Detroit: Alternative Future, Now

If, like me, you grew up watching bad (albeit classic) 1980s genre movies like “Robocop”, Detroit was the ultimate dystopian city of the future: gangs of marauding vigilantes roamed the streets; ordinary people eking out an existence hoping to avoid the trouble around them for one more day; mega-corporations peopled by amoral executives in glassy offices get rich off the chaos.

Now, the future looks a lot different. Could there be a clearer example of how the energy-strapped 21st century will turn out than that swathes of vast industrial power-house Detroit is reverting to agricultural use? Transport yourself back to 1945 and compare Detroit with Hiroshima: one of America’s largest and richest cities behind much of the industrial might that won the second world war vs. a city literally lying in ruins. Jump forward 60 years to 2009 and Detroit is de-evolving to the agricultural era while Hiroshima is a thriving mini-metropolis with bullet trains arriving every 15 minutes from Tokyo, world’s largest city.

Richard Heinberg devotes a chapter in The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies” outlining a seemingly-prophetic future in which energy concerns precipitate a drastic fall in population levels: a self-correction mechanism providing a more realistic counterpoint to predictions of never-ending population growth.

Rather than the doomed combination of an inexorable rise in numbers and cultural vacuum depicted in the movies, perhaps Detroit as the biggest (138 square miles vs. San Francisco’s 47) and earliest is simply the first real-world example of the eventual, benign, fate of many large cities: smaller, compact, partly self-sufficient cities. A number of excellent articles have recently appeared to discuss this “shrinking cities” movement, with Detroit as the study – worth reading: