In late 1950’s, with the decline of the American automobile giants, began the economic and population decline of Detroit. Between 2000 and 2010 alone, forty-eight percent of the manufacturing jobs in the state of Michigan were lost. For reference, in 1950, there were about 296,000 manufacturing jobs in Detroit. Today, there are less than 27,000 manufacturing jobs. In 1950, the city of Detroit was counted as a population of 1.8 million making it the 5th largest city in America. Today, almost 70 years later, there are 700,000 residents.
Detroit was the first modern major American city to experience such a massive exodus out of the city. As people left, property values fell apart and the city became broke. All over the inner city, properties were abandoned and fell into neglected decay; the dense urban areas became a wasteland of dangerous crumbling infrastructure. In its wake, as these structures were demolished, a city with vast plots of uninhabited space was left.
All this may sound tragic, but on the other side of the coin was an opportunity – an opportunity for a large major American metropolis to reinvent itself from the industrial era urban design of American cities into a new post modern evolution. An opportunity for a city to learn from all of the mistakes of the last centuries and implement all the environmental, technological, and sociological understandings we have today on a redesigned American city.
As we are beginning to see with the resurgence of the Detroit economy, the city is using the opportunity to embrace sustainability and environmentalism in its movement towards a better future. From cars to bicycles and public transportation, from imported agriculture to vast communal urban farms, from infinite planes of impermeable concrete to a network of green spaces – the infrastructure revolution continues.
I mention all this today, because in the wake of the most catastrophic flooding in American history, Houston now has an opportunity. Anyone can see that a city that floods every single year from non tropical storms was not going to make it through a category 4 hurricane unscathed. For decades in the field, we have known and discussed the recklessness of building in the flood plains, in any city, and the macro effects of covering a virtually pancake flat city, that covers a whopping 627 square miles, in 40% impervious surface. Houston was once prairie lands with large plots of open space which slowed and absorbed storm water runoffs. That is the profile of the city for which the city’s archaic bayou drainage infrastructure was actually prepared for. Not what it has become.
The choices of the past are what they are. Now is the time to reevaluate what needs to be done or this will happen again. We have vast plots of urban land that have been simultaneously destroyed and will likely be rebuilt, but the truth is that majorities of them should not be. That is not to say Harvey, a one in 500 years storm should be the indicator, but rather use the last 10+ years of regular flooding to indicate the unsustainable developments. Areas that have been flooding every other year should not be rebuilt and should become public green space – an environmentally healing, psychologically beneficial, and economically stimulating public good. There needs to be an understanding that this will get worse before it gets better because it will take years to update the drainage infrastructure needed to get Houston through the next storms.
Houston, throughout the storm, brought pride to people across the world as they watched acts of heroism and humanity. Today, Houston can make the choice to be the pride of the nation with a city that uses a disaster to reinvent itself into a new sustainable city. The opportunity to learn from our fellow Michiganders is there, it’s our choice to take it.