I’ve had a bit of an obsession with Detroit over the past few years.
It’s perfectly natural. Not only was I born there (well, in the suburbs, anyway), but the city is a fascinating natural laboratory for me as a geographer. All sorts of things are happening in Detroit that don’t seem to be happening in many, if any, other places.
The best-known of those is the city’s depopulation trend. That’s been happening for a while now, but over the first decade of the 21st century, just as we started to read stories about how Detroit had turned a corner after 40 years or so and was finally ready for a comeback, the bottom fell out. In 2000, the city had just under a million residents and was the tenth-largest city in the US by population. By 2010, Detroit’s population cratered to 713,777 – a 25% decline in a single decade.
Detroit is now this country’s 18th-largest city. It has fewer people than Jacksonville, Florida, or Columbus, Ohio, or Charlotte, North Carolina. In 1950, it had nearly 1.9 million people and was the fifth-largest city in the US. It’s the only American city ever to pass the one-million-resident barrier in both directions.
This kind of population loss is stunning, and the obvious question to ask is why it is happening at all. There are all kinds of reasons, but the purpose of this post isn’t to explore them. Instead, it’s to call attention to a map I made that illustrates the declining density in the Detroit region over a span of four decades.
When you watch it happen on the map, it’s really kind of shocking how dramatic the city’s depopulation has been. Zoom in on the city itself and click the time-lapse button a couple of times (you have to run through it once before the layers will load and unload smoothly). You can just see how there were still some red (i.e., high density) Census tracts in 2000, and how they almost completely disappeared from the entire map by 2010. Contrast that with the amount of red on the 1970 map: most of the tracts within the city were high-density tracts back then.
One thing about this data that catches my eye is that the population of the larger Detroit region – which I have arbitrarily defined here as Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties – doesn’t change that much between 1970 (about 4.5 million) and 2010 (about 4.3 million). In fact, 2010 isn’t even the low-water mark for the region’s population over this period: That would be 1990, when the population was about 4,329,000.
Given the state of Michigan’s economy, we might have expected to see a decline in Detroit Metro’s population between 2000 and 2010, and we did: the regional population declined by about 160,000 over that time. But don’t forget that the city of Detroit lost just under 240,000 people during that decade. That means that the non-city-of-Detroit part of the region actually gained 80,000 people during that timeframe. You can kind of see it if you look at a wide view of the map and switch between 2000 and 2010. A handful of Census tracts in the exurbs switch from blue to purple or from green to blue.
Still, even if we assume that every one of those 80,000 new suburban residents moved out of Detroit itself during the decade, that leaves about 160,000 more who not only left the city, but left the entire area. Looking at this map, and at the Census data that drives it, we can’t say that this is just another round of the same suburban flight Detroit’s been enduring for decades. This tells me that people are just bugging out completely, leaving not just the city but the entire region.
Detroit’s suburbs have always been much more affluent than the city itself, and in the past they’ve been able to pick up the slack and create both jobs and wealth when the inner city couldn’t. But in stark contrast to times past, these sprawling suburbs just couldn’t absorb the huge numbers of people leaving Detroit over the last decade. To me, that’s a bad sign for the region.
I don’t really see how a city can lose 25% of its population and be healthy. It’s possible that Detroit is now at its optimal size, but I’m going to wait for some concrete results before I’ll believe that the city has finally risen, phoenix-like, from the ashes.