively have costly consequences across the entire country. Compared to the $18 billion debt load that sent Detroit into bankruptcy, Americans face losses of at least $18 billion every yeardue to weather-related disruptions of just the power grid. Unless there are significant changes, the U.S. will be paying a staggering $2 trillion annually to offset the effects of climate change by 2100.
So how does Detroit fit into this pretty astonishing prediction? Well, pretty well for at least two reasons. The answer is water. And also water. Without dwelling on redundancy more than necessary, it is hard to overstate how fundamental water seems to be in positioning a Detroit -- which will feel more like Memphis -- for our grandchildren in 2114.
Since I’ve been so redundant, I’ll also state the obvious. While Detroit has waterfront, it is not built on the ocean. The city is nearly 600 feet above sea level, which means that the impacts of rising sea levels will be negligible. There is a growing body of often mind-blowing mapscharts, and images to drive home the idea. In fact, the way this piece got started for me was in the check out line at Whole Foods last year, when the cover of National Geographic magazine enticed me with the question, "What if all the ice melted?"
Granted, what National Geographic showed was worst-case scenario, which is more on the order of 5,000 years, where oceans rose 216 feet, with an average temperature of 80 degrees, instead of the current level of 58 degrees. Look grandma, no Florida! Still, it gets you thinking. A little more realistic, but still worrisome, is the online tool, Surging Seas, offered through the nonprofit group Climate Central, a news organization that analyzes and reports on climate science. Here, for different coastal cities you can toggle sea levels to see consequences to population and infrastructure.
To illustrate, I did a worst-case screen shot for New York City and Miami. Just in those two cities alone, impacted population was about 1.25 million, or about the same number of people that left Detroit in the last 50 years. I also looked up Detroit, which returned a "no affected location found" response. Detroit has the benefits of waterfront without the downside of needing to invest billions in seawalls, levees and other infrastructure that places like New York and New Orleans will undoubtedly be paying for in the future.
The second obvious and equally salient point about water and Detroit’s future is this: Detroit has access to a lot of water, and it is not salt water. It is the drinking kind. Detroit finds itself strategically at the heart of a great inland empire of freshwater, at six quadrillion gallons, the lakes represent fully 20 percent of the world’s total, and 84 percent of the surface water supply in North America.
Here's the thing, there is also growing consensus that the more looming threat to society is not so much about where water is, but where it isn't. Especially concerning is access to a constant supply of freshwater, as some estimates indicate that more than 500 million people could face water scarcity in the future, as unrelenting drought in many parts of the world disrupts farming and food production. It's a very scary thought.
And so, as I wrap up this series about how Detroit could do better for itself by doing different in the future, and how a big part of that is simply seeing each other as neighbors to think beyond ourselves, because we share common destiny, I think about our grandchildren in Detroit in the year 2114. What will they see? Will it be a better place, or will they be worse off? Will the David Whitney Building be going through its second major renovation? Will Detroit be known as a greener, more sustainable city that also grew in population, density, and livability? Will the Detroit Lions still be stuck in the doldrums of the NFLs Western Hemisphere Conference?
As the world moves into times that may seem more fraught and uncertain, it would be nice to think that coming out of its well publicized 2013 bankruptcy Detroit began to make big choices and steps toward sustainability that took the state of the world into account. Where we began to leverage our natural assets, as much as any beach, forest or mountain range, as a model for sustainable living. Because my guess is, sooner rather than later, the world will come, and catch onto the idea that Detroit is one of earth’s better long-term investments to sustain life. Let’s get a jumpstart and meet the world halfway.
Francis Grunow is a partner at New Solutions Group, a public policy consulting firm going on three years in the Green Garage. His last piece in this series was What if we really were one Detroit?