Metro Detroit is a patchwork of more than one hundred communities, including many small and shrinking places. This make-up gives us greater local control, but it also places costs on our older communities.
These “negative externalities” are costs suffered by established cities and the region because of decisions made within one municipality. It’s time to rethink local government in Metro Detroit to mitigate these costs and put us on a brighter path to future prosperity.
Take, for example, the costs of developing greenfields into subdivisions. This is a great policy if you are a township supervisor in an edge city seeking re-election, but it creates costs for the region. Those gleaming new subdivisions draw traffic and people away from already urbanized places, increasing a host of costs on existing places and the region.
“Redevelopment” investments by existing cities follow, and they use money that could go to upgrade infrastructure, improve education, extend benefits, and even lower taxes. Think about how much local, state, and federal money has been sunk into demolishing buildings in Detroit, as one example.
Some will argue that new developments are what people want and established places will just need to learn to compete. But lots of existing urban places do just fine all over the world. In fact, when you think of the best places to live in the world, surely you would name some big, established cities on your list—New York, San Francisco, London, Paris, etc. The truth is probably that some people want to live in cities, others in suburbs, and others in rural places, so it’s best if a region has some of each, but not too much of any one—certainly not in proportions that jeopardize the welfare of the other two excessively.
This is not to suggest that the answer is to have only one big community in metro Detroit. The costs of consolidation and municipal mergers have not been demonstrated to materialize significantly in places where such mergers have occurred. Still, state law makes it easy for cities to set up joint authorities to manage things like police and fire with their neighbors, and more of these collaborations could be a good start in coordinating regional or at least semi-regional interests, without giving up local control.
The greater our shared vision and brand as a region, the easier it is to reduce negative costs that, ultimately, we all share.
While taking a fresh look at how some places grow at the expense of other places, state leaders would be wise to look at how places decline, too. Laws exist to allow cities to partner, consolidate, and merge, but what guidelines exist for cities that have shrunk or declined?
For example, Ecorse Township became five cities as it grew—Allen Park, Ecorse, Lincoln Park, Melvindale, and River Rouge; those cities have all declined and now have much smaller populations, but they persist as five distinct governments. Is that a good policy?
When they were growing, they were looking to become their own places; now that they have shrunk, shouldn’t they be looking to link up? Surely, the costs—both financial and otherwise—of managing these smaller places as though they were larger places creates an undue burden on these cities and our region, too.
It might be politically unpopular to consolidate such cities, or to revert some of them to township status (thereby passing some costs onto the county). But since when has political unpopularity ever stopped the folks who control the process, our legislators in Lansing?
At the end of the day, local government is a creature of state government, and it exists only at the discretion of state law. In light of the significant population declines faced by some Metro Detroit cities, and the continued subsidizing of negative externalities by townships and edge cities, Lansing lawmakers should take another look at Michigan law and create clear paths and guidelines for when cities should revert to past forms of government or outright cease to exist.
Would Highland Park’s 10,000 residents be better served as a township with services mostly from Wayne County? It’s not certain they would; but, if I lived in Highland Park, I would certainly be interested in exploring the option—and it would be great to know Lansing could help if the decision was made to give it a try.
The Village of Highland Park even has a certain ring to it. Or maybe it could link up with the cities of the former Ecorse Township to create a newly branded metropolis of 100,000+ people—the City of Industry. At 100,000 people, The City of Industry, MI would be able to make a new pitch for its development, its interests, and the talent needed to operate and manage its place.
We all know that Lansing lawmakers won’t move on hard decisions unless they think it’s in their best interests, so if these ideas resonate with you, get on the phone, type out an email or even pick up a pen and paper and tell your legislator that you think they should give municipal growth and shrinkage a once-over.
If enough of us bother Lansing with this noise, they might just get around to making our region and state a little better place to live in, today and tomorrow.
Kate Cherry is a Detroit development professional with an interest in traditional urban design and historic preservation. Since 2003, she has written successful grant proposals to attract more than $25 million for local youth, health, and community development projects to metro Detroit and Michigan.
Cherry is also a member of Metromode's Emerging Leaders Board. which advises our solutions journalism-based series on Metro Detroit's regional issues. The project is conducted in partnership with Metro Matters and Model D. The work is funded by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. Read more in the series here.
Follow Kate Cherry on Twitter @kate_l_cherry and Instagram @grandcircuspark.