The lobby of the Detroit Opera House.

The lobby of the Detroit Opera House.

Last week's Congress for the New Urbanism reaffirmed many of the things I believe about Detroit while opening my eyes to the extremes of those beliefs.

First, I believe that Detroit is one of the most exciting cities in America, a true example of what can be done when we start work at the core of the city and build places that are (increasingly) scaled to people. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said in the opening plenary, that a resurgence for his city won't happen by imitating the suburbs. Every trip I make there I find more and more to be optimistic about.... the downtown core.

My second belief is that Detroit has a doughnut of despair for which there is no practical solution. I sat in stunned amazement during the opening plenary as Mayor Duggan -- after saying all the right things about what went wrong and how to fix it -- added that no neighborhood would be left behind, that he was committed to helping them all. If he had said people, I would be with him 100%, but neighborhoods....there's just no way.

My friend, Strong Towns member Edward Erfurt, made this remark on our GroupMe channel on his way out of town:

I made the mistake of driving out into the city. Detroit is a very sad place. Downtown is not a realistic measure of success for Detroit. 
I saw trillions of federal dollars wasted. I left completely depressed. I worked in Louisiana after the hurricanes. Detroit is much worse.
I wished we took more time to talk about the issues facing Detroit. Detroit is a giant green field heavy with history and memory.

Earlier this year I wrote a piece on Flint's water system ("A simple idea for Flint") in which I put forth an idea for providing affordable and safe drinking water that I'd been pondering for some time (not specifically for Flint). The idea, in short, involved building a series of small systems that would be drinking water only and then using the existing non-potable system for fire protection only. 

I received a lot of push back, here and in other places, suggesting that I was not being compassionate, equitable or understanding by advocating for what could be viewed as an inferior system for a place that is clearly disadvantaged. Here's part of one comment:

If I were a resident of Flint, I would find your rather cold, mathematical method highly insulting. To judge the "worth" of delivering clean water to Flint homes according to their home values is in especially bad taste. We deliver water to people that live in homes. Not the homes in abstract. And people are priceless. One of those homes in Flint could house the next Bill Gates. And he or she deserves a water system that we know works. Not another experiment for the sole sake of saving money.

I came up with the approach in an attempt to address the massive financial insolvencies in small town water systems across the country -- most of which are financially disadvantaged but not necessarily home to large percentages of racial minorities -- and was simply applying the logic to Flint. All the politicians that flocked to Flint ahead of the Michigan primary made wild promises that are not likely to ever be fulfilled, even partially. 

And it's not even likely that the people of Flint, if they magically had the billions they would need to replace their water system, would choose to spend the money on an oversized, wasteful fire fighting system that also happens to provide clean drinking water. It's much more likely that, given the choice, they would put in the cheaper drinking water only system and use the rest of the money for other, more pressing, needs.

So when the mayor of Detroit says that no neighborhood will be left behind, does he believe it -- in which case he is dangerously delusional -- or is he saying the only thing that is socially acceptable for him to say?

If it's the latter -- and I highly suspect that it is -- then what are the implications for the doughnut of despair? These places have failed. People there are suffering. Do we pretend we'll get around to stitching their neighborhood back together despite the fact that it was built in a financially insolvent way to begin with? Do we pretend that things will someday get back to how they were if people just hang on long enough? If that's what people really believe is respectful, then I'm completely out of touch with the modern definition of empathy.

During our first week of the Antifragile book club, one of our Slack chats centered around what in a city should be fragile and what must be antifragile, what should be allowed to break and what needed to be protected. Nassim Taleb uses the example of restaurants to make a point about antifragility. While each individual restaurant is fragile and can go under at any moment -- and we wouldn't want to save them -- this makes the restaurant scene antifragile, something that gains from disorder. We had a consensus that, for cities, individual blocks and neighborhoods needed to be fragile -- to be allowed to fail -- so that the city as a whole could become antifragile but that individual people needed to be protected. 

What is going on in the doughnut of despair surrounding downtown Detroit is not a policy choice. It is a consequence of policy choice. There is no bringing back the illusion of wealth or, to paraphrase Tomas Sedlacek, Detroit can not get back its unsustainability. Now what?

I'm not going to pretend I know the answer, but if I had to start finding it, I would make a go at moving -- literally picking up and transporting -- the highest quality homes available within that doughnut of despair into the acres of underutilized parking lots in the downtown core. If that filled up, I'd start working on filling the neighborhoods directly adjacent. And then I'd work to help my people there as cheaply and affordably as possible so that they, too, can participate in the resurgence. So that they can build their own wealth and not be left behind on the margins this time.

How Detroit handles the next decade is going to be a model for American cities as they catch up with Detroit and enter the final stages of the growth ponzi scheme. Isolating the poor and disadvantaged on the edge of the community -- inverting the suburban flight of the 1950's and 1960's -- is the worst possible outcome. It's also the inevitable outcome if we can't speak honestly with each other about the consequences of our development pattern.

Read Johnny Sanphillippo's response article, "The Doughtnut of Despair? Not Quite" and listen to a podcast featuring Chuck and Johnny debating this issue.

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