Progressive Urban Dreams: Central Planning

The city of Detroit is thinking about downsizing, and in the process is revealing a progressive dream that would erase any meaningful housing or neighborhood choice for residents in the city. Detroit is literally planning to bulldoze certain neighborhoods and relocate residents to neighborhoods it considers “stronger” and worth further city investment.

According to the Associated Press (March 8, 2010):

“Though the will to downsize has arrived, the way to do it is unclear and fraught with problems.

“Politically explosive decisions must be made about which neighborhoods should be bulldozed and which improved. Hundreds of millions of federal dollars will be needed to buy land, raze buildings and relocate residents, since this financially desperate city does not have the means to do it on its own. It isn’t known how many people in the mostly black, blue-collar city might be uprooted, but it could be thousands. Some won’t go willingly.”

This isn’t conventional urban renewal, where the government uses eminent domain to remove blight and redevelop neighborhoods. This also isn’t like more benign approaches that focus on razing abandoned buildings or land bank vacant land for future development. This plan involves the forced relocation of residents and businesses to areas the urban central planners believe are healthier and worth saving. The vacant land would be converted into farmland or other semirural uses. This is actually very conventional central planning on an urban scale.

The city of Detroit unquestionably faces major revitalization challenges:

“Now, a city of nearly 2 million in the 1950s has declined to less than half that number. On some blocks, only one or two occupied houses remain, surrounded by trash-strewn lots and vacant, burned-out homes. Scavengers have stripped anything of value from empty buildings. According to one recent estimate, Detroit has 33,500 empty houses and 91,000 vacant residential lots.

“Several other declining industrial cities, such as Youngstown, Ohio, have also accepted downsizing. Since 2005, Youngstown has been tearing down a few hundred houses a year. But Detroit’s plans dwarf that effort. The approximately 40 square miles of vacant property in Detroit is larger than the entire city of Youngstown.

“Faced with a $300 million budget deficit and a dwindling tax base, Bing argues that the city can’t continue to pay for police patrols, fire protection and other services for all areas.”

And the federal government will be a key player. Detroit, one of the worst run cities in the nation, can’t “afford” to fund the program, so it’s looking to the Federal government for the funds to implement the plan:

“The current plan would demolish about 10,000 houses and empty buildings in three years and pump new investment into stronger neighborhoods. In the neighborhoods that would be cleared, the city would offer to relocate residents or buy them out. The city could use tax foreclosure to claim abandoned property and invoke eminent domain for those who refuse to leave, much as cities now do for freeway projects.

“The mayor has begun lobbying Washington for support, and last month Detroit was awarded $40.8 million for renewal work. The federally funded Detroit Housing Commission supports Bing’s plan.

“It takes a true partnership, because we don’t want to invest in a neighborhood that the city is not going to invest in,” said Eugene E. Jones, executive director of the commission.”

It’s both sad and unfortunate when urban “leadership” is lionized for restricting freedom and choice rather than finding creative ways to tap into individual (and neighborhood level) freedom, creativity, and innovation. But, this doesn’t fit the progressive idea that government solves problems instead of people working outside formal political channels.

Perhaps the solution is not more central planning, but more decentralized governance. The city could focus on using managed competition to de-bundle public services such as water, sewer, law enforcement, and even fire services so they can be scaled to the needs and willingness to pay for individual neighborhoods rather than attempting to provide services in a one-size fits all approach that can’t be sustained.

Detroit’s large geographic size could be an opportunity to experiment in decentralized urban governance that empowers neighborhoods rather than central planning that has historically shown little ability to reverse urban decline in Detroit or elsewhere.