Solving Cities

Cars are not the luxury Detroit needs; density is

Cars are not the luxury Detroit needs; density is

Posting in Cities

Chrysler's "Imported from Detroit" Super Bowl commercial was impressive. But it's not another car that will make Detroit a thriving city. It's urban density.

There's no use arguing that Chrysler's Super Bowl wasn't a success. At the Super Bowl party I went to, the company's two-minute advertisement demanded everyone's attention, and had us all saying "wow" at the end.

And as Andrew Nusca wrote on the Smart Takes blog yesterday, the ad was a good move for the ailing car manufacturer, and "to criticize the company for an apparently wildly successful advertisement during the most-watched television program of the year is to deny it the ability to pick itself up again."

He's right. Criticizing a commercial that silenced our Super Bowl party (and I'm sure lots of others) for two whole minutes is wrong. On the other hand, criticizing the car's relationship to the city is another story.

The rise of the car has also led to the rise of sprawl, and thus more car-dependent, communities. And not only is car-oriented development not sustainable, it's doesn't create a thriving city.

In his New York Times op-ed yesterday, columnist David Brooks makes an argument for dense cities, citing Edward Glaeser's book Triumph of the City:

Cities magnify people’s strengths, Glaeser argues, because ideas spread more easily in dense environments. If you want to compete in a global marketplace it really helps to be near a downtown.

In a successfully dense city, cars aren't part of the equation. For Chrysler to act almost like a savior to the city -- promoting its glittering car in the night lights after shots of dirty factories and abandoned lots -- is wrong, and provides a false sense of hope.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Detroit mayor Dave Bing doesn't say that car companies will be the sole driver to make Motor City better.

Rather, he admits that it's density that be important to making his city prosperous:

The key to our coming back is being focused and making sure that we've got the right kind of density in the right parts of the city.

Because as density increases a sense of community emerges, Brooks writes:

When you clump together different sorts of skilled people and force them to rub against one another, they create friction and instability, which leads to tension and creativity, which leads to small business growth. As Glaeser notes, cities that rely on big businesses wither. Those that incubate small ones grow.

Cars stifle that creativity by insulating people from their community, creating a sense of disconnect with the larger community. Honking horns are not the heartbeat of a successful city. Dense, walkable cities give communities life.

And as Krissah Thompson reports in the Washington Post, Detroit knows what happens when you rely on cars and big businesses.

Thompson writes:

Bing spent a recent evening at a dinner hosted by the Urban Land Institute's Rose Center, which has agreed to spend $100,000 to help revitalize the two-mile Livernois corridor, a stretch once known as the Avenue of Fashion.

"This city was hot," Bing told the urban planners. In those days, the Big Three auto companies and their suppliers had built the nation's largest black middle class.

Now, the avenue has Family Dollar, Auto Zone and the Gates of Heaven funeral home.

A more walkable, dense, city that relies on strong communities through small businesses should be the future Detroit aspires to. And The Urban Land Institute is doing a good job of trying to make that happen.

That's the luxury Detroit needs -- not a Chrysler 200.

Photo: Philippe Leroyer/Flickr

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Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure