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  • Making the Connections:Historic Preservation in Detroit's Rightsizing
  • Melanie A. Markowicz (bio)

I live in Detroit and I am a historic preservationist. While other preservation-minded cities may be fighting for the consistent application of the Secretary of the Interior's Standards, we are fighting for the mere survival of our architectural and cultural heritage. This is the reality of a shrinking city—where the duality of vibrancy and abandonment is strikingly visible within one city block. While mega-cities are experiencing urbanization through an unparalleled growth in their population, other cities are experiencing just the opposite— population decline. When this occurs, preservationists can dig in and say "no" to any proposed solutions to the problem, or they can accept the reality of the situation and find ways to be part of the solution. In Detroit, we are working to do just that.

Detroit's population is 713,777, according to the 2010 census; dramatically lower than its peak at 1.85 million in 1950. Its population shrank by 25 percent in the last decade alone. This drastic population loss spanning over 60 years and still continuing, can be attributed to a number of factors including white flight, urban sprawl, the downfall of the auto industry, as well as a long history of heated racial tensions and longstanding political corruption. With the global economic collapse of 2008, shrinking cities around the world are hemorrhaging even more residents due to high unemployment rates, lack of job opportunities in the city center, as well as a record number of housing foreclosures. The result is a fragmented cityscape; one that includes abandoned and decaying buildings and a surplus of vacant and unutilized land. Residents in shrinking cities face a panoply of challenges, from inadequate city services on all levels to higher-than-average crime rates. At the same time, city budget deficits run wild trying to carry the weight of an infrastructure too large for taxable support.1

In response, municipalities have endeavored to implement various programs and growth models including tax credits to spur [End Page 14] economic investment. These initiatives have been met with varying success, but on a more comprehensive scale, with the occasional exception, they have not managed to reverse shrinkage. Historically speaking, the field of urban planning has generally focused on managing growth; leaving planners ill-equipped to manage a city that is decreasing in population. Modern shrinking cities present a new and exceedingly difficult challenge. A number of urban planners argue that in many cases it is necessary to "shrink" cities down to a manageable size by encouraging and growing the stronger nodes, while repurposing the weaker or dying parts of the city and recognizing that many structures and neighborhoods may have to be abandoned altogether. This approach is known by many names including planned shrinkage, shrink to survive, and rightsizing.

Rightsizing Detroit

Never as densely populated as some other urban areas, nearly 80 percent of Detroit's residential architectural stock is in the form of low-scale, single-family homes.2 Of the extant housing stock, almost 30 percent is vacant.3 These vacant residential structures have been neglected so long, that most are not only blighted, but also dangerous. The effects of population shrinkage on heritage are devastating: widespread vacancy invites crime, arson, and metal and architectural scrapping which robs historic buildings of character-defining features and historic integrity. More often than not, this directly

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Years of neglect have left many of Detroit's historic structures susceptible to the elements, and, in some cases, literally taken over by them.


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Detroit has a rich architectural legacy, including some of the world's most notable art deco skyscrapers.


contributes to their demolition. This, coupled with intentional demolition for unrealized new construction, scars the urban fabric.

Compared to other shrinking cities, Detroit has far more vacant land and demolished buildings—the shocking result is nearly 40 square miles of vacant land citywide.4 Property values are reputably some of the lowest in the country, and property tax foreclosure auctions have...


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