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Columns
Craig Ruff
Craig Ruff

Does Michigan
Need Cities?


September 18, 2011

The whole history of this and other societies is of people compacting themselves into dense groupings. For safety; commerce; access to food, water, utilities, and other essentials; and amenities, cities have lured people for eons.

Recently, my wife and I visited the eastern Mediterranean. In Mycenae, on the Peloponnese Peninsula southwest of Athens, lie ruins of a people perched upon a hilltop. The ruins are roughly 5,500 years old. A great wall insulated them from attacks. From here, one of their leaders (Agamemnon) conquered Troy (Turkey). At least several thousand people lived in the sheltered city until they suddenly dropped off the map about 1500 B.C.

We traipsed through Ephesus, Turkey, with breathtaking ruins of a metropolis housing roughly 250,000 people in the first century B.C. In Rome, by 200 A.D., a million or more people resided.

For 500 years after the sacking of Rome, nomads and barbarians ruled the roost. By 1000 A.D., the largest city in Europe (Cordoba, Spain) laid claim to about 250,000 residents, and by then Rome’s populace had shrunk to 30,000. In the 18th century, Cordoba was down to 20,000.

This extraordinarily brief history of ancient people underscores a point: Humans crave density; they build cities and, sometimes, cities collapse.

Do cities still matter? They surely do. They headquarter corporations, jobs, government, cultural legacies, and entertainment. Because of so many producers and retailers, consumers benefit from relatively low prices for higher quality goods and a plethora of choices. Talent thrives when confronted by a critical mass of other talent.

Young people flock to cities. They ditch their cars and ride public transit. They shop and play within walking distance of their apartments. Tourists, too, love cities because of their cultural and entertainment vitality and their historical treasures.

Cities are gritty and not simple. We put up with the often ill-tempered mood of frenzied residents and with jam-packed, sweat-laden buses and trains and horrific traffic. High prices. Dinky dwellings. Tons more concrete than greenery. Crime. Often poor schools. But for at least half of human history, the more people who live in a place, the more people who want to live there.

Against the grain of history and in contrast to most populous states, the last couple of generations of Michiganians have eschewed cities. Of our 20 most populous cities, 15 lost people between 2000 and 2010. The gainers (Sterling Heights, Dearborn, Troy, Wyoming, and Rochester Hills) lie outside the central cities of their regions (Detroit and Grand Rapids). In these 10 years, some cities lost astounding percentages of residents: Detroit (25 percent), Flint (18 percent), Pontiac (10.3 percent), and Southfield (8.4 percent).

Michigan’s population declined by 54,852 between 2000 and 2010. Detroit lost 237,493 people and the remaining 19 largest cities recorded a net loss of another 66,000 souls. Were it not for the outflow from our largest cities, the state would have shown a gain of a quarter million people during the aughts.

My hometown of Saginaw really sticks out as an example of the decitification of our state. In the early 1960s, as I was moving from elementary to junior high school, the city had about 102,000 people living in it. The city accounted for 51.5 percent of Saginaw County’s populace. In 2010 city residents numbered 51,508 (almost precisely half that of 50 years before) and only 24.5 percent of the county’s residents. In the last 10 years it lost 16.7 percent of its population.

The decline of Michigan cities has been a half century of a withering diaspora. The excruciatingly painful discarding of homes and commercial property cannot simply be ascribed to the dreadful economy of the past decade. If anything, a poor economy drives more people from rural areas into cities, typically where jobs are more plentiful. Yet, deindustrialization surely accounts for much population loss in cities, not just in Michigan but throughout the Rust Belt.

I recognize that our metropolitan areas, which include core cities, are holding their own. Indeed, they represent nearly 90 percent of all jobs and gross domestic product of Michigan. We may need to expand our thinking about what is urban — what is a city — to include the areas and people living places nearby cities.

Why Michiganians fled cities, in defiance of a long global and current national experience, unsettles me greatly. It is terribly destructive economically. You cannot explain cities’ depopulation simply because a downturn of this or that industry, important as that often is. Abandoning cities is damn near unique to Michigan (although one easily can point to other once-powerful cities, such as Cleveland, that share our cities’ distress) and requires you to suspend economic logic and the historical record.

Decitification in Michigan is a pressing matter. State public policy has not been on the side of cities. The State must take the lead in bolstering them. Our attitudes and behavior, too, are way out of synch with global societies. We have an attitude (I go so far as to call it a sickness) that begs for analysis. Our cities have characteristics, like woeful public transit and few outlets for groceries, that cling to a car-frenzied industrial age.

Cities do not appeal to a lot of people in Michigan. A couple of hundred years from now, historians may say that by letting cities wither we were, as Heath Ledger (The Joker) so creepily uttered, “just ahead of the curve.” That’s a bit like betting on the longest of long shots.

Michigan today, with nearly 10 million residents, has but one city, Detroit, that houses more people than Ephesus in the 1st century B.C. or Cordoba in the year 1000. From Ephesus, Cordoba, and Rome, we are unlikely to learn much about the reasons for Detroit’s evacuation and the decline (possibly fall) of less populated cities of Michigan. We learn far more from Chicago, New York, Boston, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Denver, and a host of American cities that attract people in the modern era.

In future columns, I plan to examine race, health, schooling, housing, taxes, transportation, architecture and design, entertainment, taxes, city services, and commerce as factors in how we, in Michigan, part company with civilization. I will weigh in on state public policy choices that may help revitalize cities.

Does Michigan need cities? Unequivocally, I say “yes.” Getting there is a whole ’nother kettle of fish. Why we, virtually alone and voluntarily, turned vibrant cities into detritus defines us and, very sadly, forecasts our future.

Craig Ruff is, among many things, a senior policy fellow and former president of Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants.

September 18, 2011 · Filed under Craig's Grist

32 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Lynn Ochberg // Sep 19, 2011 at 7:56 am

    One method of re-igniting cities is to impose an urban service boundary upon the suburbs of a decaying city as 17 entities around Lansing are in the process of doing. This discourages urban sprawl and encourages redevelopment where infrastructure already exists within the city. Another method would be to require all townships, villages and smaller cities that touch a bigger city to consolidate into a metropolitan area government that could benefit from the economies of scale.

  • 2 Andy // Sep 19, 2011 at 8:48 am

    Craig, there are a number of bloggers who’ve contributed much of interest on the topic of Rust Belt urbanism, chiefly Richard Longworth (http://globalmidwest.typepad.com/) & Aaron Renn (http://urbanophile.com). I’ve also touched on it in number of posts on my blog:
    - nationally: http://wp.me/p18GNg-3X
    -the case of metro Detroit: http://wp.me/p18GNg-A7, and http://wp.me/p18GNg-z
    My theory is that Michigan, including metro Detroiters, has been fundamentally anti-urban in its culture up to this point, & this is only now starting to change.

    I am glad to see you paying attention to this topic & look forward to reading more of your thoughts.

  • 3 Anagnorisis // Sep 19, 2011 at 9:13 am

    Cities do rise and fall, some to become extinct, others to revitalize, for a variety of catalysts. Alexander the Great of Macedon, north of the Peloponnese peninsula contiguous to Athens, left that repository of art and learning pretty much intact while utterly destroying other city/states. Modern Athens though still a tourist attraction is hardly the center of creativity it was in the 4th, 5th and 6 th centuries prior to Alexander’s reign. Similarly Detroit as with other American cities has experienced its own version of vanquish, first by white flight, then auto company implosion. Tax laws and the quest for cheaper labor may have some bearing on the departure of companies for lesser taxed, non-unionized offshore sites. Suggestions of revitalization via immigrant initiative seem credible whereas community victory gardens are a nice interim quick fix. “Urban renewal” has already eliminated much of the future ruins for archeological digs. Michigan cities basically are exhibiting the planned obsolescence example of much of the state’s and country’s (and imported) products. Detroit just plain wore out as did many other of the auto centers. All that’s left are a majority poor and a skeleton crew of leaders. Midtown, Palmer Park, Indian Village, Corktown may survive as islands of sophistication but crime and desolation insure that no other influx will arrive but perhaps industrious ethnic groups. Industry holds Grand Rapids together as does government Lansing but all the baby Detroits are feeling the same rout and decline. When the DIA, WSU, RENCEN and the remaining auto companies move out to Farmington Hills, the encroaching ruins may soon resemble Mycenae.

  • 4 Craig Ruff // Sep 20, 2011 at 9:36 pm

    Lynn: You absolutely are on the right track. Both urban service boundaries and consolidation into a metropolitan government make infinitely good sense.

    Andy: You provide links to superb, meaty thinking. I’ll tap them for upcoming essays.

    Anagnorisis: Familiar as you are with Detroit, its history, and its current and future challenges, you are insightful and realistic. A rare combination, indeed!

  • 5 Jack McHugh // Sep 23, 2011 at 9:06 am

    In ancient times, barbarians looted cities and their populations. In many cities today, the looters are their own politicians and unionized employees. No wonder people split.

    (Actually, the pols were certainly big-time looters in olden times also, but the barbs got the headlines.)

  • 6 Joe Ross // Sep 23, 2011 at 9:27 pm

    Michigan is becoming a lower wage state which in turn will lure companies. It’s unfortunate but these companies (some returning off-shore) will seek out our cites blighted low cost commercial buildings. I know, it’s not an upbeat scenario.
    http://www.PrCr.biz

  • 7 James Brazier // Oct 7, 2011 at 3:41 pm

    Decitification has not meant the lack of urban amenities as the population sprawled to municipalities that offered the same city services at lower tax rates. In addition, the spread of the electrical grid accompanied with improvements in telecommunications when added to the lure of plentiful, cheap land has made it easy for industries and the people to leave central cities. A person living in a rural area can enjoy the same amenities as a person living in a central city.

    Of course, our culture has glorified the benefits of open spaces and rural living; and, this has enhanced the lure of leaving the central cities.

    While urban sprawl is tragic for cities, it will not disappear. Although the forces behind the trends toward more of it might be made less attractive through new public policies.

    Craig, I will be interested to see what you recommend. The politics of sprawl has been addressed by an enterprising Minnesotan politician and should be examined since new public policies will require building new political coalitions.

  • 8 Dan Wholihan // Oct 25, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    If cities want to come back, they need to reduce their worries about fluff issues like rail, walk-ability, and the like touted by the “Richard Florida” crowd, and concentrate on the important stuff first. Crime. Costs. Schools. Jobs. The other stuff isn’t unimportant, but things start with those four issues.

    Cities lose populations as the 20 and 30 somethings get married, have kids, and want to raise them in good and safe school districts.

    Costs are also important. Property taxes, insurance costs, and housing values matter.

    Schools and jobs are obvious.

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