July 18, 2013

Detroit: Between the Rustbelt and the Warzone

Right now I am in Detroit MI, and today, the City of Detroit filed for bankruptcy and has an estimated 18-20 billion dollars of debt.  So what can be done about that?

Post-Industrial Detroit.  Photo: Sutika Sipus 2013. 
Throughout my education and experience in urban planning, my entire focus has been urban conflict and cities faced with extreme poverty.   Today I'm in Detroit MI,  investigating the ways that such a city may benefit from lessons of cities with seemingly worse conditions.   All things considered, Detroit really isn't so bad off when compared to a city like Kandahar, but as an American metropolis it definitely stands alone.  In addition to the largest city to file for bankruptcy in the history of the US, Detroit is also the ranked the most dangerous city in America by the FBI for the year 2013.  It has a rate 2,137 homicides per 100,000 people.  

The city has a population slightly above 701,000 people. With an average of 2.75 people per household, 36% of the Population lives below "poverty level" meaning that approximately 90,000 households (out of 254,000) have an income only between $15,000 and $19,000 per year.   And 35% of the land is vacant, so that means average distribution would show every square mile of property containing at least one family below poverty level.  The takeaway is that no matter where you stand in Detroit, you will see someone struggling to survive.  Of course distributions are never even, and smaller groups tend to control the bulk of the wealth, leaving a much bleaker landscape.

There is also an excess of political infighting among council members.  The city has a new charter.  It can't afford to pay the retirement packages to former employees.   They current Mayor, Dave Bing, said he has had enough and is stepping down.  The previous Mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, is in federal court for a slew of abuses.

So now what?

There is the option for a massive top-down overhaul of the city, but how often are city planners and governments capable of jumpstarting cities from crisis?  Afghanistan and Iraq are direct evidence that all of the expertise on the matter is severely limited, and even if a Marshal-plan amount of money were available, it doesn't mean it will solve the problem.

In many ways, filing for bankruptcy was an excellent move so that the city can focus on paying out the billions of dollars on bonds it owes.  But this single action won't alone solve the problem. Creative solutions are in high demand.