Following decades of decay, Detroiters resign themselves to a smaller scale future. This is shortsighted; the city has unacknowledged options.
A cure requires acknowledging the disease; Detroit is one of the most lopsided urban sprawls in the world. The Motor City is extraordinary in decay and morphology. In this article I examine a boundary segmenting Detroit that may be choking the city to death.
Few Americans can recall a time when “Detroit” conjured excitement, when the ambitious flocked to the Motor City to forge dreams. It happened and remains imprinted in the city’s architecture and culture.
Early 20th century Detroit was a boomtown, rich in employment, the backbone of a transformational industry, not unlike modern day Silicon Valley. Rapidly ascending the American urban hierarchy, Detroit peaked as 4th largest US city, 1920-1940.
Motown’s glory days famously ended. The city proper holds 40% the residents it did in 1950. As of the last census, Greater Detroit’s population is still declining. (Combined Statistical Area – US Census Bureau).
Not alone, Detroit is part of the American Rust Belt, a region characterized by the collapse of manufacturing in big American cities including Pittsburg, Philadelphia, New York, Rochester, Syracuse, Boston, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Buffalo, Chicago, Milwaukee and several more. Here busy factories closed to lay dormant and rusting.
Urban decline is well documented, its cause is not the focus here. I gloss over it with brief mention that under normal circumstances cities can expect threats to their prosperity because their environment is highly competitive. Here, the subject is Detroit’s inability to cope with a normal environment. The city’s long and continued malaise is note worthy, differentiating it from most of its large Rust Belt peers who evolved into the industries of new. Not at Detroit, here the city remains committed to the industry of old amidst a confronting physical reality.
Half a City
Detroit’s is literally half a city…
The motor city is exceptional in decay and morphology. The satellite images above display Detroit’s extreme asymmetry. Most cities sprawl from their core in all directions with asymmetry due to geography (e.g. water, mountains). Not at Detroit. The east and west are environmentally identical but the east is stunted. Why?
A white line segments the labelled photo (left). This represents the US-Canada border. Detroit is sliced down the middle by a national boundary; it’s sister city, Windsor, is in another country. This is unfortunate because segmenting boundaries usually have an overall negative economic impact on cities. For example, Greater Detroit is one sprawl with two national governments. Thus, what would otherwise be a singular urban unit has 2 halves with no shared government interests whatsoever. The results are confronting. Herein lies the core of Detroit’s vulnerability.
An urban sprawl represents a mass concentration of infrastructure. The majority of these parts are approved, funded and orchestrated by government. Detroit is an interesting example of how borders impact the spatial distribution of infrastructure.
Boundaries, even within country, segregate urban planning, introduce tax competition and invite duplication, creating asymmetries and inefficiencies in what should be an integrated economic unit. For example, New York City (NYC) is segmented by the New York (NY), New Jersey (NJ) state line. One result is that New York’s subway system, an extensive network linking most inner regions, has no presence in NJ despite many NJ towns/cities being as central as Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens. Meanwhile in NJ, the duplicative and limited PATH Rail System hardly compensates. The result is a lopsided provision of infrastructure and a central area with untapped economic potential.
Boundaries also create competitive economic forces within an urban sprawl, comparable to an organism experiencing autoimmune disease. Residents, individuals or companies, can choose a tax environment in the same location. Companies sometimes leverage this duality to their advantage, seeking the best deal as both sides race to the bottom. Below is a recent example from Philadelphia, another city segmented by a state boundary.
It is understandable 2 sides of a boundary will manage their territories exclusively, yet at a mega-economic level divisions undermine urban sprawls. Liken an urban sprawl to an organism and such imbalances might be interpreted differently, as impediments to the circulation of resources and correctly identified as having a negative impact on the health of the greater whole.
Despite close proximity, Detroit and Windsor are not loving sisters. From Detroit’s perspective, Windsor is an after thought or vacationland. In 2008, I spoke with the Detroit mayor’s office to learn more about the city’s interface with Windsor. The mayor’s aides were speechless when I enquired of existing dialogue. “We don’t even know names,” one blurted, later elaborating, “We don’t have time for that. We’re barely coping with our current budgetary situation.” As time proved, his words were true.
I learned that despite Detroit’s proximity to the border, it is powerless to it. Furthermore, without a political tie it makes little sense for Detroit and Windsor to collaborate, share budget allocations, or collectively lobby a government entity for support.
While Detroit is aloof, Windsor is a fiscal parasite. With its sparkling casinos clustered at the border, Windsor’s economy partly relies upon attracting US dollars. Normally, this would be fair game; however,the border reveals that Ontario is a particularly unsavory neighbor.
Ontario is a fierce competitor
Many Ontarians work in Michigan and one could argue their labor and consumption in Michigan help Detroit. This is the conscious experience. An examination of the flow of provincial tax revenues explains why Detroit should be wary of its neighbor.
Ontario is an undesirable neighbor due to a phenomenon called urban primacy. Urban primacy describes a territory where one city is dominantly large.
Urban geographers observed that most primate cities are capitals. A plethora of academic research supports the theory that capital city status gives cities significant competitive advantage, enabling large capitals to suppress others (search “urban primacy” at www.scholar.google.com, see: Henderson, Short)
Ontario exhibits textbook urban primacy. Its capital, Toronto, is 4.5* times larger than the next two cities combined (Ottawa and London), representing an extreme dominance by the capital. *Calculated using agglomeration population due to it being synonymous with the urban sprawl (www.citypopulation.de).
4.5 is extreme (3.0 is considered high) particularly given Ontario’s enormous size (40% larger than Texas); urban primacy negatively correlates with the size of a territory. It is furthermore remarkable that no other large cities developed in southern Ontario given America’s significant string of cities in the same region – some blooming right up to the Canadian border (e.g. Detroit, Buffalo).
Side note: Toronto’s dominance is understated. Ottawa, Ontario’s second city, is Canada’s national capital and has similar capital city status-driven advantages. Ottawa’s considerable size (~1.2 million) should not suggest Toronto looks after Ontario fairly.
So Toronto is big, but is this bad? Bigness is not bad, isolation is, particularly in a massive territory. Toronto and dominant capitals stunt other cities by financially exploiting them. The lack of infrastructure in and around Windsor demonstrates that provincial taxes are rarely invested there. When they are those expenditures are likely geared toward Toronto or provincial services. For example, each $1 of provincial tax revenue generated in Windsor goes to Toronto, the provincial administrator. That $1 is unlikely to return to Windsor in full or surplus largely because Toronto governs Ontario as though Greater Toronto is the only location capable of greatness.
From the perspective of Detroit, the Canadian border is a hole in the city’s pocket because of Toronto’s fiscally parasitic strategy in Windsor.
Ontarian’s go to Toronto
Statements about Toronto’s dominance would resonate with many Ontarians. In similar territories, non-capital residents often feel compelled to move to the capital due to a lack of opportunities at home. This trend reinforces and enables the emergence of a king city with unquestioned status.
Also in keeping with capital dominance, many Ontarians (particularly those who reside outside of Greater Toronto) might agree Toronto manages the province selfishly. They need not look further than a photo of Detroit’s asymmetry to confirm their suspicions. While Detroit has collapsed, Windsor never happened. Detroit’s asymmetry is proof of an untapped opportunity for Canadians; clearly there exists the potential for a city, yet something keeps Canada from realizing it. The literature of urban primacy suggests the root cause is the relative size of Ontario’s capital.
By contrast, small capitals (like Lansing, Michigan) are characterized as servants, often having supported the emergence of powerful, multi-polar urban systems. (e.g. Quebec, Michigan, California, Texas, British Columbia). Small capitals are administration centers, not economic hubs; servant capitals maximize economies of scale.
One of the challenges to studying capital dominance is that it is difficult to prove where a city should be. This is what makes Ontario helpful, it houses 2 examples: Greater Detroit and Greater Buffalo. See the image below of Buffalo, New York, a near identical lopsided sprawl to Detroit. Again, the white line represents the US-Canada border, the Ontario region never happened.
Buffalo and Detroit bear lopsided footprints, exhibit metropolitan population decline and are renown for economic pathos. Is economic performance related to morphology? YES.
Do Not Divide Me
A cure requires acknowledging the disease. Boundaries are part of the problem. Detroit-Windsor residents and policy makers must recognize the boundary’s role in the region’s decline and advocate for the active management or removal of it.
Ideally urban planners and policy makers will accomodate the plastic nature of cities, actively muting boundaries to maximize economic potential. Territories that find themselves sharing urban sprawls should look to amalgamate, thereby sharing the sprawl and collaboratively maximizing its potential.
The idea of amalgamation at Detroit is radical stuff given a national boundary is at stake. Approaches might include a carefully tailored metropolitan-level treaty, the creation of a shared regional government or exchange of resources. The structure employed should be about Detroit as a sprawl and administering services under one government.
Step down, Toronto
Outside of the US-Canada boundary itself, Detroit’s (and Buffalo’s) asymmetry is exacerbated by Toronto’s status as capital, perhaps more lethal than the border itself. Until Ontarians change this, Detroit, Michigan and the United States must manage the border competitively.
Toronto’s role as capital dates to colonial times and is deeply entrenched. Yet, sometimes tradition evolves into obstruction. Capital city status is a strategic policy tool and the evidence suggests Ontario is ripe for a new, remote capital city.
Toronto should be dethroned of its capital status. Ontario should implement an Ottawa-style, remote, centrist capital. This single decree would revolutionize urbanization on both sides of the border and throughout Ontario.