Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Replacing Cities with Farms

Sir Peter Hall has had a remarkable career. For many years he was a government planning adviser, he led regeneration of the Thames gateway and the building of the channel tunnel, was a member of the urban taskforce and the Barker review of housing supply. But if anything proves pre-eminence it is the ability to be proved right. He has achieved this many times, and it looks like he has done it again over his prediction of the fate of the city of Detroit. Back in 1998 in his book , “Cities in Civilization,” he said that Detroit “has become an astonishing case of industrial dereliction; perhaps, before long, the first major industrial city in history to revert to farmland.”

Detroit has a claim to be the world’s vacancy capital. In its motorcity heyday in the 1950s it was the was the fourth most populous city in the United States. Today it has slipped to eleventh. The decline is not simply that others have overtaken it; Detroit’s population has gone backwards. The impact of this is dramatic. A survey last month showed a vacancy rate of a staggering 35% . Meaning more than 100,000 homes are standing empty.
There has been much soul searching about what can be done, but this week it appears Sir Peter Hall correctly predicted what would happen twelve years ago. Yesterday AP reported that new city Mayor Dave Bing is set to announce that 10,000 houses are to be cleared to make way for farmland.

Of course we know something about this idea in the UK with similar announcements having been made about the future of post industrial cities in the north of England at the end of the last century. The programme that ensued (housing market renewal) originally planned to clear 400,000 houses under rather pessimistic sounding terms like “managing decline” As far as I can recall nobody at the time suggested that the land should be used for farming (an industry that appeared to be in terminal decline itself at the time) But in the decade that has followed the language and the aspiration has subtly changed and now housing market renewal talks about rebuilding housing markets and communities. Some even claim that objective now is for the programme to increase population and housing supply. This is a low point for Detroit, and at such times getting rid of the problem might seem to be the best idea. In the UK it turned out the doomsayers were wrong. With national population increasing our post-industrial cities have begun to recover. The concept of clearance merely as a method of reducing housing supply has been mercifully ditched. Sir Peter Hall may have predicted the response correctly, but hopefully in the end he will be proved wrong.

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