Letter from America: The F Word, Watch a City Die because of the Mismatch between the City and the Functional Urban Area

Peter Ramsden

By Peter Ramsden, on August 8th, 2013

> Read Peter Ramsden's articles

The urban news in America has been dominated by three stories. First, the not guilty verdict on George Zimmerman the killer of Trayvon Martin. Second, Anthony Wiener’s predilection for sexting – he was the front runner for the democrats to get the nomination in the New York mayoral race and third the city of Detroit going into Chapter 9 bankruptcy. I’ll come back to Zimmerman, the stand your ground law and gated communities in another blog, while Wiener looks likely to fall on his sword (metaphorically). This blog is about Detroit a city being eaten by its functional urban area. 

Detroit was one of the most successful American cities of the mid part of the 20th century. It was the Motor city with Ford, General Motors and Chrysler based there together with a host of brands lost in takeovers. Culturally it was the home of Tamla Motown, hosts Wayne state University and has the impressive Ford health care facilities. For urban policy aficionados it was where the riots in United States (US) cities kicked off in July 1967 with 43 people killed, 2000 buildings destroyed and 7000 arrest. One of the most serious riot in modern United States of America (USA) history – copycatted in other cities leading up to the riots at the Chicago democratic convention in 1968.

At one level the arithmetic of the bankruptcy is simple, the city had spent more money than it had. But the drivers are more complex. Only half of the 300 000 plus property owners in the city pay their taxes. As a result Detroit cannot afford to pay the pensions of their former employees or deliver services to their citizens. The pension funds and the bondholders are likely to take the hit, along with local citizens who will see further retrenchment of already poor services. Litigation will take years. There is little chance that the federal government stepping in to bail out the city. This, in stark contrast to the Obama bailout of the big 3 motor companies. The bailout of General Motors alone cost taxpayers more than 18 billion US Dollars.

Detroit is the ultimate shrinking city but unlike many city regions in Europe (where both city and region are shrinking) the core of Detroit has been shrinking as the metropolitan area of Greater Detroit grows. The growth of the Detroit suburbs has been at the expense of the city in terms of Gross Domestic Product as well. None of the big three motor companies have their headquarters in the city today, all are in surrounding municipalities, the same is true of other industries and Detroit is now a service city. These outer municipalities do not pay for their metropolitan core, but they depend on their relationship to the metropolitan area for their future prosperity. They are economic free riders. Detroit is the extreme example that shows the impossibility of managing the core of a metropolitan area with the tax revenue from a declining population enclosed by the original city boundaries.

In contrast, the metropolitan area has been growing and hosts over 5.2million people – more than half the population of Michigan State. Detroit city has declined- from 1.7 million people in 1950 to 713,000 in 2010. It lost 25% of its population over the first decade of this millenium . One seventh of its 280 sq km surface area is derelict land. Many of its residential streets are semi abandoned and the cost of servicing them has rocketed. There are 7000 abandoned warehouses. Public services are collapsing. The average time taken for a 911 call to reach a house is over 50 minutes compared to 7 in the rest of urban USA. The cost of providing basic waste and utility services to emptying streets is not economic. The only growth areas have been in urban farming and in campaigns to save Detroit.
Bruce Katz from the Brookings institution argues that all levels of government should be more attentive towards their metropolitan areas. These are the economic powerhouses. The collapse of Detroit threatens the principle economic dynamo in the state of Michigan. The damage to reputation and inward investment of the bankruptcy is incalculable. The situation has been critical for more than a decade but nothing has been done, instead State and Federal politicians have watched in slow motion as the city unravels.

So what is to be done? All the usual steps have been taken to deal with legal and financial issues, including the imposition of an emergency city manager. None of these will address the underlying malaise. There is little prospect of a genuine functional urban area solution emerging which would be to create a new amalgamation of the existing local authorities in the metropolitan urban area. Why would surrounding municipalities pick up the city’s debts without support from the Federal government?

In the absence of boundary reform, the only hope is to declare Detroit a social innovation zone and allow new rules to apply at federal, state and city level. This could be the ultimate urban experiment. The desperate need is to attract people into the urban core. Community land trusts could collectivise the land while allowing individual property ownership under leasehold. Homesteading on derelict land whereby the homesteader gains the title to the property if they clear the site and put a new property on it? Why not allow illegal immigrants to get US citizenship if they settle there? Why not develop the largest creative quarter in the world? There is nothing to lose in Detroit. There is no better example of crisis as opportunity.

For Europe, the experience of Detroit should be a warning. We need our metropolitan areas to better match their functional areas. So watch out, Brussels, Katowice, Lille, Lisbon Manchester, Liverpool and Paris (see table 1 below) – all cities where the population of the core city makes up less than a third of the functional urban area. Liverpool shows that the most economically dynamic port in the world can be a basket case one hundred years later. Unlike Detroit, Liverpool /Merseyside had an injection of European Union Structural Funds to finance a turnaround.

Table 1 : City populations (million) compared to functional urban area and morphological urban area (source Ivan Tosics)

Cities Administrative City Morphological Urban Area Morphological Urban Area/City Functionnal Urban Area Functionnal Urban Area/City
Bucharest 1,93 2,06 1,1 2,06 1,1
Berlin 3,44 3,78 1,1 4,02 1,2
Rome 2,55 2,53 1 3,19 1,3
Prague 1,17 1,18 1 1,67 1,4
Budapest 3,26 2,12 1,2 2,52 1,5
Madrid 1,6 4,96 1,5 5,26 1,6
Vienna 1,69 1,67 1 2,58 1,6
Warsaw 0,43 2 1,2 2,79 1,7
Bratislava 7,43 0,44 1 0,71 1,7
London 1,58 8,27 1,1 13,71 1,8
Barcelona 1,3 3,66 2,3 4,25 2,7
Milan 0,53 3,7 2,8 4,09 3,1
Lisbon 2,18 2,32 4,4 2,59 4,9
Paris 0,44 9,59 4,4 11,18 5,1
Liverpool 0,44 1,17 2,7 2,24 5,1
Manchester 0,32 2,21 5 2,56 5,8
Katowice 0,32 2,28 7,1 3,03 9,5
Lille 0,23 0,95 4,1 2,59 11,3


by Peter Ramsden, URBACT Expert

URBACT has recently published a report on From Crisis to Choice: Re-imagining the Future in Shrinking Cities 

You can also find several articles on shrinking cities on tis blog, notably about Romanian and Polish Cities.

4 Responses to “Letter from America: The F Word, Watch a City Die because of the Mismatch between the City and the Functional Urban Area”

  1. Steven Boxall says:

    Well said Peter.

    Essentially, allowing anywhere to collapse is a political act.

  2. Fernando Barreiro Fernando Barreiro says:

    What Peter doesn’t explain is WHY the core of Detroit has been shrinking as the metropolitan area of Greater Detroit grows. This is the key question. The great invention that made Detroit widly productive for decades, it also sowed the seeds for the city’s decline. Cities work best when they are filled with smart people and small companies that innovate by exchanging ideas. Huge automobile plants, like Henry Ford’s River Rouge Plant, were highly productive, but they were isolated from the rest of the city. Likewise, the “fordist” production model was able to provide high wage jobs for less-educated workers; this helped turn Detroit into a city with too few monoautomotive skills, incapable to adapt its human ressources when the autombile production started its decline.

    What Detroit needed was education and safety, not urban renewal. Poor and unemployed people, belonging to ethnic minorities, rested in the city center while the white population (middle class) flight into the suburbus. This urban sprawl due to social segregation, explains the Detroit’s current fiscal crisis. It is impossible to maintain a municipal economic base consisting mostly of very poopr people, who can’t afford to pay much tax and who require high levels of government services. In my opinion, the problem is linked with the “urban sprawl” and the urban segregation model and not with the metropolitan governance of the functional areas. It deals with recovering the urban centers as core areas of mixed uses and attractiveness, avoiding ethnic and social segregation.

    Are European cities free of those problems? Of course not, but there is a difference that I would like to highlight. In Europe, ethnic segregation exists, obviously, but its intensity is smaller than in the United States. And the reason could be in the nature of “neuralgic center” or hub that plays European cities compared with the typical American city. In the European city leisure takes place mainly in the street and in the urban center. Historical centers are real attraction poles for all kind of cultural and commercial activities, so that distance from those poles supposes always a considerable cost. On the contrary, the dominant American urban model is the “urban sprawl” where the urban center has a reduced attractiveness, it is more segmented and the car becomes crucial to enjoy a decent social life.

    Urban centers in European cities play an attraction role that avoids the flight of middle and high middle classes. It doesn’t imply that segregation pockets couldn’t take place within the cities (and there are several examples) but, at the moment, urban centers exerted enough attractiveness to avoid that this perverse dynamics explodes like in Detroit. It supposes that this ethnic pockets rest confined in the urban suburbs, but it will be difficult that the whole city collapses.

    Is the European scenario ethically better? May be not, an immigrant and ethnic minority segregated pocket is a failure whether if it occupies the city center (Detroit) or the “banlieu” (Paris). But, perhaps from the urbanism perspective the existence of a common attractive pole facilitates the integration of the ethnic minorities, since both communities value living close to the center. On the contrary, the urban sprawl model exacerbates those dynamics of segregation and, likewise, makes possible financial disasters like in Detroit. This is one more reason to enhance the attractiveness of cities and it becomes a strong argument to defend the regeneration of historical centers in European cities.

  3. Hamish says:

    I disagree both with the ethnography and sprawl propositions as ensuring economc failure of a city, rather the issue may sit with the failure of strategic planning and those that direct it to not extend beyond simplistic incremental change to the “basket” while sticking with “sinlge egg”. Perhaps the lession of europe is in cooperative strategies ratherthan competitive frameworks evoked through global positioning?

  4. All I can say is that there are some places in Canada which have a better integration politically of the city proper and its metropolitan area. Toronto, for one. I think these are called “Regional Municipalities.” DK if such would work for Detroit. It has bigger problems.
    I also want to say I do NOT want illegal aliens to be ‘part of the solution.’ They should all become unemployed and self-deported. Take care of unemployed US citizens first, last, and always! Immigrants of all statuses have always been exploited by US employers, with government approval and often aid. It’s wrong, wrong, wrong.

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