Detroit’s ups and downs are well documented, but the conversation often fails to frame the city as anything more than the victim of post-industrial disinvestment, mismanagement, or contentious race relations. Last year, Paul Krugman offered an alternative suggestion in a New York Times column; sprawl, Krugman argued, has underpinned Detroit’s struggles.

Angie Schmitt, a blogger for the USA Streetsblog, expanded on Krugman’s piece. A generation ago, Schmitt explained, Pittsburgh and Detroit were in a similar position, “but Pittsburgh managed to keep its central city relatively strong, while the Detroit region saw a full-scale exodus from the city core.” As a result, Pittsburgh was able to adapt the economic changes so often blamed for Detroit’s decline. “There are many factors that distinguish Detroit from Pittsburgh,” Schmitt acknowledged, “but the sprawl factor can’t be ignored.”

Sprawl is associated with a variety of issues; from high costs associated with maintaining a vast system of infrastructure to the loss of agricultural and environmentally sensitive areas. It also, as Krugman suggests, impedes social mobility by encouraging job growth on the fringe of metropolitan areas out of reach of poor and working class families in the central city and inner-ring suburbs. A study by the Brookings Institution found that “three of the five most decentralized metro areas” are Midwestern cities. Detroit tops the list with 77 percent of its jobs located in the outer ring of its metropolitan area. The distance between residential centers and employment opportunities places a tremendous burden on residents that rely on public transportation. The daily commute is a drag even for those lucky enough to own a car. Forbes previously reported that only 11 percent of Detroit’s commuting population walks, carpools or takes public transit –  the lowest percentage of any major American city – leaving the remaining 89 percent of commuters languishing in the country’s second worst city for traffic delays.

The first step to recovery is admitting there is a problem, and metro Detroit has a sprawl problem.

Unfortunately, as Schmitt points out, metro Detroit also has a problem with regionalism, and regionalism is a crucial prerequisite to addressing sprawl. For a moment, let’s assume we can overcome our love of localism for the good of the region, and look at the approaches other states and regions have taken to address sprawl:

  •  Urban Growth Boundaries (UGBs): As the name suggests, an UGB is a boundary designed to limit urban growth. Ideally, separating urban and rural land, or land that is developed from land that is not and should not be developed, such as agricultural zones, nature areas and public land. Like in Portland? Yes, exactly like Portland.
  •  Urban Service Limits (USLs): USLs are very similar to UGBs. Essentially, an USL is a boundary beyond which governments don’t provide services like water and sewer. A municipality, county or region can choose to enact an USL to discourage developers from building outside already developed areas. Freeport, Florida offers an example.
  •  Priority Funding Areas (PFAs): A PFA is an area given priority by the state when it comes to funding and support for development. PFAs have considerable appeal because they represent a minimal intrusion into municipal land use—a benefit in states with a fractured system of local government like Michigan. Maryland has successfully utilized PFAs since 1997.
  •  Transfer of Development Rights (TDR). TDR policies can assuage concerns about losses in land value, which are frequently raised in response to the above-mentioned tools. In short, developers who hope to build in an already developed area purchase rights from individuals whose properties are in protected, or limited growth areas. King County, Washington is one of many places utilizing TDR.

Again, metro Detroit’s addiction to sprawl is a drain on the city and its region. In order to strengthen the regional economy as well as local communities, it is becoming increasingly evident that growth management strategies are necessary. This will help protect property values, increase density for those who choose to live near the urban core, and create vibrant, walkable communities which can be better served by effective transit systems. That said, any of the above-mentioned anti-sprawl strategies would require action at a greater-than-local (regional or state) level.

The good news is that governor Rick Snyder’s administration recently introduced its Regional Prosperity Initiative (RPI), which is reminiscent of Maryland’s PFA program and may be a step in the right direction. The RPI is a “voluntary competitive grant process” that recognizes regions that collaborate in the creation of a vision that addresses redundancies and gaps in service delivery. The voluntary aspect of the program allows the state to encourage regional planning while sidestepping much of the criticism often associated with government intervention. RPI compliments the state’s existing Economic Vitality Inventive Program (EVIP); both tie municipal funding to a local community’s ability to coordinate service delivery with its regional neighbors.

EVIP and RPI encourage dialogue between municipalities and regional cooperation. That is a good thing. However, both programs seem focused on identifying cost-savings through the elimination of redundant services and the consolidation of existing boards and commissions. Neither program acknowledges the role sprawl plays in increasing the cost of delivering services or highlights the economic benefits associated with density. The ability of municipalities to opt out of Michigan’s RPI may also prove to be its undoing. It is difficult to plan regionally without the participation of the entire region.

Despite its shortcomings, RPI seems a logical first step given Michigan’s traditional unease with centralized planning – especially in metro Detroit. The stipulations attached to the RPI’s funds should act as a carrot that encourages organic regional planning, instead of a stick that would likely encourage backlash. The key question becomes, will Michigan’s RPI evolve into something similar to Maryland’s robust, attractive incentive program? Will the governor’s RPI actually influence development patterns in the state and have its intended, positive impact, or will it become an example of a failed attempt to combat sprawl? Will metro Detroit come together or will it see RPI funds directed towards other – more cooperative – parts of Michigan? I guess we’ll have to stay tuned.

  • Carrie

    Urban sprawl is definitely this region’s biggest weakness. Trees are not safe in Southeast Michigan – they will soon become homes or mixed-use complexes that will probably be abandoned one day. The economic inefficiency of sprawl are starting to get recognized and I think it will become even more evident in the coming years ($3.91 for gas is not cool). The time inefficiency already kills me.

    The RPI is a step in the right direction but unfortunately I don’t think it will be successful. People tend to be forced into progress, opposed to being proactive about it. If it’s not a requirement I don’t think many cities here will volunteer to participate.