Detroit Looks to Use Its Land in Innovative Ways

The city is now grappling with how to deal with the huge swaths of abandoned areas.

Posted: 03/12/2013 01:48 PM EDT
Detroit Looks to Use Its Land in Innovative Ways

If there is one thing Detroit has in abundance, it’s space.

The city is spread over nearly 140 square miles, an area slightly larger than Washington, D.C., St. Louis and Manhattan combined. But when nearly two-thirds of a city’s population has left in the last 60 years, its tax base has shriveled dramatically and neighborhoods are riddled with abandoned homes, what’s a city to do?

One possible solution that has been discussed by city officials and planners is to compress the city into designated population centers, leaving as much as 45 square miles of Detroit essentially shut down for residential occupancy. It is a controversial idea promoted by Detroit Mayor Dave Bing aimed at eliminating the need for expensive city services.

Another remedy is to clear unused land and convert it for brand new uses, such as urban farming with such specialties as apple orchards and retention ponds to collect rainwater.

Indeed, Detroit is a city that has been plagued by huge swaths of neighborhoods where homes and office buildings have been abandoned over the last few decades. As a result, it has become common in the city for residential neighborhoods to include blocks with only one or two homes that are occupied.

Indeed, there are office buildings throughout the city – many of them landmark buildings – that stand idle as shuttered reminders of the city’s more prosperous days. One such example is the now-abandoned Michigan Central Station, which was at one time the tallest railroad station in the world.

But there is a great deal of serious thought in Detroit about how to deal with this issue. The most exhaustive study is contained in a report known as the Detroit Works Project. It is a blueprint for the city’s future in the form of a book that is more than 300 pages, with interviews from more than 30,000 Detroit residents.

The mayor has endorsed the plan, and so have other politicians in the city, who applaud that it calls for local neighborhoods to have a voice in their long-term future.

“The final product of Detroit Works is a good one because it allows individual neighborhoods to come forward with their own specific visions,” said Mike Duggan, a candidate for mayor of Detroit, in an interview with BET.com.

“I think the approach makes a lot of sense and a lot of good work went into it,” Duggan said.

The report was produced by a team of urban planners led by Toni Griffin, an expert in urban redevelopment who is based in New York.

It includes some pioneering concepts, such as relegating a third of the city’s land – areas that are now largely abandoned – for use as farmland, forests and space for such ecological uses as new lakes and ponds to keep rainwater away from the city’s sewage system.

The plan will not require residents to be transplanted to other parts of the city if they choose to remain in their neighborhoods. However, the long-term blueprint calls for residents in some of the less-populated sections of the city to be able to exchange their homes for others in neighborhoods with denser populations.

Not all Detroit residents and officials are pleased with the plan, however.

“Basically, it’s a gentrification plan and the main point of gentrification is to move people into areas,” said John Olumba, a member of the Michigan House of Representatives who represents a section of Detroit, speaking with BET.com.

“But it typically disenfranchises the people who were already there,” Olumba said. “That’s the problem. If they can develop areas in a way that it won’t push the people who already live there into the corners of the city, it might work.”

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(Photo: REUTERS/Rebecca Cook)

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