Detroit has a density problem. The city is spread out over one hundred thirty-nine square miles with a total population of less than seven hundred thousand. The land areas of San Francisco, Boston and Manhattan fit inside Detroit’s geographic footprint with room to spare. In simpler terms, it’s a very big city with a rapidly declining population. At its zenith in 1950, Detroit contained over one million eight hundred thousand residents. Due to a myriad of factors, most of Detroit’s residents at this time lived in single-family homes. Macroeconomic conditions played a major role in this trend, such as the rise of the automobile as well as national policy incentives such as the home mortgage interest deduction.

High-density living was discouraged at the local level too, with General Motors and other companies purchasing Detroit’s streetcar lines and replacing them with bus lines. While this was not necessarily a nefarious act by General Motors, the bus system afforded residents the ability to live in even lower densities further from the city’s core, as it was substantially cheaper to add more bus routes than to add additional streetcar rail lines. All of these factors contributed to Detroit’s population density decline from a peak of approximately thirteen thousand three hundred fifty persons per square mile in 1950 to less than five thousand seventy persons per square mile in 2014. It is important to note 1950 Detroit is not the ideal model for high-density living. In comparison, Manhattan’s population density in 2014 is well over seventy thousand persons per square mile, over five times denser than Detroit’s maximum population density in 1950.

After establishing Detroit’s low-density from a population perspective it is worth exploring why the City of Detroit is unable to remain solvent. In Michigan, city budgets are funded almost entirely through taxes levied on its residents. These residents fund the city services everyone expects a city to provide. These city services are a necessary responsibility of a municipality. Detroit, despite its declining population, still needs to support the services for a one hundred thirty-nine square mile city. One hundred thirty-nine square miles of physical infrastructure is needed, including sewer infrastructure, water infrastructure, and electrical infrastructure, infrastructural systems in need of substantial upgrades and replacement. One police force is required to service residents living in a city spread out over one hundred thirty nine square miles. One firefighting force is required to service residents living in a city spread out over one hundred thirty nine square miles. One public transportation service is required to transport residents living in a city spread out over one hundred thirty nine square miles. Detroit’s responsibilities are larger than most other great American cities, literally. The city’s population, and therefore its tax base, is shrinking while its obligations to support its residents are largely staying the same.

All of this is an oversimplification, but that’s okay. I purposefully did not discuss the city’s ongoing bankruptcy, blight, racially charged history, violent crime, graduation rate, employment rate, or many other important problems the city faces. At a fundamental level, the City of Detroit needs to figure out how to increase the money flowing into its budget, or how to reducing the obligations it must fulfill. There are two main variables affecting each of these issues. Increasing the money flowing to the city requires increasing the city’s tax base. This could be accomplished by addressing the city’s nearly 50% level of employment, or it could be addressed by adding residents. I believe either effort is futile in the near future if addressed in isolation. All indicators point to Detroit continuing to lose residents and the non-working population of the city not possessing the means to contribute to the current workforce in and around the city. One of the issues facing the non-working population is lack of reliable transportation, required for any full-time job. Therefore reducing the financial liabilities of the city as the only near-term variable to address.

As Detroit (hopefully) nears the end of its bankruptcy, reducing financial liabilities seems to be spoken for. How could the City of Detroit shed any more of its liabilities post-bankruptcy? As discussed previously, the City of Detroit is supporting a geographically gigantic infrastructure.1 If the city filled up with a million more residents overnight, dispersed evenly, the physical infrastructural requirements would largely be the same. The relationship between the costs associated with maintaining a city with seven hundred thousand residents versus one million seven hundred thousand residents is not linear in a one hundred thirty-nine square mile city. In fact, the City of Detroit’s infrastructure allocation is terribly inefficient due to its low population density. If, somehow, the city were able to physically shrink, it could reduce these cost inefficiencies substantially. If, somehow, the city were able to replicate the population density of Manhattan at roughly seventy thousand persons per square mile, the residents of Detroit could fit into a ten square mile area of the city. The City of Detroit is currently managing services spanning nearly fourteen times that geographic area.

It is unrealistic to imagine a Detroit with Manhattan’s density, but a geographically smaller, denser Detroit should be considered. A smaller geographic footprint will result in the opportunity for drastically faster police and firefighter response times. Further, reliable public transportation will be viable for all city residents, opening up access to jobs for many of the city’s population lacking employment. The City of Detroit will be positioned to support its residents with the basic services all city residents are entitled to. Detroit will be positioned to avoid slipping back under the control of a financial manager or back into bankruptcy. Detroit Future City lays out an achievable strategic framework for the transformation of Detroit, much of it based on clustering development in the city. These ideas are not pie-in-the-sky or speculative. The City of Detroit and its residents must consider moving the city towards a much higher population density to position Detroit for long-term viability in the coming decades.

  1. If I’ve learned anything from playing Civilization V, it’s large empires are costly to maintain. The roads, rail, and units necessary to support these “wide” empires are enormous and only sustainable when your empire is generating equally enormous amounts of wealth.