Detroit’s disaster isn’t just about industrial decline; it’s about urban decline, which isn’t the same thing. Sprawl killed Detroit.

Detroit illustrates a potential problem for many cities in the United States. The uncontrolled growth coupled with a relatively stagnant population and static or declining industry leaves many major sprawling cities in danger of a similar collapse (Schmitt, 2013). Detroit sprawled more than any other American city. Over the period of a few decades, the focus was building out the city. During this time, however, the population did not grow correspondingly as people began fleeing the city (Schmitt, 2013). Those who remained moved out of the core of the city and towards the limit. Business and industry in the city also declined.

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As the city spread out, the city spent significant amounts for the necessary infrastructure. The city focused much more attention on building these new areas than on revamping and improving existing areas in the central city (Schmitt, 2013). Businesses and those who could move away from the aging city center did. As a result of this and the declining population, there remained thousands of properties either abandoned or left untenable (Schmitt, 2013). With the cost of sprawl, Detroit had significant debt but without sufficient means to repay. A plethora of homes and other properties were left abandoned or untenable, meaning there were no property taxes that could be collected (Burleson, 2013). The city’s tax base as a whole shriveled with the loss of population and downturn of the economy.

The city now is famously plagued with urban decay and dealing with bankruptcy (Davey, 2013). The blight conditions of Detroit are ostensibly ubiquitous, with more than 80,000 built structures claimed to be either abandoned, vacant, or underutilized (Burleson, 2013). The sprawl and lack of funding is to such a degree that services like police and medical can take over an hour to respond to an emergency (Davey, 2013). The city dropped over a million residents since its peak population (Burleson, 2013). It has both one of the highest poverty and highest unemployment rates (Burleson, 2013).

Many project a similar fate for other American cities. Numerous American cities sprawled out in such a way that created the need for expensive infrastructure and unrewarding construction (Burleson, 2013). The population is not growing in such a way as it had in the past, nor is industry booming in a manner that could support or sustain such unmanageable growth patterns.

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Many municipalities have significant dependence on the federal and state governments to function. If and when the funding decreases, municipalities will face difficult circumstances. They will need to maintain or increase funds. But some argue that the conventional methods of raising taxes and bonds may not be an effective nor practical option. Raising taxes is generally is an unfavorable option since it can encourage people to move (Levy, 2013). And the effectiveness of selling bonds is entirely contingent on external factors (Levy, 2013). When consumer faith is low, as it is in economic downturns –which would accompany failing cities–, citizens are parsimonious in regard to investing.

In sum, Detroit demonstrates a need for both practical and sustainable growth. Smart growth is pivotal in constructing for the future. While the notion of planning for decline or not growing at all seems on the surface almost un-American, it is necessary in order to secure a future of quality living in cities. Growing only within the means is paramount.

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Burleson, A. (2013, July 11). Bankruptcy. Retrieved from

Davey, M. (2013, July 08). Financial crisis just a symptom of detroit’s woes. Retrieved from

Levy. (2013). Contemporary urban planning. (10 ed.). Pearson Education.

Schmitt, A. (2013, July 22). How sprawl got detroit into this mess. Retrieved from