The Not-So-Distant Future: Cities in 2020, Part 10

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We continue our in-depth look at Weis and Arnesen’s “Thriving as a City in 2020,” this time holding the magnifying glass to sports, gambling and other event centers.

Posted By Megan Wildhood

Nov. 27, 2012

Vital to the city of the future is permanent people – not day visitors, jamming up the urban infrastructure for a sports event or night of gambling, but people who live and move and have their being in the city.  Weis and Arnesen take their criticism of the “passing through” model upon which through-city highways were built to the next level:



             A city is already in rigor mortis when its leaders suggest that a new convention center, or a new casino, or a new stadium, is the way to revitalize the commerce center.  The city or the place that once was a city needs people.  And it doesn’t need people visiting for a convention or a baseball game or gaming evening it needs people living and working and spending money, day in and day out, in and around the periphery of the city center.

            The geography that was once the city of Detroit has tried all of the desperation measures:  casinos, convention centers, exhibition halls, and stadiums.  Despite rosy predictions about where the former city is headed, it doesn’t take an overly pessimistic visitor to doubt a recent Brookings Institution report concluding that Downtown Detroit has the right assets to continue its transition into a vibrant place to work, play, and live (Brookings Institution, 2006).  The right assets?  The former city may still be a nominal place to work, but it’s far from being a place to live and play.  By year 2000 the population density of Detroit had fallen to 3356 persons per square mile (U. S. Census Bureau, 2000), under 30 percent of the 12,000 threshold to be called a city.  The total population of the city in 2005 was 886,675, down 52 percent from the 1950 population of 1,849,568 (Metzger, 2005).

            Similar to the promises made to Seattle’s Pioneer Square merchants, Detroit hoped to build downtown commercial vitality with new football and baseball stadiums, new gambling casinos, and a new convention and trade center.  But the answer to a vibrant commercial district is always housing and population density, not mega-entertainment and convention structures.  Indeed, housing density has never cohabitated with casinos and stadiums.

            Detroit is only one example of numerous former American cities that have tried, and are trying, to resuscitate their downtown corpses with sports, entertainment, and convention facilities.  These are last-ditch efforts to recover what has long been lost when cities forgot the importance of people in the landscape of urban life.  But if we were to select one former city as both a model for urban decay, as well as an exporter of urban decay, Detroit would get the nod.  Detroit once thrived by promoting the preeminence of the automobile in the fabric of American life.  Our obsession with the automobile, in particular our eagerness to neglect all other planning considerations for its accommodation, was the death knell of the American city.  Downtown and periphery residential space was the first fatality, as we transformed dense housing tracts into parking lots and in-city throughways.

            Detroit won that war to transform America into a car-dependent and car-obsessed cesspool of freeways, parking lots, shopping malls and suburban blight.  But it would also succumb to the cancer that it seeded, today distinguishable from other former cities only by the utter extremity of its decay.

Championing the personal automobile is not just the death knell for cities.  The effects of pollution on our health are by now familiar, and it’s been damaging our community life in ways far greater than we know.  The fastest way to a strong city, which Weis and Arnesen is going to be necessary for survival in a warming, crowded future, is people, not as patrons, but as permanent residents.   And that’s going to take real solutions including housingeffective transportation and beauty.

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