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The Crowd Sourced City


The centers of American urban areas contain poverty that is comparable to conditions in the developing world, rather than what one might expect from the largest economy on the planet. This is a failure.

The episodic social and economic collapses suffered in the developing world that were created by colonial and post-colonial negligence, disease, and resource exhaustion resemble the poverty, social, and institutional neglect currently seen in American inner cities. Urban American communities were paved into housing projects and highways, obliterating the social and economic networks that supported them in the 1960s and '70s (Fishman, 2000, pp. 203-4). In these same communities, children growing up without adequate access to food and education are as adults unable to retain employment and help their children raise above a life of food insecurity, poor schools, and high unemployment. 


Once known as the "City of Trees" and the "Paris of the Midwest" for its tree-lined streets and vibrant cafe scene, Detroit, Michigan (my hometown) has recently become famous for its urban agriculture. Locally, the city is also known as a center of D.I.Y. culture supported by thriving music and art scene.

After receiving my Master in Urban Planning and after moving back to the Detroit metro area, people often tell me that Detroit is like a "blank slate," referring to the city's economic depopulation and decline. I know they mean well, but even though the population has fallen from its mid-20th century high of 2 million to about 714,000 now, 714,000 is a lot of people, hardly a blank slate. Furthermore, with 34.5 percent of the city's population in poverty (compared with 12.3 percent regionally and 13.8 percent nationally), an average income in the city of $15,062, and 16.5 percent of metropolitan region's population on food assistance … there's not exactly a lot of money to support the large scale revitalization implied by the blank slate comparison (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010a; U.S. Census Bureau, 2010b).

This poverty is not spread equally around the city but concentrated in certain regions. Within these areas of concentrated poverty, where whole populations are born into poverty (thus supporting and sustaining a cycle of poverty) the schools are underfunded, social services are lifelines; the economies have long collapsed. This is a failure.


Though larger, Detroit's problems are analogous to many other cities throughout the United States. The Detroit region has been promised so many revivals, renaissances, and renewals; the city is as littered with failed urban revitalization projects as it is empty houses. Yet Detroiters are quietly working to solve problems on their own. People are rebuilding their neighborhoods without large sums of money, much organizational support, or assistance from city government. Call it the crowd-sourced city, and it is a slow process, but a beautiful one. Empty industrial buildings have become artists' spaces and markets, vacant lots, farms and gardens, abandoned apartments, condos, and empty buildings filled with new offices. Neighborhood organizations are quietly utilizing online tools to better connect members. The old barriers of race and class remain but a tentative regional discussion has begun. What is the future of the region? Can the pattern of growth in the region continue as it has during the past 60 years?

Cities all over the country share the challenges associated with large areas of concentrated multigenerational poverty, poor infrastructure, and underfunded institutions surrounded by relatively wealthier suburbs. Since most Americans have lived within the fractal suburban traffic malaise since at least 1990, aging baby-boomers will soon find themselves stranded in their plywood homes, unable to drive … how are we going to re-plan suburbia to accommodate them? How are we going to re-plan American cities to support viable more inclusive economies? Do we need to?


The question is not whether the pattern of depopulation, racial and economic segregation, and the cycle of poverty that has developed over the last 60 years can continue in American cities, but should it? American inner cities face the same challenges as cities in the developing world: large areas of concentrated multigenerational poverty, poor infrastructure, underfunded institutions, surrounded by pockets of wealthier populations. The crowd sourced city could be the democratic or market driven answer to the question of isolation and the segregation of people by class and economy in American cities.

This post originally appeared on APA's Sustaining Places Blog.

Image: "Telegraph" by Ben Chutz. Looking south on Telegraph Road near Maple Road in the Detroit suburbs. Used with permission. All rights reserved.


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