Turning half the streetlights out in Detroit

The fate of Detroit has been in the news in recent years and here is another symbol of the city’s troubles: it is considering taking out a number of its streetlights.

Detroit, whose 139 square miles contain 60 percent fewer residents than in 1950, will try to nudge them into a smaller living space by eliminating almost half its streetlights.

As it is, 40 percent of the 88,000 streetlights are broken and the city, whose finances are to be overseen by an appointed board, can’t afford to fix them. Mayor Dave Bing’s plan would create an authority to borrow $160 million to upgrade and reduce the number of streetlights to 46,000. Maintenance would be contracted out, saving the city $10 million a year.

Other U.S. cities have gone partially dark to save money, among them Colorado Springs; Santa Rosa, California; and Rockford, Illinois. Detroit’s plan goes further: It would leave sparsely populated swaths unlit in a community of 713,000 that covers more area than Boston, Buffalo and San Francisco combined. Vacant property and parks account for 37 square miles (96 square kilometers), according to city planners…

Delivering services to a thinly spread population is expensive. Some 20 neighborhoods, each a square mile or more, are only 10 to 15 percent occupied, said John Mogk, a law professor at Wayne State University who specializes in urban law and policy. He said the city can’t force residents to move, and it’s almost impossible under Michigan law for the city to seize properties for development.

This sounds similar to the story from late last year where Detroit suburb Highland Park also decided to reduce its number of streetlights to save money.

Here is my question: does the story stop with streetlights or is the turning off of streetlights just the first step in much bigger efforts to contract Detroit? If you were a politician, perhaps dealing first with streetlights eases people into larger steps of consolidating and/or reducing services. Turning off streetlights is not a small thing; people tend to equate them with safety. Once streetlights are reduced, what comes next?

This story reminds me of an argument in Barrington Hills in late 2010 about reducing the number of lights to preserve the community’s rural, wealthy character. So wealthier, higher-class areas want fewer lights while cities and denser areas see street lights as a basic building block of city services?


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