Downsizing Detroit: agriculture in the inner city

Paul Raven @ 10-03-2010

We mentioned last summer that there was a chance some of the American cities affected worst by the changing economic climate deliberately “downsizing” themselves in order to consolidate what remains and cauterise the wound, and it seems that the decision has been made in the case of Detroit.

With the town already showing signs of becoming a new frontier for hippies, frugalists, art communes and close-to-the-land types, Detroit’s planners are proposing to change roughly a quarter of the city’s ghost-town urban areas into semi-rural farmland [via BoingBoing].

That’s a grim decision to have to make; I think we can assume that it’s being made by people who really can’t see any other way out. Question is, will Detroit be just the first of many?


Detroit: the new frontier?

Paul Raven @ 09-11-2009

Heidelberg community art project, DetroitLast time we mentioned Detroit here, it was in the less-than-cheerful terms of it becoming a growth region for private security patrols, and the web is full of similar stories charting the Motor City’s decline in lucid hand-wringing detail. But what if they’re ignoring the positives in favour of those apocalyptic headlines and photos?

Aaron M Renn at New Geography makes the point that the city’s administration seems unwilling to face up to the extent of the problem, but also highlights the pioneering atmosphere that Detroit’s “urban prairie” is nurturing. The withering of local government leaves spaces of opportunity for innovative approaches to low-budget living to take root… and while the living ain’t easy, the make-do attitude of the American pioneer spirit seems to be making a return [via Warren Ellis].

Urban agriculture projects are gathering pace; out-of-town artists are moving in, attracted by the low housing prices and the blank-canvas vibe of a city that’s been all but abandoned by consumerism. [image by jessicareeder]

In most cities, municipal government can’t stop drug dealing and violence, but it can keep people with creative ideas out. Not in Detroit. In Detroit, if you want to do something, you just go do it. Maybe someone will eventually get around to shutting you down, or maybe not. It’s a sort of anarchy in a good way as well as a bad one. Perhaps that overstates the case. You can’t do anything, but it is certainly easier to make things happen there than in most places because the hand of government weighs less heavily.

What’s more, the fact that government is so weak has provoked some amazing reactions from the people who live there. In Chicago, every day there is some protest at City Hall by a group from some area of the city demanding something. Not in Detroit. The people in Detroit know that they are on their own, and if they want something done they have to do it themselves. Nobody from the city is coming to help them. And they’ve found some very creative ways to deal with the challenges that result.

Imagine for a moment that this trend continues – might Detroit become some sort of independent city-state, a mildly anarchic rough-and-ready town where the price of freedom is a willingness to work hard for yourself and with your neighbours? How many more cities in the Western world might go the same way as manufacturing becomes increasingly outsourced overseas and/or roboticised? How will national governments react to these places – will they abandon them to the whims of their new residents, or struggle to control them in the face of diminishing tax revenues and the spiralling costs of law enforcement?

I’m not naive enough to imagine Detroit becoming some sort of hippie utopia, but I think it has the potential to become a new type of post-industrial city – but that will depend on a lot of different factors. Should the government be involving itself more closely in these early stages, or will a hands-off wait-and-see approach prove more effective?


Private security forces on the rise in Detroit

Paul Raven @ 29-10-2009

run-down Michigan real estateDetroit is arguably the reluctant poster-child for the bleeding edge of economic decline in the US, and as such it’s the place to watch to see how things might begin developing elsewhere. Which means that as the police – stretched by underfunding and escalating workload – concentrate their attentions elsewhere, we might start seeing an increase in private security firms patrolling some neighbourhoods. [via GlobalGuerillas; image by jessicareader]

Detroit’s problems come chiefly from its huge number of vacant foreclosed properties, which act as a magnet for criminality. The residents of those neighbourhoods who’ve managed to hold on to their homes (despite their plunge in value) are keen to see that their value doesn’t drop further, and so they’re willing to pay for surveillance and a visible presence – up to $30 per month, apparently.

But the line between surveillance and enforcement is a thin one, and as new security outfits proliferate, it’s not a stretch to imagine persons of less than scrupulous morals getting in on the only booming business in a broken town. And then it’s a short step to checkpoints at the barricades between neighbourhoods, armed patrols, CCTV saturation as only ever previously seen in the happy-go-lucky UK… sure, it’s a pessimistic scenario, but I wouldn’t say unrealistically so.

More likely is that the potential  threat of such an outcome will allow the gated community business model to proliferate. After all, property is cheap in the worst affected areas… so you go in, you by up a few streets, repair the broken buildings, install security infrastructure, and let out the properties with privacy and law enforcement served as a side-dish, paid for as part of the rent or mortgage payments. Hello, burbclaves.