Politics & Policy

With a Population in Free Fall, Detroit Turns to Planned Shrinkage

Detroit Mayor David Bing has promised to demolish 1,500 abandoned and unsafe houses within the next 90 days, according to the Detroit Free Press.

The decision is one facet of Bing’s greater plan to “rightsize” Detroit, encouraging residents of low-density, failing neighborhoods to move to healthier areas with larger populations. Bing plans to focus the city’s attention and funds on those areas identified as healthy, while slowly decreasing city services to other areas as a means to lower costs.

As of now, 4,500 houses have already been demolished.

By decreasing the city’s footprint, Bing hopes to reduce the cost of infrastructure originally designed to sustain larger populations, following the blueprint for planned shrinkage as implemented in such cities as Flint, Mich.

Dan Kildee, former county treasurer of Flint and co-founder of the Center for Community Progress, recently spoke on the subject at the Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference in New Orleans. Kildee has been a vocal supporter of planned shrinkage on both a local and national level, praising the strategy as a common sense approach to dealing with the unavoidable facts — falling populations and overwhelmed city budgets.

About half as many people live in Detroit today as they did 40 years ago, and with the flight of the auto industry and the collapse of industrial-based economy over the last decade, city officials don’t expect it to be regained any time soon.

What do city officials plan on doing with all the newly vacant space? About a quarter of Detroit is already made up of empty lots — 40 square miles of “urban prairie.”

John Hantz, the owner of a financial services firm, is interested in buying some of this space — as much as over 10,000 acres — to transform into a commercial, for-profit farm. Hantz plans to personally invest $30 million in the land, in exchange for tax breaks on agriculture and free tax delinquent land.

The sale and permission from the city to transform the urban prairie into profitable farmland is still pending, among concerns that Detroit does not have the necessary regulatory systems in place and that Hantz’s proposal violates current zoning. For now, Bing is staying focused on the still-occupied areas of Detroit as he attempts to salvage the remains of the city, reviving Detroit neighborhood by neighborhood.

Tags: infrastructure, economic development, governance, detroit, planned shrinkage, flint, urban farms, david bing, right sizing, john hantz