A few days ago, I posted something here on the site about how there were more people standing on the Mall in DC for Obama’s inauguration than there are living in the entire, sprawling city of Detroit. The post itself wasn’t particularly insightful, but it led to an interesting conversation about Detroit, its declining population, and why it developed in the way that it did over the past century.
The first comment, left by our friend Ol’ E Cross, referenced an image from the Detroit Free Press (pictured above) that, as he pointed out, illustrated nicely the fact that Boston, Manhattan and San Francisco could fit neatly into the footprint of Motor City, with room to spare. He then made the case that this reflected, “the results of our region’s land use and infrastructure policies.”
But, as Robert was quick to point out, the comparison might not be fair, as these other cities had natural barriers to constrain their growth. Here’s a clip from his comment:
Cool map find, Ol’ E Cross. It should be noted that Manhattan is an island and that San Francisco is located at the tip of a fairly narrow peninsula. If Detroit sprawl had run up against similar natural barriers on all or most sides within a few miles, it’s likely the city limits would have ended there too, and Detroit’s population density would resemble more those of the old coastal cities. Actually, more likely in that case, Toledo would have attracted the shipping and transportation, and we’d all be driving down there to watch the Toledo Tigers, Toledo Red Wings, and Toledo Pistons. The good news would be that we’d have the Detroit Mud Hens, and those Lions would be Toledo’s problem right now. I could live with that…
But, the final comment belonged to city planner Richard “Murph” Murphy, who offered the following:
Not all of that is current land use and transportation policy – a lot of it is a result of the age of the cities, and the eras in which each of them had their growth spurts.
Look to 1900 as a convenient “dawn of the automotive age”.
1. NYC – 3.4m
5. Boston – 560k
9. SF – 343k
13. Detroit – 286k
36. LA – 106k.
Detroit grew in population 10-fold between 1900 and 1950 – the time when it was growing because of cars. Calling the socioeconomic structure of 1900-1970 “Fordism” is no coincidence; Henry Ford’s theory of “pay them enough that they can afford the product” built Michigan’s middle class by building MIchigan’s market for automobiles.
A city that has its population spike because those people are building and buying cars is a city that will be designed from the ground up around automobiles. LA similarly exploded during and after WWII, when good access to cars was joined by Levittown-style manufacturing of subdivisions, so it too is a city built around detached single-family homes and automobiles.
By comparison, NYC and Boston (and Chicago and Philly) are cities that grew to metropolitan critical mass before ready access to cars or even to single-family homes for the working class. Therefore, they’re cities that are built around proximity – put things close together, and you get density – and the mass transit systems that have to be created in order to keep that proximity from choking up the streets with cars. (I mean, more than they are.)
So, yes, some of it is a result of regional fragmentation pulling people and industry out of the core cities over the last half century. But as Robert notes, there’s also a fair bit of “how far could they expand before hitting boundaries,” whether those boundaries were the Hudson River, the San Francisco Bay, or the Dearborn City Limits.
But a lot of it too just has to do with the state of transportation technology and the housing finance markets at the time that the cities were growing. In no small part, NYC has density because it had density.
I just found this fascinating.
For those of you who don’t care in the least, here’s a link to footage of Arnold Schwarzenegger lifting weights.