Little did anyone know, I am sure, in 1941 that the first real effort at creating a highway in Michigan – to bring workers to a bomber plant during World War II with the Willow Run Expressway – would be the start of a series of infrastructure undertakings that would some 10-20 years later contribute to the mass exodus from the city of Detroit and the decline of what was once considered one of the premier cities in the country.
The Willow Run Expressway was followed a decade later with the Edsel Ford Expressway and then a series of other major thoroughfares that allowed workers in Detroit to exit for what we now know as the suburbs. Easy access to their places of employment while living outside of the city limits. Eventually, the companies that employed people in Detroit moved to what was the near-in newer communities, and years later, to the farther suburban reaches as the auto companies decentralized their production facilities.
It was almost the classic chicken-and-egg question at first: whether relocated companies drew the population out of the city or simply moved to where they saw the population centers of the future. It really doesn't matter. The workforce, mostly white, left Detroit, including our family who in the mid-50's was drawn to a Macomb County farmland area (now Sterling Heights) to be closer to the General Motors Technical Center in Warren that now held the job my father had for years at the Fisher building in midtown Detroit.
The decision was made all the easier with the start of the decline of the educational system in the city. As decision makers, many parents asked themselves if they wanted less time commuting to work, an improved educational system for their children, a less onerous tax load and the opportunity at affordable, new housing. It wasn't, as some would have it, always just a race question, but that no doubt also played into the decisions of some, especially following the Detroit riots in 1967.
Very quickly the farmlands disappeared, the subdivisions sprouted and the resident numbers for Detroit showed a steady and noticeable decline.
Add to those factors the short-sighted urban planning by more than one administration in Detroit to view the young suburbs as a source of revenue by extending sewer and water lines out from the city, which only sped up the exodus. As a result, today 40 percent of the state's population is now on the Detroit water system, which realizes about 75 percent of its total revenue from the suburbs. A full 30 percent of the state's population relies on the Detroit sewerage system, where 50 percent of the operating money is derived from the suburbs.
The sprawl continued. The suburbs grew in strength, and so did their political power. Suburban leaders responded to the demands of their new and growing populations with the amenities to which they were accustomed – bigger and better schools, parks and recreation, retail centers, and improved road systems, including expanded highways.
The pattern for sprawl was complete. For the most part, irreversible, no matter how many from the Millennial generation move back into the Detroit urban core in the coming years.
And that simplified “CliffsNotes” on Detroit history brings us to February of 2016 and the announcement by Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson that the $1 billion widening of I-75 in the northern reaches will begin this year. Bittersweet for a project that has been on the drawing board for 16 years.
Modern-day traffic engineers know that adding more lanes to I-75 will undoubtedly only draw more traffic and over an extended period will still leave us with a choked up interstate highway in the morning and evening rush hours. About the only true benefit from this project may be improvements to the Square Lake Road interchange, a treacherous section that generates what seems like daily major accidents.
So what's been gained in the past 50-60 years in terms of putting a halt to the incentives we give to others to continue with the steady march of sprawl? Not much.
Over 30 years ago, I called for putting the brakes on the practice of continuing to push further into what comparatively could be called virgin territory with infrastructure and, in some cases, economic incentives that only drew more development to the northern and western areas of southeast Michigan – repeating the vicious cycle. It was considered heresy in the western Oakland lakes area where I resided at the time, and I certainly understood the parochial concerns of those in office.
My thought then was that all economic incentives – like extended tax breaks to businesses – should be reserved for the older established communities – be it Detroit or portions of southeast Oakland County, for example, and other similar aging suburban areas. Consider levying impact fees on large companies who wanted to locate in undeveloped “small town” communities. Take the pressure or demand off the outer reaches of the suburban area. Rebuild the communities already in existence. Revitalize the infrastructure in those communities to retain existing populations – rather than extending the road and water/sewer lines further out – and become a draw for future generations, which we are now realizing may not have the same suburban dreams of my parents' generation.
I was only one of many voices on this issue. But no one was listening.