Detroit – A Case Study in Resilience?

“Detroit’s struggle matters, because there isn’t a tidy conclusion. Nothing is certain.”

What happens when the main economic drivers in a city disappear? Does the city decay and die or does new growth take shape?

The case of Detroit provides us with an opportunity to observe what can happen when decay results in fertile ground for new growth.

So, facts about Detroit:

  • Since 2000, population has dropped by 25%
    • Tax base has also dropped while geographic size of city remains same meaning upkeep remains largely the same
    • 60,000 houses sit empty
      • Vacant properties magnets for crime such as vandalism, drugs and arson
      • Only 11% of Detroit residents between ages of 24-35 have a college degree
      • 50% of Detroit’s population do not graduate from high school
      • Murder capital of the U.S.

As the population left the city, houses were left empty and the decline of the city continued. The manufacturing industry has been the main employer for the city since the 1940’s and even well educated citizens found themselves facing unemployment. People had to decide whether or not to stay in Detroit as it became evident that that industry was not going to revive.

Stories abound about Detroit’s demise – the poverty, the devastation.

Yet, there is another story taking shape – one about the resilience of the city and its people.

There is a concerted effort by government, non-profit organizations, entrepreneurs and the citizens of Detroit to create something new in their city; something to fill in where others have left.


  • Entrepreneurs and start-ups are benefitting from the opportunity that low real estate values are providing to purchase space
  • Young entrepreneurs in particular are selling their assets in other cities and moving to Detroit where their dollar goes further
  • Green manufacturing opportunities being explored

Government (Flint, MI):

  • Created 20 year master plan for the city
  • Started the Genesee County Land Bank to buy vacant properties and encourage neighbours to buy these properties around their homes for alternative land use

Government (Detroit, MI):

  • Tearing down derelict buildings (though this is not without controversy)
  • Investing in public transit planning
  • Engaging the public in the conversation for future planning (though again, the effectiveness and effort of the city and state on this is debated)
  • Engaging in public-private partnerships for redevelopment


  • Foundations engaging in addressing systemic challenges
  • Investing to address gaps not met through other channels
  • Grassroots groups collaborating, amplifying impact of their work
    • Community centres, literacy programs, youth programs, computer training being built around urban gardens
    • microfinance

Urban farming/gardening:

  • Use of vacant land to grow food for own consumption and for sale
  • Cooperatives purchasing power being used
  • Reclaimed land usage; use of reclaimed materials
  • Larger scale farmers markets in operation; supplying small grocery stores that have opened to fill in where large national grocery chains pulled out of Detroit


  • Artists are moving to the city as it is an affordable place to live while creating
  • Lots of space available as studios, theatres, galleries
  • Open, vacant lots provide space for community art; adds to the vibrancy of the city and building new culture
  • Restaurants that are new and exciting are drawing tourists and locals alike

If necessity is the mother of invention, then Detroit stands poised to be crowned SuperMom. The key to their resilience is not any one thing, it is all of these initiatives and more yet to be introduced.

The reason for the creation of these initiatives may be that opportunity presented itself, it may be a desire to build the model for the reshaping of the American city and economy or maybe it was for shear survival. Whatever the reason, Detroit is a city to watch and learn from; an incubator of what is possible when the old is allowed to die and the new is allowed to take hold.

posted by margo in Uncategorized and has No Comments