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Detroit's Object Lesson:
The Height of Foolishness – Sprawl Without Growth

Detroit region, unlike others, in grip of no-win development strategy

Commentary by Keith Schneider • Elm Street Writers Group
May 2005

The following commentary, originally published on the Michigan Land Use institute website, is republished here by permission of the author. The original can be found at:

If the source of enduring prosperity was more cars, more highways, more parking lots, and more suburban sprawl, then Detroit and its suburbs should be like Paris. Detroit, after all, built the inventions that produced sprawl. It remains the center of the American auto industry, constructed the first concrete freeway, opened the first suburban shopping mall, and designed some of the first cul-de-sac subdivisions. Detroit's suburbs are gobbling up land at a pace six to eight times more quickly than population growth, faster than almost any other major American metropolitan region.

But a wellspring of opportunity? Hardly. In measures big and small Detroit and its suburbs are in deepening trouble. The city's population, now around 900,000, is half of what it was in 1950. The seven-county region is home to 4.8 million people, just 100,000 more than in 1970. The Detroit area is the slowest growing of any of the nation's 10 largest metropolitan regions, and the most economically and racially segregated.
[Photo: Visit Detroit]

Detroit cityscape

There's more. During the 1990s, the Detroit area lost more than 100,000 young adults, the highest rate of brain drain of any urban center in the country. And because it has, arguably, the worst big city mass transit system in the country, Detroit's auto population has increased by 1.6 million registered vehicles since 1970, a flood of cars and trucks that has inundated torn-up highways.

Detroit congestionThe Detroit region is home to 4.8 million people, just 100,000 more than in 1970. But during that same 35-year period, the number of registered vehicles increased by 1.6 million, a flood of cars and trucks that has inundated a torn-up highway system.
[Photo: Detroit News]

Evidence That Sprawl Doesn't Work

Detroit, in effect, is a great big billboard for what happens when a state and its largest metropolitan region depend on sprawl as the engine of economic development. When it comes to ranking the best places in America for business and careers, Forbes Magazine reported earlier this month [May 2005] that just seven other metropolitan regions were doing worse in attracting new jobs. Two of those, by the way, also were in Michigan.

Fortunately for the rest of the country, and unfortunately for Detroit and Michigan, other states have gotten the message. Phoenix is building a new light rail regional transit system. So is Denver. Boise has enacted new growth management rules to protect farmland and is expanding its public transit system. Sacramento built a light rail system. Charleston passed a sales tax to invest in transit and to protect natural lands. Seattle and Portland pursued economic strategies to manage growth and rein in sprawl.

Communities in northern and southern California approved growth boundaries to protect farmland. Chicago rebuilt its waterfront, provided for more downtown housing, invested in public transit, changed its tax structure to encourage businesses downtown, and transformed itself in the span of a generation into one of the liveliest and most beautiful cities in the country.

These places, and so many more – Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Austin, Raleigh, Boston, Minneapolis – are establishing new incentives and spending public money in new ways to turn the engines of investment towards the central city, and to existing suburbs.

The result in economic performance and quality-of-life improvements are impressive. That same Forbes Magazine national ranking of the best places to build a business and career put Raleigh, Austin, Albuquerque, and Phoenix at the top of list. The highest ranking city in Michigan, by the way, was Ann Arbor, at number 16. Ann Arbor, the home of the University of Michigan, has spent heavily on its public transit system and voted in 2003 for a property tax increase to establish a greenbelt around the city to conserve farmland and slow sprawling housing development.

Detroit People MoverDetroit People Mover – a tiny, 2.9-mile (4.7-km) automated guideway transit (AGT) circulator loop installed in 1987 – is Detroit's main venture into a "guideway" or rail system since it abandoned its original urban electric railway system in 1956. Detroit's planning for an urban and regional rail transit system has basically gone nowhere.
[Photo: Jon Bell]

Michigan's Governor Pursues Smart Growth

It's not as though Michigan has ignored the value of pursuing a new growth strategy. Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm bases her economic program on the principles of Smart Growth. She's blocked most new highway construction in favor of repairing existing roads, invited cities to take advantage of new development incentives as part of her "Cool Cities" program, enforced environmental law to conserve natural resources, helped farmers become more profitable with a "Select A Taste of Michigan" promotion, and proposed a $2 billion bond to spur job development in renewable energy and other green technologies.

Ms. Granholm, though, is a Democrat working with a Republican-led Legislature that is in the ever-tightening grip of the party's cultural, economic, and regulatory orthodoxy.

When it comes to sprawl, though, the orthodoxy looks, well, unorthodox. On the one hand, conservatives want to reduce taxes and government spending; on the other, too many also want more sprawl.

Unorthodox Orthodoxy

Needless to say these goals are in conflict. Sprawl is a product of spending for roads, bridges, public buildings, business recruitment, subsidies, tax policy, and other public investment. Michigan spends $10 billion a year on economic development, much of it directed to lure people and jobs out of cities and older suburbs to the exurbs.

Other states have figured this one out, regardless of political party affiliations. Utah, the most Republican state, is investing in transportation, housing, jobs, and growth management to modernize Salt Lake City and other communities along the Wasatch Front. illinois, led by Democrats, understands that turning Chicago into a showcase of safe, healthy, vibrant urban life benefits the entire state.

Michigan, though, is still a bit confused. The Republican-led House of Representatives, for instance, just elected 34-year-old Craig DeRoche to be its speaker. Mr. DeRoche, who once served on the city council in Novi, a Detroit suburb, and has all of two years of House experience under his belt, gave a foolish interview to The Detroit News soon after taking office earlier this year. In almost the same breath that Mr. DeRoche said he wanted to lower taxes and reduce government he also said that he wanted more government spending on new highways and was considering raising gasoline taxes to support auto-oriented growth. "I represent sprawl," declared the new speaker.

There are uneasy political alliances and varying campaign motives to explain such fogginess; Mr. DeRoche's leading contributors are energy, realty, road building, utility, and development companies tied to the sprawl machine. But that still doesn't help to answer this question: How will future historians explain why Mr. DeRoche and his colleagues spent political capital to promote the sprawling pattern of development that is wrecking their region?

Keith Schneider, a journalist and editor, is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use institute. He can be reached by Email at

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Updated 2005/05/26

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