Time to Break Up Detroit (and Other Declining Cities)?

The City of Detroit has lost 25% of its population since 2000, the largest drop of any major city in the U.S. With just 713,777 residents, Detroit’s population has fallen to a level not seen since 1910 and it is now smaller than Austin, Texas. Twenty percent of its land is vacant. Perhaps it’s time to break up the city. Few people, however, should be suprised as my colleague Shikha Dalmia telegraphed these recent declines in 2009.

Conventional planning wisdom is that consolidation can solve the problems of urban decline by redistributing resources to those neighborhoods and places it’s most needed. A nearly five decade experiment with Detroit–a “virtual consolidation” where resources have become more available on a per capita basis as its population has plummeted from over 1 million people–shows the poverty of this approach. Detroit has not been able to use its vast federal and local resources to stem its decline.

So, perhaps its time Detroit is broken up, or at least decisions over resources are devolved to the neighborhood level. An interesting explortation of approaches to “rightsizing” local government was sponsored by the James Irvine Foundation, the San Fernando Valley CIVIC Foundation, the Economic Alliance for the San Fernando Valley, and Reason Foundation back in 2001 and is worth dusting off and a hard look. I also talked about the importance of decentralization in testimony before the Ohio House of Representatives when it considered legislation supporting “Urban Homestead Zones” within Ohio’s big cities.

And Detroit may not be the only city needing to experiment with this radical change to local governance. (See Wendell Cox’s essay on urban cores versus the suburbs over a