Detroit Future City: The Economic Growth Element examined

Detroit Future City is the product of a 24 month effort wherein scarce resources were expended. It is the result of the work of many individuals. In order to give it its due, it will be examined in installments, beginning with the first chapter of the planning elements, The Economic Growth Element.

In his most famous book review, Ambrose Bierce wrote a single sentence: “The covers of this book are too far apart.” Detroit Future City (DFC) deserves better. Upon delving into its 340-odd pages, I did chortle a bit while ruminating on the pleasures of being Bierce. Of course, it was then time to read it. Much of DFC is can be safely termed as “good.” Even so, there are assumptions that are questionable. Ideas are presented that raise eyebrows. Most importantly, there are policy recommendations that must be challenged.

Districts and Pillars

Detroit's checkerboard of assets

Detroit’s checkerboard of assets

The framework for economic growth as presented consists of seven “primary employment districts and four “key economic growth pillars.” The identified districts are downtown, midtown, McNichols, Dequindre-Eastern Market, Corktown, and Mt. Elliot. The pillars are local entrepreneurship, educational and medical (eds & meds), industrial, and digital/creative.

Recognizing the diversification of Detroit’s economy as an imperative and then encouraging agglomeration economies within the city limits is common-sensical. Detroit is a city with assets; this is clear. Much of what is recommended by DFC is de-regulation and insertion of helpful regulations to stimulate the private sector, including small business. In particular, there is a focus on Minority Business Enterprises (MBEs). DFC posits a strategy regarding MBEs: create neighborhood incubators where services and expertise in areas such as accounts receivable and contract negotiation are exchanged with and linked to small business owners. The implementation of these incubators is possibly the most exciting idea in the chapter; no particulars of their inception are included. There are Detroiters young and old who have, in their dreams, concocted plans they see no possibility of coming to fruition. Physical space for service exchange and the stimulation of MBEs merits policy crafted on its behalf.

Detroit: the independent variable

The most disquieting notion put forth by the chapter is that our conventional wisdom with regards to Detroit Public Schools (DPS) may be a stumbling block. The authors write: “there is little evidence for the oft-stated claim that ‘Detroit can’t fix its economy until it fixes K-12.'” Some variant of this little gem is indeed oft-stated and rarely questioned. The data presented by the framers would seem to be at odds with this: in the last decade the percentage of jobs in the the city held by residents has decreased from 42% to 30%. According to DFC,

  • A Detroiter with a two-year college degree is 50% more likely to live in poverty than the average American with only a high school degree
  • A Detroiter with a four-year degree is more likely to live in poverty than the average American with a two-year degree.
  • if every working-age Detroiter invested in a two-year degree, the poverty rate in this group would still be almost 21% higher than overall poverty rates in 70% of U.S. cities

DFC refers to this imbalance as “inequity even with education.” This term is appropriate, but the “why” of this remains unasked. Despite the resources available, these statistics are presented with no analysis. The numbers may appear to bolster the claim that the chapter makes that job creation deserves higher priority than K-12, but numbers do not speak for themselves. That there are too few jobs in Detroit has not gone unnoticed. Consider this hypothesis: Individuals living in areas in which K-12 is meeting benchmarks are less likely to live in poverty than individuals who do not. If we identify our dependent variable as “poverty,” there are a host of possible independent variables, including jobs, K-12, high school and college diplomas, race and ethnicity, gender and sex, and access to transit. Whatever the equation, it cannot be that “Detroit” is made to be the independent variable. Conditions exist within the city limits, but it is the conditions themselves that must be explored.

detroit_bachelors_censustract

Mapping bachelor’s degrees in Detroit

Some numbers to consider are that almost 23% of adults over 25 within the city hold no high school diploma; 33% have a high school degree but no college experience. Only 7% have completed a bachelor’s program and 5% have gone on to complete a graduate program. These numbers, like the ones presented by the DFC to not constitute an analysis, but they are fodder for investigation. It should remain a suspicion that K-12 is probably not something that can be sat on while Detroiters wait for the private sector to work its magic.

Transit is an economic issue.

This bus was on time, which was a pleasant surprise.

This bus was on time, which was a pleasant surprise.

Other than K-12, the most important issue is barely addressed is transit. Spatial mismatch separates many city-dwellers from economic opportunity. Of the 253 thousand households in the city, 119 thousand have no workers. 44 thousands of these non-working households have no vehicle available. Of the 100 thousand or so households that are supported by a single worker, 14 thousand have no access to a car. It is also worth noting that over 27 thousand households have two workers, and over eight thousand of these have only one car. The questions that DFC should and did not ask are these: where are the Detroiters, and where are the jobs? Much of the population, in order to fill the job openings prescribed by the authors will need reliable, safe transit.

DFC recommends light rail, BRT and reliable local bus service, but as long-term strategies. In the short-term, public-private ventures in the shuttle-bus businesses are to be encouraged.

Darius and Barbara

The first page of The Economic Growth Element tells the tale of Darius and Barbara, a working class couple on the Northwest side. They have had a rough time. Darius is laid off and needs the car to care for the children. Barbara works in the suburbs. However, they have stuck it out over the past decade and now it is 2020. Detroit is a different place. Darius has found work and the whole family rides the BRT everywhere. They live and work in the city and are quite the Ozzie and Harriet nuclear family, albeit with a dual income. The more realistic outcome of this is that if they have school-age children, Darius has marketable skills, and Barbara has a job in the suburbs, then that is exactly where they are headed: towards economic freedom and better K-12. Like the DPS, transit is a factor that needs to be addressed now.

 

The Economic Growth Element is at once stimulating and unsatisfying. At a DFC open house on January 29th, Charles Cross, a senior research and design fellow at University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture had this to say:

This is just a framework; it’s a guide for decision making. It’s not a master plan. What it does tells an overall idea of hey, here’s the existing conditions on the ground today… it creates almost a buffet that community members and leaders can pick from that they think will work best in their community.

Mr. Cross’s words were reassuring. DFC is an appealing document on the whole, and the Economic Growth Element is a good satellite’s view of our circumstances and possible avenues for future action.

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One Response to Detroit Future City: The Economic Growth Element examined

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