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World Resources 1996-97
(A joint publication by The World Resource Institute, The United
 Nations Environment Programme, The United Nations Development
 Programme, and the World Bank)
 (Edited by Dr. Rˇbinson Rojas)

1. Cities and the Environment

Box 5 Detroit Battles Long-Term Effects of Suburban Flight

In 1915, Henry Ford's Model T automobile rolled off the first moving assembly line and catapulted Detroit, Michigan, into international renown as the birthplace of modern industrial production. The assembly line revolutionized manufacturing. When Ford announced that workers would make $5.00 for an 8-hour shift--in contrast to the standard wage of $2.75 for a 10-hour shift in the countryside--crowds of eager workers lined up outside factory doors (1). Detroit's population quadrupled in only 20 years, from 285,704 in 1900 to well over 1 million by 1921 (2) (3). By 1950, Detroit's population was almost 2 million. Inspired by post■World War II boom times, city planners were building roads and houses for a city of 8 million (4).

Forty-five years later, however, Detroit's population is again hovering around the 1 million mark. Ironically, the automobile is now at the heart of a new urban transition: one of suburban flight. In 1911, one writer aptly observed that the city had "the possibility of almost unlimited expansion, with easy access to places of labor. It is significant that practically all the automobile factories, which have been built within the last five years, are located on the outskirts, where before there were great tracts of vacant land" (5).

This suburban flight has brought along with it a new set of urban problems, far different from those Detroit faced at the dawn of the Automobile Age. In 1920, with waves of migrants seeking jobs in the new automobile industry, the city lacked adequate shelter for more than 30,000 families.

Current statistics are a stark contrast. In the past two decades, Detroit has lost 32 percent of its population. The suburban exodus of jobs and workers has trapped Detroit in a downward economic spiral, leaving the local government without sufficient funds to manage the city. In addition, the percentage of poor has more than doubled, from 14.9 percent in 1970 to 32.4 percent in 1990 (6). Infant mortality rates, though far below their 1920 level, are three times higher in Detroit (21 per 1,000 live births)than in the neighboring suburb of Warren (7 per 1,000) (7). The murder rate has risen steadily, from 32.7 per 100,000 population in 1970, to 45.7 in 1980, to 59.3 in 1991 (8) (9) (10).

Detroit also faces its share of urban environmental problems. Neighborhoods are lined by abandoned buildings and garbage. One of the most pressing problems is the emergence of "brownfield" sites--land and buildings contaminated by previous industrial activity that now stand empty. While the presence of brownfields does not translate into human exposure to toxics or land contamination per se, it does detract from the economic value of the land. Companies are hesitant to invest in the land because of expensive cleanup regulations.

Further exacerbating the chasm between inner city and suburb is the lack of an adequate public transportation system. Before World War II, most factories were located along railroad lines, and workers' homes were clustered near train stations. As motor vehicles became less expensive, however, industries began to use trucks instead of trains to move materials. Freeway construction allowed plants to be located at greater distances from materials (11). Today, the lack of public transportation facilities limits job opportunities for inner city residents. Four in ten Detroit residents between the ages of 18 and 65 do not have a car and are unable to reach the jobs located primarily in the suburbs (12).

Many other cities in both the United States and the United Kingdom face similar problems of suburban flight and industrial downsizing. While in 1950, 60 percent of the U.S. urban population lived in central cities and 40 percent in the suburbs, by 1990, the proportions were reversed--60 percent lived in the suburbs and 40 percent in central cities (13). Yet many of these cities have managed to temper the negative impacts of these trends through new partnerships with the private sector, with neighboring suburbs, or through community leadership. Newark, New Jersey, for example, has actively recruited recycling industries to the city, promoting economic development and jobs at available sites zoned only for industrial use (14). The city of Leicester, England, is using a grant from the national government to clean up vacant land in the city center and is broadening the city's economy with the addition of a new research science park (15). Jacksonville, Florida, has consolidated its city and county governments enabling the city to share resources within the region (16).

Detroit, however, has failed to attract new businesses, such as banking or other service industries. Attempts at establishing metropolitan-wide planning have failed, and political decisionmaking often breaks down into debates between the white suburbs and the black inner city. Whereas in 1950, politics were dominated by a strong Democratic party and active labor unions, the active engagement of civil society in government is sorely lacking (17).

The election of a new mayor in 1994 has brought some hope to the city. Spurred by the belief that the city government cannot tackle Detroit's ills on its own, the mayor's office is working to facilitate partnerships with community members and private businesses. In addition, Detroit recently won a $100 million urban redevelopment grant from the national government to encourage new businesses to move to the central city (18).

The zone marked for renewal encompasses the far east side of Detroit, through the Woodward corridor and into southwest Detroit (19). Median family income in the zone is under $10,000 a year, and 47 percent of residents live below the poverty line (20). The redevelopment proposal covers a range of activities from job training to building renovation to classes on parenthood (21). By the year 2005, Mayor Dennis Archer hopes to create 5,800 new jobs in the area (22). Cooperative ventures between banks, schools, and auto companies are expected to pump an additional $1.9 billion into the community over the next 10 years and generate at least 3,275 more jobs (23).

References and Notes


1. Arthur M. Woodford, Detroit: American Urban Renaissance (Continental
   Heritage, Inc., Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1979), p. 91.

2. United States (U.S.)Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the
   United States, 1915, 38th edition (U.S. Government Printing Office,
   Washington, D.C., 1916), p. 40.

3. Op. cit. 1, p. 106.

4. Ed Hustoles, "City Life, Scenes, Feelings," in Detroit Lives,
   Robert H. Mast, ed. (Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1994),
   pp. 156-157.

5. Myron E. Adams, "Detroit--A City Awake," Survey (August 5, 1911), as
   reprinted in Detroit Perspectives: Crossroads and Turning Points,
   Wilma Wood, ed. (Wayne State University Press, Detroit, Michigan,
   1991), p. 289.

6. United States (U.S.)Bureau of the Census, Poverty in the United
   States 1992 (U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1992),
   p. 46.

7. Office of the State Registrar and Division of Health Statistics,
   "Table 7: Infant Deaths, Live Births and Infant Death Rates:
   Selected Michigan Cities, 1992 and 1993," unpublished data (Michigan
   Department of Public Health, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1993).

8. United States (U.S.)Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of
   the United States, 1972, 93rd edition (U.S. Government Printing
   Office, Washington, D.C., 1972), p. 145.

9. United States (U.S.)Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of
   the United States, 1981, 102nd edition (U.S. Government Printing
   Office, Washington, D.C., 1981), p. 175.

10. United States (U.S.)Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of
    the United States, 1993, 113th edition (U.S. Government Printing
    Office, Washington, D.C., 1993), p. 195.

11. Episcopal Diocese of Michigan, "The Emerging Pattern: A Regional
    Perspective," as reprinted in Detroit Perspectives: Crossroads and
    Turning Points, Wilma Wood, ed. (Wayne State University Press,
    Detroit, Michigan, 1991), pp. 544-545.

12. United States (U.S.) Bureau of the Census, County and City Data
    Book: 1994 (U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.,
    1994), pp. 758, 764.

13. David Rusk, "Thinking Regionally, Stretching Central Cities," in The
    State of the American Community: Empowerment for Local Action,
    Robert H. McNulty, ed. (Partners for Livable Communities,
    Washington, D.C., 1994), pp. 42-43.

14. Newark Public Information Office (NPIO), "City of Newark to Attract
    Recycling Businesses to "Planet Newark,'" press release (NPIO,
    Newark, New Jersey, June 13, 1994), pp. 1-3.

15. Department of the Environment, City Challenge: Partnerships
    Regenerating England's Urban Areas (United Kingdom Department
    of the Environment, London, 1994), p. 12.

16. Op. cit. 13, pp. 48■49.

17. Hank V. Savitch and Paul Kantor, "Urban Mobilization of Private
    Capital: A Cross- National Comparison," Occasional Paper Series
    No. 3 (Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars,
    Washington, D.C., 1994), p. 20.

18. John Lippert and Roger Chesley, "Just a Modest $2.2-Billion
    Proposal," Detroit News and Free Press (November 13, 1994), p. 1F.

19. Ibid.

20. Op. cit. 18, p. 4F.

21. Sam Walker, "Detroit Battles Decay, Joblessness in Ultimate U.S.
    Test of Renewal," Christian Science Monitor (February 9, 1995),
    p. 18.

22. Op. cit. 18.

23. Op. cit. 21.

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