Sunday, October 11, 2009

From Motown to "Notown"

Daniel Okrent, a writer for Time, recently issued the first installment in a yearlong series about Detroit, a series I’ll be tracking here and with my property class.  Click here to read his article, "Detroit:  The Death and Possible Life of a Great City."  For all of the criticisms one can levy against it, Detroit is a fascinating city for land use study.  Although many of Detroit’s problems result from poor economic decisions and political choices, namely a dangerous reliance on the auto industry, many other problems flow from poor land use. 

In the absence of sound land use, Detroit barely resembles its once formidable self.  At the height of its development in the twentieth century, Detroit counted amongst the wealthiest, and largest, cites in America.  City leaders hired the nation’s best architects to build buildings of quality and scale designed to rival those of New York.  Most of Detroit’s best examples are literally crumbling today.  Once a vibrant urban place, huge sectors of Detroit have turned into wastelands, attributable largely to bad urban planning.  The result?  Outright decay.  Many of city’s historic clubs, schools, and cultural institutions have either closed or are on the verge of doing do.  Not a single chain grocery store remains within its city limits. 

Committed citizens, however, are working hard to turn Detroit around.  One common thread that emerges in Okrent’s article is that many of their solutions involve land use.  One progressive thinker, Greg Willerer, has started to develop urban farms to expand the availability of fresh produce to city residents.  One business leader, Dan Gilbert, is moving his business from the suburbs to the city.  John J. George has been working hard for over two decades to save the historic district of Old Redford.  Faye Nelson, leader of the Detroit River Front Conservancy, has restored three miles of river frontage and created public parks.  Finally, in recognition of Detroit’s quickly shrinking population—nearly one-half the population that it had in 1950—some city leaders are even considering razing blighted areas of Detroit to restore the land to green space, to decrease its footprint, and lighten the burden on city services.  Future posts will track the progress of these initiatives.


Will Cook, Charleston School of Law

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