The Geography of Detroit's Decline

The Geography of Detroit's Decline

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During the mid-20th century, Detroit was the fourth largest city in the United States with a population of over 1.85 million people. It was a thriving metropolis that embodied the American Dream - a land of opportunity and growth. Today, Detroit has become a symbol of urban decay. Detroit's infrastructure is crumbling and the city is operating at $300 million dollars short of municipal sustainability. It is now the crime capital of America, with 7 out of 10 crimes unsolved. More than a million people have left the city since its prominent fifties. There is a multitude of reasons as to why Detroit fell apart, but all the fundamental causes are rooted in geography.

Demographic Shift

The rapid shift in Detroit's demographics led to racial hostility. Social tensions were further perpetuated when many desegregation policies were signed into law in the 1950s, forcing residents to integrate.

For years, violent racial riots engulfed the city, but the most destructive one occurred on Sunday, July 23, 1967. A police confrontation with patrons at a local unlicensed bar sparked a five-day riot that left 43 dead, 467 injured, 7,200 arrests and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed. The violence and destruction only ended when the National Guard and Army were ordered to intervene.

Shortly after this "12th street riot", many residents started to flee the city, particularly the whites. They moved out by the thousands into neighboring suburbs such as Royal Oak, Ferndale, and Auburn Hills. By 2010, whites only made up 10.6% of Detroit's population.

The Size

Detroit is particularly difficult to maintain because its residents are so spread out. There is too much infrastructure relative to the level of demand. This means large sections of the city are left unused and unrepaired. A scattered population also means law, fire, and emergency medical personnel have to travel greater distances on average to provide care. Moreover, since Detroit has experienced consistent capital exodus for the past forty years, the city is unable to afford an adequate public service workforce. This has caused crime to skyrocket, which further encouraged rapid out-migration.


Many of America's older cities faced a de-industrialization crisis starting in the 1970s, but most of them were able to establish an urban resurgence. The success of cities like Minneapolis and Boston is reflected on their high number of college graduates (over 43%) and their entrepreneurial spirit. In many ways, the success of the Big Three inadvertently restricted entrepreneurship in Detroit. With the high wages earned on the assembly lines, workers had little reason to pursue higher education. This, in conjunction with the city having to reduce the number of teachers and after-school programs due to declining tax revenues, has caused Detroit to fall behind in academics. Today, only 18% of Detroit adults have a college degree (versus a national average of 27%), and the city is also struggling to control the brain drain.

Ford Motor Company no longer has a factory in Detroit, but General Motors and Chrysler still do, and the city remains dependent on them. However, for a large portion of the 1990s and early 2000s, the Big Three did not react well to changing market demands. Consumers started to shift from power-driven automotive muscle to more stylish and fuel-efficient vehicles. The American automakers struggled against their foreign counterparts both domestically and internationally. All three companies were on the verge of bankruptcy and their financial distress was reflected on Detroit.

Public Transportation Infrastructure

Unlike their neighbors Chicago and Toronto, Detroit never developed a subway, trolley, or intricate bus system. The only light rail the city has is its "People Mover," which only encircles 2.9-miles of the downtown area. It has a single set of track and only runs in one direction. Although designed to move up to 15 million riders a year, it only serves 2 million. The People Mover is considered an ineffective rail, costing taxpayers $12 million annually to operate.

The biggest problem with not having a sophisticated public infrastructure is that it promotes sprawl. Since so many people in the Motor City owned a car, they all moved away, opting to live in the suburbs and just commuting to downtown for work. Additionally, as people moved out, businesses eventually followed, leading to even fewer opportunities in this once great city.


  • Okrent, Daniel (2009). Detroit: The Death- and Possible Life- of a Great City. Retrieved from: //,9171,1926017-1,00.html
  • Glaeser, Edward (2011). Detroit's Decline and the Folly of Light Rail. Retrieved from: //

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