Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Will depopulated cities such as Detroit experience a rebirth in population and economic activity? In a sense, the answer has to be "yes;" after all, for depressed central cities such as Detroit, St. Louis, and Cleveland there is really no place to go but up. Each of these cities holds block after block of emptiness, abandoned buildings, and land use failures. Eventually, market pressures are going to build something useful in these spaces.
But I'm skeptical of the predictions of University Michigan professor Robert Fishman, whose new book foresees "A Fifth Migration" on a large scale of people moving out of the suburbs and back to the cities. (His "fourth migration" was the 20th century movement out from the cities.) With a rapidly growing American population, empty city spaces, more single adult households, and the limits of commuter tolerance, certainly more people will inhabit our cities, even Detroit, in the 21st century. This will probably be true even though some of Detroit's biggest land use plans of the past few decades didn't work out as planned. The huge "Renaissance Center" built downtown on the river in the '70s was a fortress that said only, "Hurry up inside here; you'll be safe!" -- which isn't exactly the best way to rebuild a downtown. (And today, the large company whose headquarters is in the Ren Center is mourning the passing of the mantle of the world's largest automaker to Toyota). And the infamous downtown monorail has been the disappointment that one might have predicted in a low-density, depressed city that is the home of the American carmakers.
As Fishman points out, much of the revival of American cities will come from new immigrants from other countries -- which doesn't really fit the model of a migration from suburb to city. Despite decades of predictions from Kenneth Jackson to Prof. Fishman, the great bulk of Americans simply have not rejected the suburbs for high-density life in the big city. With alterative fuels on the rise, the survival of the auto-based suburban culture seems assured for the foreseeable future. Here's my own prediction: Cities such as Detroit will revive, but they'll look not like the Detroit of 1950 or even Portland, Ore., of 2007. They'll look like downtown Los Angeles or the city of Miami today -- modest-scale neighborhoods, largely of recent immigrants and stores that cater to them, alongside large "loft" apartment blocks of mostly childless families who enjoy the cultural amenities of downtown, but who are still vastly outnumbered by the soccer moms and dads in homeowners associations in the suburbs. And this isn't so bad a future, for Detroit or America …