Revitalized European Cities Might Provide Answer to Detroit’s Recovery

The city of Detroit has become synonymous with the economic restructuring taking place in the United States, including deindustrialization, decentralization, and globalization. As a result, Detroit has entered into a half century period of protracted social and economic decline creating what many consider to be a ”dystopian disaster.” Since 1950, no city has seen a larger population decline than Detroit, losing nearly half its population. The city is also now one of the most segregated and poorest metropolitan areas in the nation, with the central city 82 percent African American and unemployment near 28 percent. As this article in The New Republic notes, ”in [any] key measures of economic vitality in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan regions, Detroit finishes dead last.”

Although the situation in Detroit may seem grim, the New Republic notes that many European cities have suffered under the same circumstances and have recently come out ahead after the process of deindustrialization and economic collapse. Cities like Belfast, once an important industrial center in Northern Ireland, suffered not only economic decline but also religious violence. However, over the five years it has seen economic output increase 35 percent as the city has shifted to services, design and technology related jobs.

Turin, Italy, also provides an example of how Detroit might right itself. Once the car capital of Italy, automobiles accounting for 80 percent of the city’s industrial output, Turin fell on hard times as manufactures moved to Eastern Europe for cheaper labor. Turin’s population plummeted 30 percent in 25 years and went into deep debt. In 1993, the city elected a reformist mayor who outlined 84 actions Turin would take to spur development by 2014. The city recognized its tremendous asset of individuals with industrial design backgrounds and invested money in creating business incubators and research labs to take advantage of this potential. The plan worked and Turin has increased economic activity to the highest it had been in the last half century. The new economy was based around design of not just automobiles, but aerospace, cinematography, and textiles.

Bilbao in the Basque region of Spain also provides an excellent example of how a previously industrial city has managed to turn its economy around and build off a base of existing assets. The city and federal government of Spain invested heavily in retooling the infrastructure of Bilbao, a new metro system, airport, tram line, and sewer system all allowed the city to reinvent itself and open access to revitalizing the cities long neglected waterfront district. A Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim museum added a cultural relevance to the city and helped expand its potential role as a tourist destination.

The article notes that Detroit has, like many of these European cities, ”good bones,” assets that have gone underutilized and have a high potential for redevelopment as tools for a new economy. New Federal investments in high speed rail and transit lines, along with changes in city land use policy toward a smart growth code, might help Detroit turn itself around. As the author notes, ”Detroit’s leaders must manage expectations. It took half a century for the city to get this low. It won’t turn around in a four-year political cycle… To allow Detroit to continue its march toward death would come at significant costs, both human and economic. For Detroit to die, especially in the face of such tested methods for saving cities, would be an American tragedy.”  12/9/2009

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