Detroit's Future Challenge: How to Shrink a CityS

Could Detroit's dilemma be the wave of the future for other atrophying U.S. cities? The New York Times reports that the Motor City is facing an urban planning crisis nobody expected: how to make the city smaller.

We ran some heart-breaking photos of Detroit's urban decay a while back, and mayor Dave Bing and urban planners have been talking about ways to cut back some of the dead tissue and wind up with a smaller, more viable city. They're going over the whole city, mile by mile, to identify the places with the most foreclosures and abandoned houses. The bottom line: The city may not be able to afford to provide trash, sewer and police services to areas where almost nobody lives any more.

Top image: Future Detroit by Richard Bartrop.

People who stay in the abandoned neighborhoods are just going to have to do without government services, says Bing. Eventually, the city hopes to bulldoze a lot of the abandoned real estate to make room for urban farms or other new projects.

Last week's New York Times article includes interviews with Marja M. Winters, an urban planner who thought she'd spend her career figuring out how to guide a city's growth, rather than shrinkage:

Puzzling through the best way to downsize a city it is not unheard of (it has been considered in Youngstown, Ohio, and Flint, Mich. and even, decades ago, in New York). And Mayor Dave Bing has made it a priority to deal with Detroit's fast-sinking population and crumbling infrastructure by steering those who remain into fewer neighborhoods, rather than leaving them scattered throughout the 139-square-mile city, whose boundaries made more sense when twice as many people lived here 40 years ago.

Actually carrying out such an effort, particularly in a city as vast as Detroit, is like solving a complicated set of interwoven puzzles, as Ms. Winters has discovered over many long days and some nights poring over thousands of pages of maps and statistics in her 23rd-floor downtown office.

How to reconfigure roads, bus lines, police districts? How to encourage people - there is no power of eminent domain to force them - to move out of the worst neighborhoods and into better ones?

Later this month, a team that includes Ms. Winters is expected to present a proposed - and certain to be highly controversial - map to guide investment in each of the city's neighborhoods. A final plan for a remade city is expected by year's end.

There's also a huge article in Time Magazine from last December, in which one woman talks about being the only person living on her block — and finding a charred human torso in the underbrush across the street from her house a while back.

With almost everybody agreeing that greater density is the way of the future for cities — and Detroit struggling with a population under 800,000 and 139 square miles of territory — scaling back a city may become the new urban science. [New York Times]