Paradigm lost: Industrial and post-industrial Detroit – An analysis of the street network and its social and economic dimensions from 1796 to the present


This article addresses spatial patterns of growth and decline in Detroit from 1776 to the present. It maps industrial distribution, and uses space syntax to analyse the relationship among the street network, industry, streetcar transportation, and retail activity in the city. Special emphasis is given to the first half of the twentieth century, when Detroit reaches its peak of industrial production, in comparison with the second half, when it looses its vitality with the instalment of motorways and suburbanisation. The findings show that in the 1920s industry, streetcar transportation and retail settled along global movement routes that linked the city core with the expanding urban system. Since the 1950s the street network has lost its capacity to integrate the social and economic activities in the city, which followed a new logic of production, consumption and distribution. The motorways and the industrial landscape, which remained unchanged once reaching its peak, disrupted the street patterns in the city. This analysis can illuminate the role the street network plays in how cities prosper and thrive or shrink and decline. It leads to the suggestion that planning policy and urban design should integrate spatial configuration in their attempts to develop sustainable futures.

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    Other attempts to address Detroit's future are by public organisations such as the Detroit Works Project, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and a number of communities, design firms and grass roots initiatives.

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    Integration is defined by calculating the total amount of steps between a node and all other nodes within a set range or within the city as a whole. The fewer the steps, the more central and integrated a node becomes.

  6. 6.

    Choice is defined by calculating all shortest routes between all street segments within a range or an entire city and counting how often a certain segment in this system is used. The more often it is used, the higher choice value it receives.

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    The street section that has the shortest average distance to all other streets in a city has the highest metric centrality, and lies in the geographic centre.

  8. 8.

    Some suburban centres have not been captured in Figure 4 as they are relatively poorly connected to their immediate surroundings. For instance, while the centre of Dearborn is well located on the metropolitan global network, it is cut off from its surroundings by the Lower Rouge River to its north, and the Grand Trunk and Western railroad to its south. Neither do modern suburban centres such as Troy and Southfield follow this logic of interconnectivity between the neighbourhood and metropolitan scale. These centres align closer to the logic of interstate access as illustrated in Figure 23

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    Industrial land use was traced from historical maps and converted in to digital files (MapInfo GIS). The current land use map was obtained from the City of Detroit and was greatly enhanced by an industrial survey conducted by Interface Studio in partnership with ICIC. The data covers 11 170 acres (93 per cent of Detroit's industrially zoned land) and gives a more detailed picture of active and vacant sites, and current industrial uses (Pluviano, 2012).

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    The global scale route network in proximity to the water seen in Figure 8 shows that the choice network captures the economic and commercial activities that gravitated towards the river.

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    Ford Motor Company opened outside of the downtown area in 1903. The other automotive companies of the time followed – the Packard Company, General Motors Company, Chevrolet Motor Car Company and Chrysler. Up to about 1910, there were many small, privately owned workshops dispersed all over the city that produced materials and parts for the large factories, whose character was close to assembly plants (Bekkering, forthcoming). The first true assembly line, however, was not installed before 1913, designed by Albert Kahn, the Highland Park Ford Motor Company Plant (Bucci, 2002).

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    This is a term used by Jacobs to indicate the way in which large land uses, superblock development and infrastructure disrupt and erode a city's configuration and vitality

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    The measurement of distance of retail and commercial centres from the freeway network has been based on the angular depth and metric depth from each freeway exit. The correspondence between these centres and the combined angular-metric depth shows that they gravitate towards locations within a certain range of turns and short metric distance from freeways.

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    Although some of the businesses along these roads complement the businesses located within the regional malls, many others are struggling to compete with larger suburban retail concentrations, especially the establishments within the Detroit city limits.

  15. 15.

    As previously mentioned, we have been able to include only industrial land uses within the city limits of Detroit in this study.

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    Interestingly, Mayor Jeffries of Detroit conceded in 1944 that he didn’t know whether freeways would curb or actually accelerate decentralisation. ‘I am not sure whether bringing people [into the heart of the city] more expeditiously and quicker than they have even been able to get in before will not be the ultimate ruination of Detroit’ (Jeffries quoted in Fogelson, 2001, p. 317).

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    As Harvey (2010, p. 175) explains, ‘consumerism accounts for 70 per cent of the economy in the contemporary United States compared to 20 per cent in the nineteenth century’.

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    Similar changes also characterise traditional organically grown cities, such as London, where large-scale retail development takes place at major intersections of motorways with orbital roads. However, while in Detroit and American cities the large-scale shopping malls have been detrimental to the local-scale urban centres, in London the two kinds of retail development co-exist.

  19. 19.

    The Strategic Framework is organised into five planning elements and a civic engagement chapter. These five elements include: (i) ‘The Economic Growth Element’; (ii) ‘The Land Use Element’; (iii) ‘The City Systems and Environment Element’; (iv) ‘The Neighbourhood Element’; (v) ‘The Land and Buildings Assets Element’.


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Psarra, S., Kickert, C. & Pluviano, A. Paradigm lost: Industrial and post-industrial Detroit – An analysis of the street network and its social and economic dimensions from 1796 to the present. Urban Des Int 18, 257–281 (2013).

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  • Detroit
  • Street network
  • industry
  • spatial patterns of growth and decline
  • shrinking cities