Urban Sprawl in SE Michigan

Urban Sprawl in SE Michigan

Why can’t we stop urban sprawl?

Why does the problem of urban sprawl in Southeast Michigan seem intractable? Though the issue pops up now and again, the most recent example is the impasse we seem to continually confront when it comes to a regional mass transit plan – we simply do not seem to have the capacity to deal with the problem rationally.

It’s not a stretch of the imagination to grasp that the production of automobiles has, and continues to dominate Michigan’s economy. It should also not be hard to understand that automobile production is one of the major factors affecting the way we live. Building and selling automobiles means food on the table, and because we need somewhere to drive all these cars, so does building roads.

For those of us who live in the region, it seems almost intuitive that we’d want to see more cars and more roads. But does this make sense, especially because doing so is not sustainable?

The concept that what we do is shaped by the past and the worldviews we’ve inherited from those who came before us is nothing new. Yet, the old saying, “To continue to do the same thing and expect a different result is the definition of insanity” seems appropriate here.

So, what is it about our regional history that will lead us to a better understanding of how we ought to act today? This is a big question, one that would require volumes to completely answer. Nevertheless, a look at overarching historical themes or narratives is worthwhile, and most importantly, essential to imagining what could be.

The history of roads and cars goes back nearly 100 years ago. In the 1930’s, an organization called The National Highway Users Conference, which was formed by GM, AAA, and others, and lives today as the American Highway Users Alliance, worked to influence federal policy. At the height of the Great Depression, the Conference’s agenda was to drive home the notion that highways ought to be publicly funded. And for good reason: What’s good for GM, is good for the country.

While this saying is often taken out of context, one thing is clear: From the New Deal through to the late 60’s, corporate leaders had a far more centrist view of things. At a high level, there was a reasonably shared notion among corporate leaders that keeping Americans employed was a common good. Exerting influence over federal lawmakers, and driving policy that would fund construction of highway systems, and thereby a flood of manufacturing activity, was seen as something that would be good for all concerned. It didn’t just mean an increase in profits, it meant US workers could earn a living wage. That changed in the early 70’s, but that’s another story altogether.

By 1956, there was enough political momentum to pass the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which funded the construction of the Interstate Highway System. Construction of the system meant connecting large cities to one another. What cannot be easily swept under the carpet is what this meant for poor, working families, especially those of color. There is not enough space to cover this subject in adequate detail, yet there’s no denying that systemic racism drove where and how the system was constructed. In Detroit, locating I-75 in the middle of Black Bottom is but one of countless examples of how African American communities were destroyed by the construction of the Interstate system. The break-up of cities also meant a social division that lives with us today. We are geographically separated from each other and that leads to all sorts of divisive thinking.

These are but a few points in the mosaic that is Southeast Michigan’s history. The question is how are we to meet the urgent challenge of achieving a sustainable existence? Are we to continue pursuing solutions born of the same patterns of thought, the same worldviews, or are we to imagine something new, something that fits within the constraints imposed on us by the need to achieve a sustainable existence?

One of the things that stands in the way of a more holistic approach to sustainable development in Southeast Michigan is how local land control has been codified. Michigan has a long history of upholding the idea that, “local matters can be better regulated by the people of the locality than by the state or central authority.” This isn’t anything new: It’s the premise that upholds federalism, and the word for it is “subsidiarity.” Yet, this very “liberal” notion pits jurisdictions against each other. To survive as a city, township, or village, jurisdictions must compete for residents and jobs, and in a region that is essentially void of a functioning mass transit system, this means more roads, more cars, more gasoline, and more you name it.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his [or her] own opinion, but not to his [or her] own facts.” While we may want to believe our problems will be solved by advances in technology, these solutions are so far-off as to constitute a form of science fiction. The fact is that “burning that gasoline” is not sustainable, nor is supplying all of the energy necessary to build and maintain single-family homes, concrete roads, or the millions of EVs necessary to connect the sort of disparate system in which we live in Southeast Michigan.

What’s needed is a complete reimagining of what could be, and that will not happen until we come together and “look up.” The cataclysm of global climate change is already upon us. That is a fact, not an opinion. If we think every jurisdiction within Southeast Michigan ought to be left to form its own opinion, without sharing facts, will somehow lead to a sustainable existence, then we need to rethink things. It’s not the end of the world if we work together.

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