In the last few years, a number of commentators have suggested contracting cities like Detroit or Youngstown. So it might seem strange to suggest expanding Detroit instead – but this idea is rooted in some interesting recent works:
I’ve come to learn my friend’s idea is a favorite thought experiment among a certain subset of Detroit-area urbanophiles. Sometimes they will reference David Rusk, the former Albuquerque mayor whose book Cities Without Suburbs makes the case for the economic vibrancy of “elastic” cities (like Houston, Austin, Seattle and Nashville) whose central hubs have the capability to annex or otherwise regionalize their surrounding suburbs into a unified metropolitan area.
The takeaway from the census stories was that Detroit plummeted to 19th place on the U.S. city-size list, behind Austin, Jacksonville and Columbus (Columbus!). But the Detroit metropolitan area — which we’ll define, for these purposes, as Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties — still retains a population of nearly four million. If our territorial-expansion fantasia could have been magically enacted with even two-thirds of this figure, the Greater Detroitopolis would easily vault past Chicago to become the third-largest city in the U.S., behind New York and Los Angeles. This would translate into more state and national clout (and allocated funds, many of which are based on population) and eliminate the need for much of the wasteful duplicate spending inherent in maintaining dozens of tiny separate municipalities, especially at a time when many of these suburban communities have announced their own cutbacks. (In February, the westside suburb of Allen Park announced plans to eliminate its entire fire department.)
Super-sizing Detroit could also translate to better policy. When Indianapolis enacted a similar “Unigov” city-suburbs merger in the late Sixties (under Republican mayor Dick Lugar), the region experienced economic growth (and the benefits of economy of scale), AAA municipal bond-ratings and a broader, more stable tax base. The same could happen in metropolitan Detroit, which sorely needs to attract young people and entrepreneurs in order to fill the void left by the region’s dwindling manufacturing base. Elastic cities are less segregated and have fewer of the problems associated with concentrated areas of poverty. And though sprawl wouldn’t necessarily be reigned in, the region could finally adopt a sensible transportation policy to unite its businesses and residential areas. At the moment, suburban Detroit maintains its own bus system, separate from the city’s, and a planned $150 million light rail project, slated to run from downtown Detroit up the main thoroughfare of Woodward Avenue, would nonsensically stop at 8 Mile Road, the suburban border. That’s a formula to limit, not maximize, growth.
David Rusk, the former mayor of Albuquerque, has written several books (Cities Without Suburbs and Inside Game/Outside Game) about this subject. Rusk’s argument in both books revolves around this idea of “elasticity” which is the ability for cities to expand their boundaries. According to Rusk, more modern cities (particularly those in the South and West) have been able to annex more land compared to older cities like New York City, Chicago, and Detroit. With more land, Rusk argues these cities have lower rates of residential segregation, a broader tax base, and more beneficial outcomes.
Of course, these plans are not easy to implement. The trick is convincing suburbs that they should vote for annexation by the large city. Why would wealthier Detroit suburbs want to become part of the City of Detroit? Historically, such annexations in Midwest and Northeastern cities stopped in the early 1900s as suburbs no longer needed the city services big cities offered and the city was increasingly viewed as a dirty, problematic place.
The last city I recall reading about (in The American Suburb by Jon Teaford) that was able to successfully do this was Louisville, Kentucky. Teaford described how the city was able to convince the suburbs that the annexation would improve the city’s business standing, particularly through having a larger population.
The Atlantic piece suggests this annexation would be difficult to implement:
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s benign proposal to ease the ability of state counties to merge into loose metropolitan authorities has been a non-starter in the Detroit area. “I don’t think anyone would support it,” Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano told the Detroit News.
With a decreasing population (a “staggering 25% in ten years”), Detroit will have to make some decision about moving forward.