Creation, destruction and reinvention. In short a summary of the urban history of Detroit presented by Conrad Kickert (University of Cincinnati) at Pakhuis de Zwijger in Amsterdam Friday December the 13th to mark the release of his book ‘Dream City’, published by The MIT Press. (text continues below image)

Dream City analyses 200 years of urban history in which Detroit went through several cycles in which the city reached the absolute top but also the absolute bottom. While Detroit was the fastest and one of the wealthiest cities in the US in the first decades of the 20th Century because of its successful car manufacturing. Relatively high salaries in the factories attracted massive flows of migrants to the city. After the second world war, decline set in and the city raced to the bottom because of heavy segregation, unlimited suburbanisation, and racial violence peaking in the 1960s well depicted in the movie Detroit (2017), leading to the city’s bankruptcy in 2013. Detroit was, and still is, a popular destination for lovers of ‘ruin porn’, exploring and picturing empty and decayed buildings. However, Detroit is being rediscovered in recent years with new start-ups and creative businesses finding their way to the city. This fits in a trend of revival in cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Saint Louis in reaction to over-inflated cost to live and work in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York.

What went wrong? Was it just the cycle? Detroit is also an example where urban planning was at the full service of manufacturers like Ford and General Motors, and where urban development was subordinate to mobility. Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company and highly controversial because of his anti-Semitic views and Nazi-sympathies, was also an anti-urbanist. In his view, dense urbanisation could be prevented by giving households a car enabling them to commute over longer distances. In this way, workers and employees were able to live throughout large sprawled residential areas, and high-density urbanisation could be prevented. It could be that this was to prevent high concentrations of labour receptive to unionism as was the aim of the strategy of railway related commuting to limit urbanisation in Belgium in the 19th Century, or that it was just an effective way to increase the sales of the T-Ford.

Ever wider roads and motorways were needed to enable people from the suburbs to the city centre and to the workplaces. Infrastructure which connected locations on the one hand, but split up neighbourhoods and districts on the other. To increase road capacity, strips of urban tissue were demolished, and road widened. While Detroit is an extreme example of urban boom and decay, many US and also European cities have their own pieces of ‘Detroit’ urban history, as was nicely illustrated with examples from The Hague and Birmingham.

The subsequent panel debate moderated by Tim Verlaan (University of Amsterdam) with Tracy Metz (journalist), Carola Hein (TU Delft) and Hans Karssenberg (Stipo) was about challenges and risks cities are facing in light of the current evolution of mobility. As experience from the past shows, there is no guarantee that major urban mistakes following major transport and mobility innovations will not be made in the future. Careful analysis on the impact of new mobility forms on the urban patterns and how to integrate them in existing structures is essential.

Look forward to the Christmas Break. With the book Dream City a good piece of reading at hand.