Regeneration lessons from Detroit – focus on improving the lives of your residents

I have just been reading an interesting article about Detroit’s new approach to its Regeneration. I was going to also say ‘Growth’, but part of the plan is recognizing that Detroit has shrunk and the need to accept and plan for this ‘de-growth’.

I have seen previous references to some places needing to accept, and plan for, ‘Decline’, and this is a phrase I do not like as (to me) it seems to accept defeat. De-growth sounds a little bit better – but not much; so again not a phrase I would choose to use.

However, what I do like about Detroit’s long-term strategy (as reported in the article) is the primary aim is to improve the quality of life of its residents; economic diversification and environmental sustainability.

This quality of life approach is in contrast to Detroit’s (and of many other places’) previous approach to regeneration of trying to turn back the clock based on increasing land values and attract inward investment, with public bodies taking on the risk for large-scale urban development projects, with private firms reaping any financial rewards. This led to investors believing that municipal bonds were essentially risk-free and offered high rewards: so when Detroit’s local government tried to make up for its lack of funds, because of its shrinking tax base, by issuing bonds, there was no shortage of willing investors.

The problem was that the urban development undertaken, based on large and mega physical projects, did little to reverse the city’s economic decline or outflow of its population. In the end Detroit’s local government declared bankruptcy – not an option available to UK local authorities as they are ‘bodies in perpetuity’ so can’t go bankrupt. But the dangers of borrowing secured against future tax receipts which don’t materialise is a warning which UK Council’s (and urban regeneration advisers), given the current fashion for talking about devolution and localisation, need to be well aware of and to learn the lesson.

Anyway, I like the sound of Detroit’s focus on improving the quality of life for its residents as the primary aim, rather than chasing big inward investment schemes. This reminds me of something I have said in the past about the regeneration of towns and cities:

“your town and neighbourhood must the best version of itself that it can be and not a second rate version of somewhere else”.

This approach, of being the best version of yourself,  is based on people and improving the quality of their lives, and understanding that regeneration and economic growth ought to be all about people.

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