Detroit plans to shrink by leaving half the city in the dark

Illustration for article titled Detroit plans to shrink by leaving half the city in the dark

Detroit's population is shrinking. The city boasts 60% fewer residents today than it did in 1950, and, as we've seen, many of its grand buildings have been left to rot. Now Detroit Mayor Dave Bing wants to concentrate the population in a smaller area by reducing the number of streetlights and leaving nearly half the city in the dark.

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Photo of Detroit's abandoned train station by Demodragon.

In 2010, Bing began a project called Detroit Works, which is examining ways to reorganize and reconfigure Detroit. It seems one part of that reorganization is encouraging residents and businesses in more sparsely populated areas into more populated areas by reducing the number of streetlights from 88,000 to 46,000. That will leave 713,000 residents in the dark in an area larger than Boston, Buffalo, and San Francisco combined. (Edit: My apologies, I misread the statistic. 713,000 is the entire population of Detroit.)

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Twenty Detroit neighborhoods are only 10 to 15 percent occupied, and the government can't force residents to leave their homes, and Michigan law makes it difficult for the government to seize them under eminent domain. So the government is instead "phasing out" these neighborhoods by turning off their streetlights; or, in many cases, just leaving them off. (Forty percent of Detroit's streetlights are currently broken.) Bing hopes the cash-strapped city can focus its bus and police services on the still-lit, more population-concentrated areas of the city.

I wonder if Detroit will provide any relief to folks whose homes are in these blighted neighborhoods. I can't help but feel that deliberately working to making a person's home worthless has a similar effect to eminent domain. And I suspect that a lot of folks won't want or be financially able to move to neighborhoods where the lights will still be on. They'll be left in the dark with little access to local services.

The state legislature still has to approve Bing's plan, but it has the support of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. Incidentally, part of the plan involves upgrading the streetlights that will remain on; as many as 15,000 of Detroit's streetlights rely on 1920s technology.

Edit: In the comments, jbradhicks has some more background on Bing's plans for Detroit and the direction he might be going with his plan to turn off the lights. Definitely worth a read.

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Half Of Detroit's Streetlights May Go Out As City Shrinks [Bloomberg via MetaFilter]

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DISCUSSION

jbradhicks
jbradhicks

Part of what's wrong with getting your political news from a non-political website (or, worse, a newspaper or TV) is lack of context.

Detroit has an even bigger problem than the fact that the manufacturing industry moved to the Sun Belt, and it's this: it is absolutely impossible to provide municipal services to areas where one or at most two homes per block are occupied. The distances are too great, the tax base too low. Bad enough that the jobs left, but the people who held those jobs have mostly left, too, leaving vast tracts of 90% unoccupied city.

Which is why, ever since Bing has been elected, he's been desperately trying to find some way to move people closer together, so they can get the same level of protection from fewer firehouses, fewer police stations, fewer hospitals. His plan was to finance this by selling the exurbs and outer-ring suburbs back to farmers, like the farmers who owned that land before it was turned into suburbs, and then find a way to turn the abandoned auto factories and abandoned refineries into biofuel factories to buy the locally-grown biomass, turn it into biofuel, and export it to the world via the Great Lakes to the sea.

It was exactly the kind of brilliant, forward-thinking, borderline science fictional plan that science fiction fans like those of us here on [io9.com] should have loved. And it might well have worked. But he's being blocked by the EPA, which insists that since almost all of Detroit's suburbs were built during a time when houses were sided and roofed with asbestos shingles, he can't tear down a single house in those 90% abandoned neighborhoods without paying tens of thousands of dollars per house for asbestos remediation. Checkmate. Detroit loses. And cannot win, period, will never be allowed to win unless the EPA and Congress approve some affordable way to tear down whole neighborhoods full of asbestos at once.

So I'm not surprised he's trying to make those neighborhoods less safe. If he's smart, what he'll do next is put word out, not officially but quietly and in ways hard to trace back to him, "Hey, gangs, you know how we've been cracking down on Fire Night the last couple of decades? Just to let you know, there won't be any cops or fire trucks in these areas on Fire Night. We're not telling you to destroy those abandoned houses for us. We're just saying that nobody will stop you, if that's still your idea of fun." And then he can provide housing assistance to move the last hold-outs in those neighborhoods, finally forced out, into the parts of Detroit that still have services, that still have jobs, for a tiny fraction of what it is already costing him to try (and fail) to provide services to them where they live now.

Or, you know, we can do nothing, or at least nothing that has any chance of working. And continue to be confronted by the fact that we have NEVER had ANY idea what to do with a city once it's no longer a good idea to have a city there. Up until this generation, we never had to confront that problem for any town bigger than a large mining town; this is the generation that will have to figure out what to do with whole mostly-abandoned mega-cities.