During the last century, America’s towns and cities struggled through stages of development from the base of formation to sustainable levels. Others grew and a relative few prospered as highly livable environments.
By the 1950s, America’s love of cars opened up our cities to suburbanization. By the 1970s, our cities dealt with social equity. The eighties brought redefining of economic comparative advantages, and by the 1990s, most were minimizing environmental impacts to create better human habitat. In the continuing race for survival, in the 2000s, cities are competing for human talent that will bring prosperity by investing in higher levels of livability.
Yet, examples of cities that have struggled through earlier stages of development abound. Many of America’s cities and towns are now stuck in various levels of arrested development. In some cases, failure to progress killed growth. In others, it reversed growth trends, and in still others, communities have faded off the map.
Detroit followed the progression pattern of the 50s with suburbanization, but she failed to progress through social equity in the 70s. From her incorporation until 1967, Detroit fell into a pattern of institutional racism from which she could not loose herself. Faced with the shock of the 1967 riot, Detroit chose to retreat rather than to mature through this phase of city growth.
As the city suffered through symptoms of crime and blight for not having succeeded in correcting her arrested development, Detroit attempted to leap frog her issues to create a livable city of the 2000s without first resolving social equity. Her attempt proved disastrous.
Given the symptoms of exodus that resulted from Detroit’s refusal to deal with institutional racism, the city’s leaders chose instead to construct a Renaissance Center to allow consumers to avoid the city’s rampant crime. Instead, the Center lost money with low occupancy while citizens left the city in droves. The city erected new sports stadiums and built colleges but still the people left.
Like any living being, cities have a hierarchy of needs. At the basest level, a community can live if it meets base needs. Like some of America’s ghost gold mining towns, communities can grow for a short while but to sustain them once they have grown, they must have sustainable traits. From that point, cities can continue to grow if they incorporate additional traits. Ultimately, prosperous cities will incorporate those traits that make them the most livable:
Natural resources to sustain life
Self-sustaining industry or trade with other cities
Jobs to support population at minimal level of consumption
Crime lower than exodus threshold
Cost of living matches wage levels
Balanced city budget providing adequate city services
Social equity and integration
Support for dynamic business environment
Wage progression, job complexity, growing labor demand
Wages exceed cost of living
Safe and Affordable housing for seniors and disabled
Productive schools from pre-school through colleges
Ease of Transportation
Clean air and water
Effective Emergency response
Preparedness for disaster mitigation and response
Regional networking of services, land use, trade, with other cities and towns
Supportive natural resources and climate
Functioning neighborhoods with plazas and meeting spaces, diverse recreation and green space, sports and shopping
Vibrant city center inclusive of all ages, races and ethnicities
Political engagement of citizens
Preservation of inclusive cultural history and character
Support for arts
Design of urban environment for function, form, aesthetics
Land use planning that includes density of living and working spaces, access to congregational space, and larger recreational and green spaces
Balance of hierarchy between neighborhoods to reduce ghettoization
Uniqueness of natural environment surrounding city
How did Detroit progress along this hierarchy of city needs? How would this hierarchy predict Detroit’s sustainability and growth? What would it suggest that Detroit’s highest priorities should be?