How Sprawl Got Detroit Into This Mess

It wasn’t de-industrialization that bankrupted Detroit, wrote Paul Krugman in a New York Times column yesterday. If that was all there is to it, then how do you explain the fact that Pittsburgh, once so dependent on the steel industry, is now recovering? No, what brought Detroit to this low point, more than the loss of factory jobs, was decades of unsustainable development patterns.

The expanding footprint of metro Detroit. Top: 1900; Middle: 1950; Bottom: 2000. Image: ##http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/kbenfield/which_part_of_detroit_needs_ri.html##NRDC Switchboard##

A generation ago, Pittsburgh and Detroit were in similar straits, but Pittsburgh managed to keep its central city relatively strong, while the Detroit region saw a full-scale exodus from the city core. That allowed Pittsburgh “to adapt to changing circumstances,” wrote Krugman:

Detroit’s disaster isn’t just about industrial decline; it’s about urban decline, which isn’t the same thing. Sprawl killed Detroit.

And he’s right. There are many factors that distinguish Detroit from Pittsburgh, but the sprawl factor can’t be ignored. Very simply, Detroit’s assets can no longer keep up with its liabilities. Plenty of cities have pension obligations, but what Detroit lacks, more and more, is a tax base. And that is directly tied to the way the region developed over the last few decades — namely, further and further from Detroit.

A study released by the Brookings Institution this year found that Detroit has the worst job sprawl in the country. Now, many regions are sprawling, but Detroit is unusual, because it sprawled while the region wasn’t growing. The Detroit metro region, including its suburbs, has shrunk in population by 1.2 percent since 1970.

When the Detroit region sprawled, it wasn’t adding new people, the way Houston sprawled. It was drawing existing residents from the center to the periphery. Homes in the central city were abandoned — and the tax revenues that came from those households evaporated. Detroit, unlike some of its wealthy suburbs in Oakland County, only saw one side of this migration — the losing side. And it was poorly equipped to deal with the fallout.

The Washington Post reported earlier this month that in just the last five years, Detroit’s property tax collections declined 20 percent and its income tax revenues fell by a third. How does a city prepare for that? The answer is, it can’t, no matter how savvy the management may be.

The really discouraging part is, an emergency manager stripping people of their pensions won’t fix the long-term revenue drain at the heart of Detroit’s fiscal problems. On top of that, metro Detroit still does not seem to have mustered the political will to change what needs to be changed — its sprawling development patterns.

A telling example came last month when the Southeast Michigan Regional Council of Governments — the regional planning body — decided to greenlight some $4 billion in highway widenings, over the protests of Detroit, a handful of its inner-ring suburbs, and Ann Arbor. The regional agency justifies these highway widenings by citing congestion — congestion that was caused by people and jobs moving ever further from the city center. So this expense — $4 billion in public funds — will simply keep feeding the sprawl machine without addressing any of Detroit’s very pressing problems.

And here the federal government — in addition to the regional government — deserves part of the blame. Some of SEMCOG’s leaders, in relating their decision on the matter, expressed concern that the region would lose federal dollars if they voted down the highway projects. The sad truth is, they might be right. The federal government, even with the progress the Obama Administration has made, doesn’t say no to wasteful, sprawl-inducing highway projects. So while Detroit’s roads become increasingly potholed, the region has a perverse financial incentive to appeal to the federal government for more money to build more roads.

Andrew Burleson at the nonprofit Strong Towns wrote earlier this month that Detroit’s bankruptcy is a symptom of the “Growth Ponzi Scheme” — the essence of which is that we’re building and building without considering whether we can provide for the long-term maintenance costs of it all. The problem is that the pattern isn’t unique to Detroit, but a feature of the way we’ve been designing places around the country. Detroit is simply an extreme example, he says:

The truth is, people everywhere are afraid of what’s happening in Detroit, because to one extent or another we’re all Detroit. In every part of the country we’ve spent trillions of dollars on infrastructure to promote unproductive places that will be dead weight on our backs.

  • Jeff Smith

    Oh my gosh no can’t have some wanting prosperity in America, can’t have that now can we….gotta have the majority population poor so that can’t drive cars buy houses and have to live in govt housing and take the bus.

  • Jeff Smith

    DC has a worse sprawl problem then your hometown….the subs are booming into VA and MD in all directions, but in Detroit it has slowed down only going in one area , the Novi area.

  • Jeff Smith

    I guess you haven’t driven outside of DC or the beltway. When I was there I saw sprawling suburbs all the way out to Ashburn, Va and the Dulles airport area. Also in MD they have sprawl going all the way to Baltimore. Also the traffic and congestion is worse in DC then in Detroit. Takes. Almost an hour to drive from DC to Dulles airport. Yes the side roads in Detroit like Big Beaver and orchard lake have tie ups but nothing like DC area freeways and roads.

  • Jeff Smith

    Let the old people on pensions move to a worse area for sprawl and driving, Florida and all it’s driving cities.

  • Anonymous

    Southfield shared in the early pattern of segregation (1970 census had only 7 households that were black). This changed dramatically in the 80s and 90s. There is a solid little discussion of this transformation and its further implications at the end of Thomas Sugrue’s testimony for Gratz v. Bolllinger (here)/

  • Jeff Smith

    Can’t compare Pittsburgh and Detroit, Detroit even with a huge loss still has 700,000 people, Pitt only has 350,000 and the surrounding suburbs of Detroit make it around 4 million, Pitsburgh can’t even come close if you include it’s suburbs. It’s like apples and oranges.

  • Jeff Smith

    Sprawl in Detroit has only gone North and west, of course it has a river to the south and a lake to the east. Sprawl hasn’t really gone towards the Toledo area going southwest, not sure why. Other cities like DC, LA have sprawled in all directions.

  • rdt2013

    City workers were not contributing amounts to their pensions to fully fund them, but relyied on workers behind them to pay for them. That’s a Ponzi scheme. If they paid in amounts needed to give them the pensions they promised to themselves, then their pension shortfall would not exist. The corollary of this is that they promised themselves such excessive pensions, that they could never make required contributions. Such corrupt and unsustainable systems are destined to fail, they should fail and they should be outlawed.

  • Erica F

    Oh, believe me. I’m familiar with DC sprawl. I’ve seen the clearcuts in Loudoun County, the strip mall hell of Rockville Pike. This development pattern is an American problem, no doubt. But if you want to be car-free there’s simply no contest. DC metro has a robust bus system and bikeshare, Metro, Marc, bike lanes, a forthcoming streetcar system. The only transit option Metro-Detroiters have is an anemic bus system (which I’ve taken). I’m happy to hear that Detroit will have a streetcar by 2015 and that forward-thinking leaders are connecting corridors in the city by greenways like the Dequindre Cut, but there is still a gulf in terms of commuting between regions in the area.

  • Might i attribute this insight to you and call this the Mad Hatter theory of land use!

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