Having once been an environmental activist, one thing that bothers me about modern day environmental activists (*) is their insistence, despite any evidence, that jamming people into cities and going to Farmer's Markets and having governments buy huge swaths of land that can't be used by anyone is a good thing.   Emotional arguments mobilize zealots who are already convinced but do very little for the undecided.  But common sense and data do.

If most people were going to predict which city would instead have a common sense plan to get greener without more bloated government employment or a bigger deficit or laws, very few people would have said Detroit.

Detroit, for those of you who do not know your American industrial city history, was Motor City, the home of automobiles.  It was to cars what Pittsburgh was to steel.  But since the 1950s, when labor costs made cars start to get expensive to produce there, the city has shrunk from almost two million people to less than one million - that is one million residents lost from 139 square miles of city.   And that means some neighborhoods now look like they should be in a Mad Max movie.  Gone are the days when people lived there and walked to work in the car factory and riots and crime since the late 1960s drove the middle classes to the suburbs, so the city that remains has high unemployment, high crime and some neighborhoods have trash-filled empty lots with very few houses.

What does the city intend to do?   Mayor Dave Bing says they are going to 'un-annex' a lot of land they once annexed, move people into stronger neighborhoods where they will be safer, bulldoze the old buildings and make those areas green again - urban blight will become fruit trees and vegetable farms.   An environmentalist's dream, right?   

Not so fast; will liberals, who generally favor government heavyhandedness on environmental issues, suddenly support moving primarily black, blue collar people from their homes?  Will conservatives, who dislike eminent domain and are supposed to be against federal bailouts, be for hundreds of millions of dollars in expenditures to make Detroit green because it will also lead to less crime and save money?

If Bing can pull it off, the city would instead be neighborhoods surrounded by fields.  It sounds delightful - and bold.  But can anyone really do it?   It may not be as explosive as we think at first glance.  Detroit is 85 percent black so it isn't like anyone can claim it is a racial issue but they can claim it is a big government issue - yet the government that has no money, a $300 million budget deficit and fewer people, so the city simply can't continue to pay for police and fire protection in areas few people live. That means environmentalists who get on board could be on the side of small government, which really smudges the usual lines of political debate.

The Detroit school system also plans to build new ones with $500.5 million in bonds voters approved last year despite a recession - so supporting the idea of rezoning the city boosts education prospects.   "You can’t support every neighborhood,” Bing told WJR-760 AM's Frank Beckmann. “You can’t support every community across this city. Those communities that are stable, we can’t allow them to go down the tubes. That’s not a good business decision from my vantage point.”

 Consolidation would seem to make sense.   Building schools and having police in desolate neighborhoods is a ridiculous idea and with 33,500 empty houses and 91,000 vacant residential lots, things have reached crisis levels.

It makes sense to work with people who are happy to go first and then hope the rest  will get on board, but redefining the boundaries of Detroit proper may be a drastic, necessary step.

Bing says he is laying it all out now because he wants it to be inclusive and not heavy-handed.  The more people know their options, they more they will buy in.  He is right.  People often make the smart decision when the facts are laid out, the options are presented and there is no hidden agenda.

Maybe 2020 will see a huge influx of people back to Detroit because it is a great place to live again.  And maybe it's a model for other cities in the same situation.


(*) Lack of science bothered me then also but it is either worse now or I am just older and crankier.  Regardless, living in Pittsburgh and trying to convince Westinghouse employees to give money to our group when part of their literature said nuclear power had to go was not easy then, so I would simply tell them these guys were nuts on that one issue but right on bottle bills (we lost - everyone does the government recycling boondoggle instead, which is more expensive and does nothing for the environment) and other issues they were right.  They were pretty gracious about writing checks even though they knew part of the money would go toward putting them out of business.   Further proof that anyone who claims Republicans don't care about the environment, hate science, or only care about their own interests are full of it.