It’s a pretty sad situation when a city plans on downsizing to embody the future.

But that is what Detroit Mayor Dave Bing plans on doing in the near future. Plagued with neighborhoods almost entirely vacant, thousands of vacant and abandoned properties, unmaintained infrastructure and services spread too thin for a city that was designed for over two million but only contains 900,000. As of 2009, there were 33,000 vacant houses in the city.

The process began in April 2008, the city announced a multi-million dollar project to help kickstart a neighborhood stabilization program by targeting six specific locales, such as East English Village, Osborn and the North-End, and helping foster new growth and development as a manner to increase the tax base and provide new jobs and income. Private organizations and corporations stepped up to provide additional funding.

Data for the project was funded by Living Cities, a collection of philanthropic foundations and financial institutions. Next Detroit Neighborhood Initiative, which that was founded by former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick in 2007 as a division of the city but since transformed into a privately funded non-profit, used the data to devise a plan on which neighborhoods should receive “time and expenditures.”

Many were skeptical of the project, insisting that it left out many desperate neighborhoods in favor of a select few, but others contended that it was the only sure-shot way to slow the bleed of population out of the city. Immigrants are being counted as part of the revitalization process, already playing a big factor in the development of Mexicantown and other thriving ethnic neighborhoods.

City Council President Pro Tem Gary Brown acknowledged that there “are neighborhoods that aren’t viable,” adding that he was “much for prioritizing viable neighborhoods.”

“You can’t spend limited resources over great distances and see a great impact. We have to be strategic about how we invest these limited resources.”
-Steven Ogden, executive director of Next Detroit Neighborhood Initiative

Part of the plan involves relocating households from neighborhoods targeted for wholesale demolition to concentrate them in areas where there is stability. That process could involve condemnation or eminent domain, and that no option has been ruled out.

In addition, portions of the city would literally be “closed off,” or left to be reclaimed by nature. In some areas of Detroit, this has already happened. Miniature farms dot the city’s vast vacant landscape, pockmarked by pothole-ridden streets and deteriorated houses. Coyotes and other wild game have moved in, roaming from lot to lot in search for domesticated game.

The benefits could be fiscally beneficial. Streets could be closed off as a result, and utilities to vacant neighborhoods severed. Unused police and fire stations could be disabled and concentrated. Police vehicles could use less gasoline on patrols of deserted streets, and trash collectors could save fuel by not driving down roadways with a handful of houses where there used to be many. Resources could be consolidated and be made more effective. Greenspace could be added and turned into nature preserves and reserves.

And to an extent, Youngstown, Ohio and other cities hard hit by massive job losses and a declining tax base have tried the same downsizing tactic. It’s a matter worth investigating and possibly implementing, in order to stabilize Detroit’s tax base and stabilize its population numbers, and to preserve it’s strongest, most viable neighborhoods, in an effort to protect them from becoming the next urban squalor.