My Turn: To Survive, Detroit Needs to 'Right-Size'

During the summer of 2007, I drove every street in Detroit—2,700 miles—for a series of newspaper articles looking at the condition of the city. It was an astonishing experience: every day for four and a half months, I saw people living ordinary American lives amid an extraordinary landscape of abandoned and burned-out homes, factories, schools, and stores in what was once the epicenter of American manufacturing. Even Detroit's many gracious neighborhoods have boarded-up homes, and some blocks are ghost towns in miniature, with house after house empty and crumbling. A number of areas have reverted to pasturelike lands, where trees, tall grasses, wildflowers, and weeds have replaced that which was man-made.

At the time of "Driving Detroit," the plans by Youngstown, Ohio, to shrink itself smartly was starting to get attention. Youngstown is a much smaller city, but I realized then that Detroit needed to do the same thing. Two years later, I'm even more convinced that Detroit should become the nation's biggest city to "right-size."

As Detroit endures the recession and the downward spiral of the auto industry, blight continues to creep across its 138 square miles, despite impressive beachheads of redevelopment (mostly downtown): new stadiums, casinos, hotels, and housing, plus a recent Super Bowl and Final Four. For years political leaders bragged that Detroit was on the verge of "turning around" or "coming back." That never happened.

Today, though, more and more people in leadership positions, including Mayor Dave Bing, are starting to acknowledge the need to stop fantasizing about growth and plan for more shrinkage. Growth is as American an ideal as the capitalistic enterprises that fuel it. So by itself, this admission is a step forward.

It's way overdue. Detroit has been shrinking for 50 years. The city has lost more than half of the 2 million people it had in the early 1950s, but it remains 138 square miles. Experts estimate that about 40 square miles are empty, and Bing has said that only about half the city's land is being used productively.

The next steps are complicated and largely uncharted. Moving residents into more densely populated districts has legal and moral implications; it must be done with care and the input of those who would be moved. And what do you do with the empty space? The city is already dotted with big vegetable gardens, and one entrepreneur has proposed starting a large commercial farm. Some people advocate bike paths, greenways, and other recreation areas. Surrounded by fresh water, and buffeted by nature reasserting itself on land where factories used to be, Detroit could someday be the greenest, most livable urban area in the country. A city can dream, can't it?