The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

The "Reasons Behind Detroit’s Decline" Series, Part 4

Downtown Detroit.  Source:

The series to date:

Origin Post
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

I’m getting back on track with this series.  For those who have recently found me through the Guardian, welcome to the Corner Side Yard.  Thanks for checking me out.

When I originally wrote about the planning problems that contributed to Detroit’s collapse as a city, reason #4 was this:

“A downtown that was allowed to become weak.  Detroit did not always have a relatively weak downtown.  The city’s core was a strong retail and commercial center through much of the 20th century, with the advertising, legal and financial offices that supported the auto industry.  At some point, Detroit’s downtown became secondary as an employment center to the factory locations scattered throughout the city and metro area.  Just like homeowners, offices began relocating to the suburbs.  By the ‘60s more and more people saw downtown as a retail center as opposed to an office center, and one that could not compete with suburban malls.”

Quite frankly I didn’t come around to writing this part of the series because it’s become pretty much accepted by most urbanists that downtowns across the country, save for a select few, were allowed to decline.  It’s also been accepted by most that strong downtowns are a critical piece of urban revitalization.  What happened to Detroit’s downtown is more the rule than the exception when it comes to American downtowns.

But there is one difference Detroit experienced that other major cities did not.  I believe there was a deliberate effort in Detroit’s suburbs to recreate not only a new downtown in the suburbs, but the kinds of neighborhoods one sees surrounding typical urban downtowns.

Southfield, MI, a suburb of Detroit in southeastern Oakland County, led the development of one of the earliest “edge cities” when it constructed the Northland Shopping Center in 1954.  That process continued over the next 20 years, as factories, retailers and offices moved en masse to Oakland County.  By the early ’70s, construction began on the Southfield Town Center, a 2.2 million square foot office complex with hotels and entertainment.  With that, Southfield was able to establish itself as the new downtown for metro Detroit.

But if you look at the rest of southeastern Oakland County, you realize that it’s almost a twin city adjacent to Detroit.  The couple dozen or so communities that make up the southeast corner of the county have about 600,000 residents within about 200 square miles, and contains many of the offices, upscale retail uses and entertainment uses one might find in a traditional downtown.  Many of the municipalities there, like Royal Oak or Ferndale, have the scale, charm and eclectic funkiness that many people associate with urban neighborhoods.

When viewed this way, it’s easy to see the challenges for bringing urban amenities and activities back to downtown Detroit.

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