Monday, December 20, 2010

The Limits of the Detroit Works Project

Mayor Dave Bing
Mayor Dave Bing is still developing his Detroit Works Project. Since it will likely be a far-reaching affair, I want to take a moment to discuss the things that it will not be able to accomplish. I choose to start with these simply because I have heard so many people, particularly in the news media, talk about DWP solving problems that it has no chance of solving. I'll get to what it can do next.

The Detroit Works Project is built on the idea of encouraging people to move from the lowest density neighborhoods to some of our higher density neighborhoods. Some individuals in the news media have argued that this will enable the City of Detroit to improve police and fire protection by focusing our resources in those areas. They are simply wrong.

Every part of Detroit will still need police and fire protection. All of it.

Unless every part of Detroit receives adequate police and fire protection, it will be a danger to all Detroiters. This will continue to be true even if everyone moves out of low density neighborhoods that Mayor Bing hopes to further depopulate.

With regards to fire protection, the issue is one of simple physics. A fire that starts in one part of town will not simply remain in that area if it is left unattended. As long as there is oxygen and fuel for it, the fire will continue to burn. An out of control fire in one area, therefore, can threaten homes and businesses in neighboring areas if it is allowed to continue burning.

One also has to remember that many of structures in Detroit's low density neighborhoods contain lead paint, asbestos, and other toxic chemicals. When those things burn, these hazardous materials are released into the atmosphere. These things pose a threat to public health and safety not only in the low density neighborhood where the fire starts, but in adjoining high density neighborhoods as well as in nearby suburbs.

There is also the omnipresent possibility that someone could be trapped in a burning structure, even it happens to be in a low density neighborhood. Allowing a fellow human being to burn to death, simply because of the population density of the neighborhood that they happen to be in is morally intolerable.

For all of these reasons, I believe that fire protection will have to be maintained citywide, contrary to what some in the news media have argued. This will continue to be necessary even if every resident voluntarily moves to the high density neighborhoods.

As for police protection, I argue that the Detroit Police Department cannot afford to stop patrolling in low density areas nor can they stop responding to calls for service. This again will remain true even if 100% of residents and businesses decide to relocate.

One of the basic characteristics of urban life in that neighborhoods are interconnected. People and goods move from one neighborhood to another - and from one city to another - on a regular basis. In the 21st century, this movement happens on almost constant basis and with a trend for it gaining momentum rather than slowing down.

If police service was largely discontinued in low density parts of Detroit then there is a significant possibility that those areas will essentially become a no man's land; an area where people and commerce are reluctant to travel through for fear of their own safety. If this were to happen, even the highest density neighborhoods would become increasingly isolated from commerce. In a modern economy, where commerce with distant is increasingly important, this would likely result in those isolated areas withering and dying.

The only way to avoid this ensure that a basic level of police protection is in existence throughout the city. Therefore, the oft repeated claim that the Detroit Works Project will enable the Detroit Police Department to move resources out of certain neighborhoods and into others is, in my opinion, both wrong and dangerous.

There seems to be little dispute among Detroiters that the Detroit Police Department needs to improve its response time and closure rate dramatically in order to bring it on par with other major law enforcement agencies across this nation. However, I do not believe that the Detroit Works Project will help to make such an improvement.

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