Detroit statue
Photograph: laughlin (CC by 2.0)

My favorite question in all of urbanism is: why is Chicago better off than Detroit? Mostly it's because "at least we're not Detroit" is the official shutdown answer of Chicagoland. Finances? Employment? Crime? Public transportation? At least we're not Detroit.

It's tremendously frustrating, in that it lets us off the hook for not being as bad off as the 21st century's crucible for urban failure. But looked at as a question instead of an answer, it raises questions worth thinking about. Along those lines, Detroit native and Chicago-based urban planner Pete Saunders recently wrote a long post for The Urbanophile on the less obvious reasons for his hometown's decline. Saunders doesn't deny the obvious:

Most analysis tends to focus on the economic, social and political reasons for the downfall. One of my favorite treatises on Detroit is The Origins of the Urban Crisis by Thomas Sugrue, who argues that housing and racial discrimination practices put in place after World War II played a primary role in the decline of Motown. I’d argue that it’s closest to the truth of an explanation for Detroit today, but not quite there.

Chicago also has a long history of both racial and housing discrimination that fueled the decline of much of the city, but comparatively speaking the city is functional. For some—not all, granted—the city that works still does work. Chicago has also faced more of Detroit's problems: the collapse of industrial manufacturing and other central industries (like the stockyards); immense population growth followed by slow, ongoing decline; troubled War on Poverty programs; extensive segregation. Yet Chicago has come into the new Millennium as a global city, a reputation we (or at least the current powers that be) are itching to burnish with the NATO/G8 summits.

People will obviously rely on their areas of expertise in diagnosing social ills, so Saunders's post is entirely focused on urban planning. As such, it provides some novel theories about Detroit's perilous state, and many of them contrast with Chicago's recent history, unlike the more familiar explanations.

For instance, Saunders's first reason is a huge contrast:

1. Poor neighborhood identification. Ask a Chicagoan where they’re from, and they will likely give you a neighborhood name – Wrigleyville, Jefferson Park, Chatham. The same is true in other neighborhood-oriented cities like New York, Boston, even Washington, D.C. However, ask a Detroiter where they’re from, and they will likely tell you East Side or West Side; if pressed, they might note a key intersection.

Interestingly enough, this also seems to be the case with Indianapolis. This intersects with another one of Saunders's reasons:

Like most major American cities of the late 19th century, Detroit elected city council members from districts or wards across the city. And like most of those cities, Detroit experienced its share of graft and corruption in the political arena. But the Progressive Movement that pursued local government reform throughout the nation had perhaps its greatest achievement in Detroit. In 1918, a new city charter was established that led to the reorganization of local government to have Council members elected city-wide, instead of by wards.


This has been a double-edged sword for Detroit. While it may have kept a lid on some of the possible corruption that could have happened, it likely created greater distance between residents and city government.

When I read or listen to old Chicagoans discussing their city, one theme that sometimes arises is the social cohesion of the often corrupt ward system. They mighta been bastards, but they were our bastards, etc. Corruption is, well, one way of organizing government, with its own set of rules and expectations. As Saunders notes, citywide Council elections might put a damper on the incestuous relationships and internecine battles that ward government can encourage, but it arguably reduces hyperlocal social cohesion.

I've very slowly been reading Robert J. Sampson's new study of Chicago, Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect (about which more shortly, I hope) and one of the criteria Sampson looks at closely is "collective efficacy" at a neighborhood level: "the organizational life of a community" and its effects on problems like crime and foreclosures. Among his findings are that, perhaps unsurprisingly, community cohesion has positive effects on both, as well as a host of other indicators:

 PHDCN-related research by others has also documented significant links between collective efficacy and rates of asthma, birth weight, self-rated health, and heat-wave deaths. Collective efficacy thus reaches out to capture a number of health-related dimensions that go well beyond the original application of the theory to street crime.

But, interesting as it is, it takes a backseat to what Saunders argues are the two most significant planning aspects of the city's decline. First, the city was literally set up to be on the wrong side of the tracks with the construction of the Detroit Terminal Railroad:

Shortly after the opening of [Ford's] new factory, an almost unbroken arc of industrial land lined the DTR – occasionally split by major arterial roadways that connected the city to its hinterlands, but largely occupied by the industrial supply and small assembly businesses that would serve each other. The DTR encircled and constrained the city’s dense urban core.

As Chicagoans are well aware, major transit thoroughfares can mark significant boundaries by restricting flow; the most famous is probably the division of Bridgeport and the Black Belt by the Dan Ryan. Saunders's argument is that the DTR built such a division around the entire central core of Detroit. One of the most famous theories in urbanism is the concentric zone model, which emerged out of the Chicago School; Detroit literally codified it with a rail line. Further, he adds that the construction of the DTR was ill-timed, as plans to annex land beyond it fell apart due to economic and historical events.

Having built that barrier, the city lacked a vital connector from the suburbs to downtown, one that Chicago had from its adolescence as a city:

Detroit had no history of commuter rail reaching from the outer portions of the metro area to the downtown core, also like the aforementioned cities [New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston]. And lastly, as demonstrated earlier downtown Detroit was already beginning its decline and was unable to be the kind of “pull” that would have supported alternative transportation uses there.

What I like about Saunders's post is that its emphasis on planning—something he acknowledges is a limitation of his professional training—really highlights some vital differences between Chicago and Detroit that go beyond the usual invocations, which tend to end rather than extend debate.