Sunday, July 6, 2008

Feral Detroit

A few years ago, I flew low over Detroit. I couldn't believe what I saw. Huge streches of empty grass that used to be neighbourhoods, punctuated by the occasional wrecked or still standing house. Here is a photo comparing one neigbourhood in 1949 and 2003. This article shows what it looks like on the ground.


In recent years, Detroit has become an attraction for urban explorers. Here is a flikr group dedicated to photos of abandoned Detroit buildings. And here is the origional Metafilter post that led me to the subject.

Clearly, Detroit is a special case. The riots and auto business shrinkage in the 70's doomed the downtown. The normal business cycle upturn that should have restored the city's fortunes simply never came. New car plants went to other parts of the US with cheaper labor. The successive waves of job cuts became permanent. As a result, the population has dropped from 1.8 million in 1959 to 950,000 in 2000. Someplace, the city passed a tipping point. It seems unlikely that it can ever recover.

Other old American cities have experienced similar tendencies, but none so dramatically. Besides urban decay, there are two other interesting trends emerging. The first is the de-population of the northern plains states. It looks entirely possible that in 2100, great swaths of the Dakotas and Montana will have returned to the open grasslands that existed before 1800. The recent discovery of oil may actually accelerate that trend as the local economies find a new life not dependent on agriculture. However, it is also possible that land uneconomic for grain may be useful for ethanol. Even so, it appears the era of the great plains family farm has ended. And with it goes the first engine of American economic might. For it was the industrialization of agriculture, particularly beef and grain, that led to the rise of US wealth in the 19th century.

photo: flikr

Lastly, there is the brand new trend of empty suburbs due to the current housing meltdown. California has been hit the worst, and may find it difficult to recover in the long run. The slow realization has started to grow that there is simply not enough water in California to support the present level of population. Drought is putting pressure on supply and some have suggested that the last 100 years have been untypically wet on the west coast. In any case, California is fast approaching a point where trade-offs must be made between water for agriculture and water for population centers. The empty suburbs of Stockton may become permanent ghost towns.

photo Modesto Bee