Detroit and Its Five Futures / 1
In the postwar years, economic and urban growth slowly shifted from northern and eastern cities to southern and western states. Wartime innovations changed the dynamic of manufacturing economies and opened up space for new sectors to grow. Fueled by air conditioning, cars, the interstates, and the first modern generation of retirees, the Sun Belt prospered with booms in the oil, logistics, and defense industries. Today, the story has changed. As the southwest struggles to recognize its tenuous future at the mercy of water scarcity, the idea of going home, as it were — back to the north — does not seem that retrogressive.
The Great Lakes cradle Michigan with a fifth of the world’s surface fresh water. Detroit is blessed with a position at the crossroads of this geography. As the global community reconciles modernity with diminishing resources and growing environmental vulnerability, water will likely be the most volatile driver of conflict in upcoming decades. Needless to say, to many facing long-term drought the Great Lakes look like a cooling, sparkling pool on a hot summer day, and there are endless golf courses, industrial agriscapes, and endlessly sprawling suburbs who would love to partake. Consequently, the chief structural threat to the Great Lakes region’s limitless supply of available water is the diversion of water to areas of the country that have relentlessly and recklessly pushed for unfettered development in the name of short-term growth without addressing the long-term consequences of water scarcity.
For now, water rights in the Midwest are protected and collectively guaranteed through an international compact between the Great Lakes states and provinces that has been codified in state, provincial, and federal law by the United States and Canada. Not even municipalities within a hundred feed of the Great Lakes watershed boundary can access lake water without the unanimous consent of all treaty states and provinces. And rather than the absurdist, anachronistic first-come-first-served, hereditary water rights laws of the western states, the Great Lakes have established its water resources as a collective asset, grounded in universal rights to access within a distinct watershed. As the possibility of expansive legal and, perhaps someday, military conflicts over water usage looms larger, the societal values that underlie the legal status of Great Lakes water couldn’t be more important — or valuable.
Even though Michigan is the heart and soul of the Great Lakes, like other states it has suffered the exodus of its people to other regions and emerging metropolises with different economic opportunities and pleasant climes. But parched cities, desolate, desperate landscapes, and the prospect of unending drought makes Michigan strategically attractive but also practical. And compared to other economic centers, Michigan and its Midwestern neighbors is affordable due to an abundance of available land and more-or-less stable communities that otherwise been dismissed as lacking any viable, or even interesting, future. An influx of new residents — let’s call them water refugees — from the Sun Belt back into the Midwest is not outlandish. If paired with robust, progressive conservation, land use planning that works with water, and other environmental sustainability initiatives, the Blue Belt will look more and more like the only option. In this scenario, Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Milwaukee are the cities that will lead this century, not the neoliberal boom towns that got rich quick worshipping the speculation-fueled, spatio-temporal fixes and construction bonanzas of the 80s, 90s, and Oughts. The global picture of scarcity and resource use grows ever darker but as it does, the radiant azure of Michigan’s lush waterscapes grow ever brighter.
Detroit and Its Five Futures
Prologue / Detroit and Its Five Futures
Introduction / The Fist of the City: A Colloquial History
1 / The Blue Belt
2 / The Green Belt
3 / The Mobility Belt
4 / The Innovation Belt
5 / The Design Belt