The city of Detroit madeheadlines in early July as city officials sought bankruptcy protection fromcreditors. Detroit is not the first U.S. city to file for bankruptcyprotection, but it is the largest. Much like the fable of the frog in a slowly heating pot of water, it seems that this event was a long time in the making. While the ramifications of bankruptcy arestill coming to light, it’s important to look at the positive opportunitiesthat the decision enables along with the challenges that will no doubt behighlighted in the media. These positive opportunities for Detroit can beapplied to cities everywhere.
Remember, it’s cyclical
If there’s one thing that historytells us is, it’s that fortune, good and bad, is cyclical. Sometimes cities arebeset almost instantaneously by calamity—the explosion inHalifax, the Great Chicago Fire, and the San Francisco earthquake come tomind. In other cases, cities deal with catastrophes over long periods of time,as is the case in New Orleans on the heels of HurricaneKatrina. The cycles may span several years or even generations—considerthe ancient cities of Rome or Athens, where the ebb and flow prominence and prosperity covers centuries. Thehistorical lens of the past shows us that people band together to rebuild whenthings seem bleakest.
Embrace a new status quo
The population of the city ofDetroit dropped from over 1.8 million people in the 1950s to now just over 700thousand. This decline took place over a 50-year period, so like the poor frogin the pot, Detroit may have misinterpreted its situation. But being jolted awayfrom the status quo gives government, residents, and the private sector an opportunitybreak from their existing frame of reference and look for different approachesto meet the needs of the city today and down the road. This moment for Detroitis beyond valuable. It may well be a fiscal call to action that motivatesleaders to address systemic challenges, much as physical calamities have donein other cities.
Do new with less
Today’s Detroit is an objectlesson of a city needing to do new with less. While the city’s residential taxbase has steadily declined, it continues to occupy the same land area andremains accountable for traditional city services in its domain. Detroit mustmanage the same number of traffic lights, respond quickly to fires, maintain itsfresh water systems, and continue to address fundamental services that citizenstake for granted. Cities everywhere are looking for ways to be more effectivein providing services on a limited budget. Being able to take a fresh look athow a city provides services can allow city leaders and residents to break thetethers of legacy thinking. Perhaps something small like the energy-saving Halifax LEDstreet light project or something larger like Barcelona’sInnovative City Governance program provide the perspective other citiesneed to get started. Like those cities, Detroit needs to step away from a preconceivedway of doing things to enable lasting change for the community.
So as we look ahead to thechallenges faced by the world’s cities as well as those close to home, let’stake a lesson from Detroit, and seize our opportunities to build newcommunities of prosperity.
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