x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The Air Bag: Revitalising the Motor City of Detroit, Michigan

To bring Detroit back from the brink, it will take millions of dollars to renovate derelict buildings; but it would also be wrong to destroy them, as they are both historic and beautiful.

If you're like me, you were watching the Super Bowl commercials even before the big game. One of my favourites is the Chrysler "Halftime in America" ad with Clint Eastwood, a stirring comment on the resurgence of Detroit and the US spirit. The clip is so emotional, it almost makes me want to be an American. Almost.

Detroit may be clawing its way back, but it's still not where it should be. The city was rated as the worst in America for violent crime by Forbes magazine in 2011, based on FBI statistics. And unemployment in urban Detroit hit 11.2 per cent last year, one of the highest in the country. Even with the resurgence of the Big Three, some things remain dire.

I spent some time in the Motor City in January, for the North American International Auto Show. In the chilly, grey gloom of winter, what struck me was the lack of people on the streets, save for the beggars seemingly on every corner looking for a handout. It was kind of depressing.

But what also struck me about Detroit was its beauty; its architecture is one of the most interesting of any American city, with blocks, skyscrapers and grand buildings in various early- to mid-20th century genres such as art deco, Romanesque and neoclassical styles. Many buildings are still used today, but too many of them have been abandoned and allowed to decay, much like the city itself. They are Detroit's broken windows.

And by that, I'm referring to the Broken Window theory, a concept first introduced in 1982 by social scientists James Q Wilson and George L Kelling. Basically, it states that by improving the physical environment of an area, crime and vandalism will drop. In the mid-1980s, this theory was put to practice in New York City, which had become one of the most dangerous areas in the US. First, the subways were cleaned of graffiti and a no-tolerance attitude towards petty crimes was implemented; then the concept was spread throughout the city. The results were startling: major and petty crime fell both suddenly and dramatically; fixing the "broken windows" helped fix the Big Apple.

It will take millions of dollars to renovate the derelict buildings in Detroit; money both the city and the state just don't have. But it would also be wrong to destroy them, as they are both historic and beautiful. The corporations that own the buildings haven't done anything, so the state needs to find a way to make an ultimatum: either put up the money or we'll take them off your hands.

And here's where the car makers - along with other corporations that call Michigan home - come in. As the city can't do anything with them, it should give these buildings away, for free, to any corporation willing to invest the money to restore them within a certain time period, say five years. Give General Motors the grand Michigan Central Station; Ford can take the Michigan Theatre; and Chrysler can start on the fabulous Lee Plaza Hotel. These companies already give millions of dollars to Michigan charities, but these projects would be doing more than feeding people - it would be giving the city a future.

The benefit from this, of course, would be thousands of jobs for Detroit workers. But more importantly, it would bring back a pride to the Motor City that it has lost in the last few decades.

This isn't the "magic bullet" solution, of course; there are other economic and social factors that need to be addressed. But it would be a good start that would be accompanied by dramatic improvements in the quality of life in the city. After all, would you want your family living in a home with broken windows?

No. And neither should the people of Detroit have to.