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How Do We Keep From Becoming Detroit?

By JoshMogerman in News on Apr 1, 2012 9:00PM

Vacant South Side Rowhouses [jmogs]

Cities thrive on density, both economically and culturally. When population plummets, everything follows. Nowhere is that more evident than Detroit, where the sheer emptiness that has followed its decline is described in eye-popping detail by the Free-Press today:

If vacant lots were painted red, an aerial view of Detroit would look like a bad case of the measles. There is so much empty land today within Detroit's 139 square miles -- land slowly returning to nature with no buildings -- the city of Paris could fit inside. If all that land were gathered into football fields, Detroit could host 25,000 simultaneous games.
The Detroit Works project is a multiyear investigation into solutions to bring the Motor City back, but as the deadline for a final report looms, the answers are unclear. That comes as no solace here in Chicago, where we can no longer look at the plight of our industrial neighbor as a unique example of urban rot. The most recent census shows our population at its lowest total in a century and many of the same creeping problems are engulfing swaths of our town. Lee Bey nicely encapsulated the issue blogging about a trip on the Rock Island Metra line, noting the “vast emptiness of the South Side” along the route.

The Freep notes some potential solutions that are likely to be included in the report. And here, we can take some comfort. Chicago is already trying many of the fixes they have identified: while we don’t have the same potential, urban farming is alive and well here after some help from the City Council; we have already converted a sprawling brownfield into the nation's largest solar farm, hinting at both re-use and energy solutions for the future; the City Council and County Board have put aggressive vacant property ordinances in place that should, if they survive legal challenges, help properties change hands before they become community blights; and the City is already buying up properties to help stabilize some neighborhoods. And that stuff is all great, but unfortunately, some close to the Detroit effort concede that they do not think the projects being bandied about will be enough. If it's not going to be enough in Detroit (where demolition permits outnumber building permits 10:1), will it do the trick here (where one in 10 buildings are vacant)? Probably not.

Look, we are not dissing the Arsenal of Democracy. We’ve professed our love for Detroit before. We know this is apples and oranges stuff with a toxic stew of cultural and economic issues that both complicate and differentiate the plight of both cities. And while this ain’t The Urbanophile or MPC’s Connector blog, we are really interested to hear what else you would like to see going on here in the Chi to stave off a dangerous slide. Suggestions?