The Urbanophile Plan for Detroit


If Brookings' plan for Detroit isn't enough to get the job done, what is?

Turning around Detroit means facing head on the core problems that hobble the region, notably:

• America's worst big city race relations
• A population that is too big for current economic reality
• A management and labor culture rooted in an era that no longer exists and is unsuited to the modern economy
• A tax, regulatory, and political system toxic to business

A robust plan for renewal in Detroit will tackle these problems, recognizing that matters like improving race relations and cultural change need indigenous solutions from courageous local leaders. Then mix this with best practices from elsewhere and innovative, unique to Detroit solutions. And be patient, knowing the turnaround won't be a short journey.

1. Repair race relations. The city-suburb divide in Detroit, to an extent far greater than elsewhere, is a matter of black and white. Bringing racial rapprochement won't be easy, but it is an absolute imperative for future regional success. Perhaps a newly shared sense of economic pain can foster this, along with grass roots connections such as white urban gardeners making common cause with black ones seeking better access to fresh foods.

2. Active shrinkage. Many recognize the need for Detroit to “right size” to its reduced population and for federal help doing so. But beyond adjusting to the city's decline, the region remains too big. Detroit no longer needs large armies of unskilled and even skilled laborers in its factories. There is simply no economic raison d'etre for a region the size of Detroit in that location today. A lot more people need to leave Detroit. Many already would like to but can't because they can't sell their house or afford to move. Serious consideration should be given to a federally assisted voluntary relocation program when the national economy recovers to help Detroiters move to Texas or other places with strong jobs growth if they want to. Detroit should also engage with those who did move away to create an urban alumni network. In a globalized economy, those Michigan expatriates can serve as a sort of field sales force for the city.

3. Improve the Business Climate. Michigan's government needs to be downsized to match a downsized state. Dubious programs of all types, from film industry subsidies to “cool cities” initiatives need to be scaled back or eliminated. The criminal justice system should be reformed to stop over-incarcerating non-violent offenders. Streamline or eliminate regulation wherever possible, and make those that remain operate swiftly and predictably. Eliminate or merge overlapping jurisdictions, and especially non-general purpose entities that are too often patronage dumps operating out of the public eye. Reduce taxes on business, especially small business.

4. Change the culture. Michigan's social and business approach, its labor and management culture and business practices were designed for a stable industrial age dominated by a limited number of large and vertically integrated corporations. Today's economy is based around smaller, more innovative, nimble firms, virtual networks of people and collaborative business relationships, rapid change, and a competitive global environment. This sort of change has to come from the inside. No one can just tell Detroit how to do it.

5. Renew Brand Detroit. How does Detroit want to be known in the world and how can it make itself known? Within a framework of shrinkage, Detroit needs to become attractive to the right new talent and new businesses. It needs an aspirational narrative that is authentically Detroit in a way “cool cities” will never be. Cool, No – but edgy? Definitely. Think of Detroit as the new American frontier, a blank canvas where anything is possible, and the ultimate arena in which to pursue alternative visions of urban life. A place where you can pursue a personal urban vision without getting tortured by a Byzantine blizzard of bureaucracy. This should be nourished – and preserved – by maintaining a “light touch” approach to regulation in the city proper. The region is well positioned to attract new urban pioneers and homesteaders, and to leverage its reputation as both a black city and large Arab population center. Detroit should stand proud as “Detroit”. It shouldn't hide behind euphemisms like “Southeastern Michigan” or “The Big D” - as if that fools anybody. Detroit is a name with international recognition and resonance. Wear it with pride.

6. Pursue Targeted Industry Clusters. The auto industry will remain a mainstay in Detroit, particularly management and R&D, though a lot smaller after a federally assisted restructuring. But the city should be wary of overly pursuing “me-too” industries like life sciences without distinctive advantages. Instead, Detroit should look to get its “fair share” of those, then look for where it is positioned to uniquely excel and try to create the environment favorable for investment. Potential targets include:

  • A lead role in international trade with Canada.
  • Dominating and expanding non-energy/non-financial trade and relations with the Middle East and Muslim world. With America's largest Arab population, Detroit is positioned to be the American gateway to that ever more important part of the globe the way Miami is to Latin America.
  • Music. Detroit has one of America's richest and most innovative musical legacies, from Motown to electronica to hip hop. But it hasn't profited from it. Detroit needs to take a page from Nashville and figure out how.
  • Realize the Detroit Aerotropolis plan.
  • Alternative urban visions. The recipe for grass roots neighborhood renewal in the city, and a potential innovation cluster for any new Detroit ideas that gain widespread adoption.

7. Rationalize Regional Governance and Infrastructure Investment. Detroit should seriously question any expansion of infrastructure when shrinking in regional population. All subsidized infrastructure expansion outside of currently fully urbanized areas should be terminated. It makes no sense to be widening streets on the fringes when you are ripping them out in the city. In this context, the kind of fixed rail investments advocated by Brookings and other “me too” urban boosters should be avoided in this highly decentralized region. Rather, the central city should start with a quality bus network, with rail added later if and only if existing ridership justifies it.

8. Secure Irreplaceable Assets. Detroit built amazing treasures during its golden age, many of them lost or threatened. Detroit has one of the largest collection of pre-War high rises in America. Yet many of them stand vacant. Another gem, the Lafayette Building, is about to be demolished because it is so badly deteriorated, with trees growing on the roof. Some funds need to be earmarked for securing and and supporting basic maintenance such as roof integrity. While there may not be demand to reuse these structures now, they are irreplaceable and should be saved for future generations. On the cultural side, Detroit needs to ask itself tough questions about institutions like the Detroit Institute of the Arts and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra that are bleeding red ink.

The road back for Detroit won't be short or easy. It will certainly not be back as the colossus of its past. But Detroit can grasp a more successful future if it finds the courage and the leadership to change, and to find a unique path forward for a city that is simply not like anyplace else in the world. Conventional wisdom solutions are just not enough. It will take radical change, new attitudes and an ability to think independently about what’s best for the region.


The Brookings Plan

The Urbanophile Plan

Race Relations

Segregation is acknowledged

Improving race relations is a top imperative

Regional Governance

Strong Regionalism Featuring:
- Council of Mayors
- Regional transportation and land use management
- Potential tax sharing
- Receivership for failed government entities

Adopt Brookings Plan

Brand Positioning


- “The New American Frontier”, the land of possibility, a blank canvas, and the ultimate arena in which to realize alternative and new visions of urban life.
- “Detroit”, NOT “Southeast Michigan”, “The D”, etc.

Economic Development Paradigm

Government industrial policy

Improve the business climate

Fiscal Policy


- Downsize all level of government to match a downsized Michigan and Detroit
- Eliminate dubious programs (e.g., film industry subsidies and “cool cities” initiatives)
- Merge or eliminate overlapping obsolete jurisdictions
- Cut taxes on business, especially small businesses

Regulatory Reform


- Seek out and eliminate rules without a clear rationale and net benefits, esp. ones that negatively affect the business climate
- Make remaining regulations operate swiftly and predictably
- Reform a criminal justice system that over-incarcerates for non-violent offenses
- Maintain “Light Touch” Regulation in the City of Detroit to Sustain Frontier Appeal

Target Economic Sectors

- Advanced Manufacturing / Auto-Related R&D
- Green Industry
- Life Sciences
- University Spin-Offs

- Advanced Manufacturing / Auto-Related R&D
- International Trade with Canada
- Non-Energy/Non-Financial Trade with the Arab and Muslim World.
- Music-Related Development
- Aerotropolis Industry
- Alternative Urban Visions (e.g., urban agriculture, urban decay tourism)
- “Fair Share” of Green Industry, Life Sciences, and University Spin-Offs

Auto Industry Future

Federally assisted restructuring

Adopt Brookings Plan

Management & Labor Culture; Regional Business Practices


Urgent change is prerequisite to success

Human Capital Targets


- New Urban Pioneers
- African Americans
- People of Middle Eastern or Muslim Origin
- Musicians and Musical Acts

Adjusting to Population Loss

- Government sponsored footprint shrinkage
- Brownfield remediation

Adopt Brookings Plan and Supplement With
- A federally-assisted voluntary relocation program
- Creation of a “Detroit Alumni Network”


Rail transit

- Terminate highway and other infrastructure expansion outside of fully developed areas
- Build privately funded Woodward light rail, then avoid further rail investments
- Improve the urban bus network
- Build new bridge crossings to Canada
- Support improvements to entire 401/I-75 corridor for freight growth

Historic Preservation


- Inventory and invest to secure and “mothball” key historic structures, esp. pre-War downtown high rises

Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs based in the Midwest. His writings appear at The Urbanophile.

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Detroit is the dominant

Detroit is the dominant gateway to Canadian trade. They have a two track rail tunnel under the river, a passenger tunnel, and the Ambassador Bridge that serves trucking. Significant Customs improvements are needed for these facilities. Also, there are competing replacement projects proposed for the Ambassador Bridge. That bridge is owned by Manny Moroun, a local multi-billionaire who interestingly also owns the Michigan Central Depot. Yes, the primary freight crossings from the US to Canada are owned by a private individual. He wants to build a parallel span. The state of Michigan wants to build its own span. The two are in litigation over each other's proposals. I think the city and state need to play let's make a deal and get one or both of these built pronto.

I do think there is opportunity for Michigan to benefit from cross-border trade flows.

Jane Jacobs noted that Detroit reinvented itself many times prior to stagnating when the auto industry consolidated. Conceivably it could do so again, but it won't be easy. Shrinkage is a reality for Detroit. As with the auto industry, the only question is how long and drawn out the process will be. I do fundamentally believe there is no longer an economic rationale for a city that size in that region. (Michigan is a large state formed by two peninsulas. Great when water was the primary source to transportation. Very bad when it is not).


Early in 2009, I lost a dear friend to COPD. In the last few weeks his weight loss concerned me and when I asked he said, "The doctor says that the human body will downsize until the limited heart and lung functions match the smaller needs".

Here are a few things I know about Detroit.

1. Michigan's African American Community, for the most part, came to Detroit, Flint, Lansing, and Pontiac, in the first half of the twentieth century, from Southern States and dismal agricultural settings, to work in the Auto Plants.

2. Detroit has not been an integral part of Michigan's success for the last forty years.

3. Michigan's drift toward liberal political leaders and the closing of auto plants have been simultaneous.

4. Anyone still living in Detroit and working in the core is, on some level, concerned for their own personal safety.

5. Detroit's body is still much too big for the size of its future potential.

6, The folks in and around Windsor and Sarnia share many of the same values as folks in "the rest of Michigan"; they share almost none with Detroiters.


Aaron, you know I'm your biggest fan, but the Aerotropolis is the worst idea out there. You call for the city to shrink sensibly. Aerotropolis calls for a whole new concentration of office buildings at the airport, while office space throughout the community stands empty. Nothing about this idea makes sense. Why do I want to office near the Detroit airport when I can office near the Chicago airport (with cheap fares and far more destinations)? (And Aerotropolis is not an industry.)

And there is absolutely no evidence that music can be a legit cluster that drives an economy. Record companies aren't in a spending mood to open new domestic offices. Anyone can record in a living room. What will a music cluster actually look like over the next decade. (A few hit bands do not make a music cluster.)

Carol, thanks for the

Carol, thanks for the comment. Obviously, there aren't a lot of slam dunk items for Detroit out there. And Yours Truly always welcomes passionate and reasoned dissent!

I certainly don't think music can drive an entire economy, but both Austin and Nashville have leveraged music for tourism and branding benefits. Nashville does in fact have a real economic cluster around music, with record labels, recording studios, publishers, session musicians, and a generally professional attitude towards the business. I recall that the White Stripes once said they recorded in Nashville and not Detroit for that very reason. Having said that, replicating something of that nature certainly would not be easy, in light of the established competition.

I'll certainly conceded that the aerotropolis idea is airport-related sprawl.

What is your take on what Detroit should be doing? You know I'm already sold on the "infrastructural" parts of increasing educational attainment, etc.

Longworth asks some very

Longworth asks some very important questions. The first one I think is related to the comment from swtmix. I tend to side with Glaeser that we should be focused on helping people, not particular pieces of territory. (He most notably made this argument with regards to Buffalo). I'm not totally sold on it, at least within metro areas where people live in one place for a while, then simply move out to another ring. But when it comes to helping Detroit, perhaps the answer is that we should be helping Detroiters. I'm not suggesting we forcibly relocate anyone. But for people who lack economic opportunity, want to leave, but can't, perhaps some assistance with, for example, getting them out from under their mortgage is warranted. Obviously this adds to the overhang of excess infrastructure, but that problem has to be dealt with anyway. I'm not saying this is a fully formed program, but it is a concept that policy makers and analysts should be exploring. I think this goes to Longworth's point #2.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Clearly, this is a challenging situation and there are no easy, clear cut answers.

Detroit is doomed.

Time to move on and work on actions that have a chance of success.
Time to just shut Detroit down and let it disappear.

Dave Barnes


The Brookings Report left many questions unasked and unanswered. Aaron Renn's comments are much more thoughtful. But even he skips a couple of key issues and skirts others.
1. Should Detroit be "saved?" Does it have a future? Is it worth saving? History is littered with cities that existed for one season or one purpose, then declined into permanent backwaters. If this is Detroit's fate, should we care? If so, why? Bringing Detroit back from the near-dead will be expensive, and use resources that could be better spent on more plausible patients. The case for any public funding of Detroit's future has not been made.
2.The Midwest is littered with the carcasses of old industrial cities that are not needed in the new economy. Some will revive. Some won't. Detroit is only the largest. Rather than a plan to save these places, we need a plan to train residents for a better economy and then help them leave town in search of that economy.
3.Everyone agrees that Detroit, having shrunk, must shrink more. To what size? What's rational? Detroit, once 2 million people, is 900,000 now. How many people will be needed to serve, and live off, the kind of economy that Detroit is likely to have in the near future? How many people can its infrastructure support? 500,000? 200,000? We have to think about this. For instance, when high-speed rail comes to the Midwest, it needs to link major cities. It does not necessarily need to link cities of 200,000.
4. Detroit is the New Orleans of the North. Both cities once defined much of America. Both have been wiped out by disaster. Both are substantial ports for trade. Both have cores based on entertainment and sports that can sustain a certain population. Beyond that, neither has a visible future.
6. Aaron Renn properly mentions Detroit's crippling race relations. Almost all the most poverty-ridden Midwestern cities, like New Orleans, are majority African-American. We are dealing here with issues -- race relations, generational poverty, inner-city education, sheer history -- that go far deeper than any "plans" to save Detroit.

Detroit may not be the place where these questions will be answered. But it can be the place, at least, where they are asked.

Plan for Detroit

I'm confused. You advocate spending tens if not hundreds of BILLIONS of dollars (because that's what it would realistically cost) to help hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people abandon tens if not hundreds of BILLIONS of dollars worth of already built infrastructure and physical structures in Michigan (homes, businesses, workplaces) so they can move to other areas of the country where tens if not hundreds of BILLIONS of dollars will have to be spent to accommodate them (new homes, businesses, water lines, electrical lines, etc)? I agree, money should not be spent to expand infrastructure at the edges of the metro area but that doesn't mean money shouldn't be spent improving existing infrastructure and building new (such as rail transit) if it helps concentrate the population in existing built-up areas.

Admittedly, Michigan needs to work on (and is, slowly) restructuring itself. But if you're going to spend that much money, it seems that it would be better spent giving tax breaks to new businesses to move to Michigan. And if people say that government shouldn't be picking winners and losers, make the tax break available to ANY company moving to Michigan, as long as they located in "brownfield" areas instead of "greenfields". It would be cheaper and more "green" in the long run. And look at the BILLIONS in tax breaks given to the auto transplants to build their factories in the South. Why would this be any different?