Today’s New York Times brings some unexpected but welcome news from Detroit: newly elected city council members are talking about the urgency of regional action.
“We need a higher standard of ethics and transparency and competence and cooperation, not just with each other but with our region and our state,” says Charles Pugh, city council president-elect. His colleague Saunteel Jenkins makes the critical link between the region’s crushing burden of segregation and the lack of cross-border cooperation: “One of the things that’s very distracting about this region is that it is one of the most segregated areas in the country – much of what we’ve done in the public policy arena has been based on perceptions formed by our 1967 race riots. We want to form much more cooperative relationships.”
The ability to act as a region, rather than a collection of separate and suspicious fiefdoms, is critical to Detroit’s future. Regions that are fragmented and decentralized are less competitive than more cooperative regions, and have a harder time sustaining their economic strength. Researchers believe that a high degree of fragmentation makes it difficult for regions to adapt to new competitive challenges. If there was ever a region that needed all the help it could get in adjusting to a very different competitive landscape, it’s Detroit.
The TNR article that I wrote a few weeks ago with Bruce Katz about how to revive Detroit noted that European cities that were in similarly disastrous straits after years of industrial decline had made regional engagement a key element of their recovery strategies. We recommended that Detroit seek out its own regional strategies. Even commentators who saw some shortcomings in our proposals agreed that engagement at the larger metropolitan level was vital.
The gap between what elected officials hope to do and what they actually can do is a vast one that has swallowed up many promising proposals. But if Detroit’s incoming council members and reformist mayor Dave Bing can follow through and reach out to the surrounding suburbs – and if the surrounding suburbs, which are also engulfed by the auto industry’s collapse, can overcome their own fears and stereotypes and respond to the city’s overtures, the region will be a big step closer to stability and eventual recovery.