Immigration and the Shrinking City

Detroit is shrinking.


Population shrinkage in core cities is not in itself unusual in the suburbanized environments we live in, but it has become a growing concern throughout the world. In fact, it is a relatively common phenomenon in American cities. It is the scale of population loss that makes Detroit stand out. Detroit has lost more population than the size of the eleventh largest city in America — which is Detroit!


The German Federal Cultural Foundation has funded a worldwide study of shrinking cities focusing on four cities: Detroit; Leipzig, Germany; Manchester, England; and Olivana, Russia. The first part of the study — the analysis portion — will soon be available in English. Three important facts are clear already: Detroit is not alone; there will be no quick fixes; and the issue is not just local but also regional. That is why Detroit’s elected officials must take a very long view of the turnaround that is needed for Detroit to survive and prosper into the 21st Century — a view that is bigger than a single mayoral term and broader than just Detroit or Wayne County, a view that looks beyond winning back those who’ve left in favor of attracting new residents from abroad.


Urban sprawl and the ensuing expensive roadway and utility systems and the destruction of natural resources are just a few of the consequences of this shrinkage. Unfortunately, traditional urban planning textbooks do not have the answer. Planning in this country is taught based on the American tradition of “growth at all costs” and “build it, they will come.” This may be OK (but really isn’t) for cities like Phoenix or Las Vegas – but what about cities like Detroit that are losing population at the rate of 10,000 people per year regardless of our best efforts?


Academics have put forth utopian and theoretical proposals for Detroit that would substantially increase the amount of park land, turn Detroit into an agrarian community, fencing off part of the city for “wilderness,” or make Detroit of a density that is even lower than that found in suburbia. These proposals deal with land issues, but they miss the primary issue of economics. Heroic, self-sufficient individuals are transforming portions of the city into sustainable environments, but how can the city as a whole survive without jobs and economic growth? The American capitalist system relies on economic growth, and any proposal that does not address that issue is doomed. The question might be, then, how can we make the city grow in the face of racism, the loss of automotive jobs and the declining quality of the city infrastructure?


Over the past several decades Detroit’s white population has shrunk, and the city lost some African-Americans to the suburbs, but numbers of Asian, Hispanic and Middle Eastern immigrants have increased. This gain in the 1990s (40,000 people) could not offset white flight, but it did make a significant difference.


At the turn of the 20th century until the Great Depression, Detroit experienced unparalleled growth through immigration — so much so that planners predicted Detroit would easily surpass Chicago in population by 1935. This growth was fueled by the jobs created by the automobile industry, as well as the images of a beautiful treed city where home ownership was the highest in the nation and everyone had a car.


In the past decade, the northern cities in America that have experienced growth — such as Minneapolis and New York – accomplished that growth through international immigration.


But where are the jobs? America’s job market no longer depends on the manufacturing industry. Portland, Ore., for example, has no major manufacturing industry and relies heavily on the service industry for income — a sort of self fulfilling world of population growth, quality of life, growth in service jobs, attractiveness to multiple small scale companies, renewed population growth, etc.


Although we no longer have a robust automobile industry to attract immigration to Detroit, we certainly have a strong job market in Southeastern Michigan, including a growing service industry, and medical- and automotive-related research and development. The problem is that Detroiters lack the means – namely, education and transportation -- to access those jobs.


Therefore, one long-term approach to attacking the city’s shrinkage is to begin a number of vigorous strategies that are interrelated and are somewhat “chicken and egg” scenarios.


First, attract an increased number of immigrants to Detroit through an internationally based homestead program. A city the size of San Francisco could fit in the total area of Detroit’s empty buildings and vacant lots — and these valuable commodities are largely owned by the city. We should spend this space commodity by inviting people to live in our city. This alone creates vitality and creates jobs. The quality that Detroit has, more than all the suburbs, is cultural diversity, and that is what attracts people to world-class cities. Think Devon Street in Chicago, Chinatown in San Francisco, the mosaic of cultures scattered all over New York City. And where would Detroit’s own downtown be without it’s Greek immigrants and their successful business district of restaurants and shops?


Second, create and interconnect the regional transportation system to help correct the mismatch between the location of jobs and the homes of Detroiters — this mismatch is the greatest of any city in the United States. Express regional bus systems, new light rail systems or even house-to-job van services are all being used successfully in other cities.


Third, dramatically overhaul our K-12 educational system in Detroit. We cannot compete in a global marketplace that is outsourcing jobs to much better educated populaces in Asia, Africa, South America and Europe. Minimally, we should be training our students to access the jobs of the global Internet network of services. Transforming an educational system of the scale of Detroit’s is certainly not easily accomplished but we must have a goal of being competitive in the world.


Fourth, explore a new base of jobs that competes directly with offshore enterprises by using and expanding already existing enterprise zones and other new programs that can attract employers to the city to take advantage of the labor market.


Finally, have a clear strategy for creating quality of life amenities in the city not based only upon expediency or on the primacy of the automobile, such as bike and pedestrian paths, maintained parks and enhanced cultural facilities.


This is a tall order and some would argue that this is already what we are trying to do. The x-factor, however, is immigration — a concerted effort to bring new people to the city. A vision, a creative and unique plan and long-term persistence are what we need to rebuild a great Detroit.

Stephen Vogel is dean of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture. He is also a founding principal of Schervish Vogel Consulting Architects and SVM Development Corp. His practice is focused on urban redevelopment, including the Harmonie Park area of Detroit where SVM has redeveloped five buildings. The Harmonie Park project earned a national award from the American Institute of Architects for Regional and Urban Design.

All Photos by Dave Krieger

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