Learning from Detroit
Turbulent Urbanism in the 21st Century

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Exploring the causes and conditions of decline, whether in Detroit or in other cities around the world facing a similar post-industrial future, will raise questions that older schools of urban studies are unable to address adequately.  Major breakthroughs in urban studies have tended to occur when groups of scholars work together in loose association but with the purpose of developing a cumulative understanding of a particular geography.  The “Chicago School,” arising from the work of scholars in the 1920s through the 1940s, produced research that became classics in urban geography, sociology, anthropology, as well as social work and urban planning.  The scholars associated with this school did much of their primary research in Chicago, focusing

on urban communities[1] and cultural formations[2] that they could study first-hand, assessing conditions door-to-door, and exploring neighborhoods to assemble empirical findings that underwrote powerful theoretical generalizations which came to shape urban scholarship for several generations.[3]   This work often had an activist component as well, as researchers collaborated with the social work of Jane Addams’ Hull House, using settlement house methodologies of urban research. [4]

By the 1980s, a new group of urban scholars emerged, centered in Los Angeles and concerned with the rise of megacities, suburban regional development, Pacific Rim economies, postmodern geographies, and “global city” growth models.”[5]  As with the Chicago School, this group of scholars learned from a particular region, investigating concrete conditions, theorizing their findings, and staking a claim for a particular “Los Angeles School” of urban studies.[6]  Yet the distance between the experience of Detroit and L.A. is vast, and the generalizations coming out of a suburban-oriented, Pacific Rim focused model of burgeoning, but fragmented growth seem inapplicable to Detroit and cities like it.  Just as L.A. School scholars found the urban theory of the Chicago School an increasingly uncomfortable fit, so too does the scholarship of the L.A. school seem a poor fit for places like Detroit.  For example, the kinds of policy interventions that were appropriate for “growth machines” and expanding metropolitan regions now seem ill-suited for cities and regions in conditions of long-term decline. 


The scholarly literature contains considerable debate regarding the desirability of creating a distinct “school” of urban studies.[7]  But the prospects are intriguing. By bringing together an interdisciplinary group of scholars from around the world to explore the implications of abandonment in cities that were once at the forefront of industrial growth and expansion, a Michigan Meeting will contribute to a growing body of scholarly literature that can not only be useful for similarly distressed cities and regions around the world, but also serve, through an international dialogue, help clarify the potential, feasibility, and terrain of a possible “Detroit School” of urban studies.

Looking through the lens of Detroit at a global condition that confronts many regions around the world whose economies once relied on large-scale manufacturing as their source of growth and expansion, but now face decline and abandonment, opens up possibilities for a broadening of the field of urban studies and for new advances in urban theory.  The political economy of urban growth and development has been well theorized,[1] but scholarship on the processes generating urban decline remains thin and unsystematic.[2]  To begin theorizing about cities in decline is to clarify and deepen our understanding of choices and challenges attending the long-term – and perhaps permanent – disassembling of cities and the infrastructure and cultural institutions that they once contained.

[1] For example, Susan Fainstein, The City Builders: Property Development in New York and London, 1980-2000 [2nd Revised Edition](Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2001); Jason Hackworth, The Neoliberal City: Governance, Ideology, and Development in American Urbanism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 2007); and John Logan and Harvey Molotch, Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987). 

[2] While the field is underdeveloped, there is an emerging body of scholarly literature to build on.  See, for example, Matthias Bernt, “Partnerships for Demolition: The Governance of Urban Renewal in East Germany’s Shrinking Cities,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 33,3 (2009), pp. 754–769; Robert Beauregard, Voices of Decline: The Postwar Fate of US Cities (London:  Blackwell, 2003); Robert Beauregard, "The Radical Break in Late Twentieth-Century," Area 38,2 (2006), pp. 218-220; Robert Beauregard, “Urban Population Loss in Historical Perspective: United States, 1820 – 2000,” Environment and Planning A 41 (2008), pp. 514-528; M. Bontje, "Facing the Challenge of Shrinking Cities in East Germany: The Case of Leipzig", Geojournal, 61,1 (2004), pp. 13-21; and Thorsten Wiechmann and Karina Pallagst, “Urban Shrinkage in Germany and the USA: A Comparison of Transformation Patterns and Local Strategies,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 36,2 (2012), pp. 261–280.

[1] Robert E. Park, Ernest W. Burgess, and R. McKenzie, The City: Suggestions for Investigation of Human Behavior in the Urban Environment (Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 1925).

[2] St.Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, The Black Metropolis (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1945)

[3] Martin Bulmer. The Chicago School of Sociology: Institutionalization, Diversity, and the Rise of Sociological Research (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

[4] Rima Schultz, Hull-House Maps and Papers (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007).

[5] Edward Soja, Postmetropolis (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000); Allen J. Scott and Edward Soja (eds), The City: Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the 20th Century (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1996); Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in L.A. (New York: Verso, 1990); Jennifer Wolch, Manuel Pastor, and Peter Dreier (eds.), Up Against the Sprawl: Public Policy and the Making of Southern California (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004).

[6] Michael J. Dear (ed.), From Chicago to L.A.: Making Sense of Urban Theory (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002); Michael Dear, “Los Angeles and the Chicago School: Invitation to a Debate,” City and Community 1,1 (2002), pp. 5-32; Michael Dear, “The Los Angeles School of Urbanism: An Intellectual History,” Urban Geography 24,6 (2003), pp. 493-509; and Walter Nichols, “The Los Angeles School: Difference, Politics, City,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35,1 (2011), pp. 189–206.

[7] For a critique of the idea of “schools” and paradigms,” see Robert Beauregard, “Radical Uniqueness and the Flight from Urban Theory,” in Dennis Judd and Dick Simpson (eds.), The City Revisited: Urban Theory from Chicago, Los Angeles, New York (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), pp. 186-202; and Michael Conzen and Richard Greene, "Introduction -- All the World is Not Los Angeles Nor Chicago: Paradigms, Schools, Archetypes, and the Urban Process," Urban Geography 29,2 (2008), pp. 97-100.  See responses by Michael Dear, Andrew Burridge, Andrew Marolt, Jacob Peters, and Mona Seymour, “Critical Responses to the Los Angeles School of Urbanism,” Urban Geography 29,2 (2008), pp. 101-112.