May 18 2011 12:00 AM

Author John Gallagher says, when it comes to Detroit, bigger is not better


Author John Gallagher isn’t an architect, and he doesn’t have a community planning degree— or
even a crystal ball. But he sees a much smaller city in Detroit’s
future, and he doesn’t think there is anything wrong with that.

That opinion often puts him at odds with those who pin the
future of Detroit on repopulation and growth. Recent census figures
show Detroit’s population at 714,000, down from a one-time high of
approximately 2 million in 1950.

He is also not afraid to write what many are afraid to
say, calling Detroit “the nation’s poster city for urban dystopia.”
Gallagher says Detroit is unique in that its sheer size gives it a sense
of abandonment.

In his 2011 Michigan Notable Book, “Reimagining Detroit:
Opportunities for Redefining an American City,” Gallagher makes a case
for a city that doesn’t pin its hopes on what he calls "fantastic
visions,”  but is based on a smaller footprint that has begin to work for other cities across the globe.

He also doesn’t believe that traditional government
entities wielding tax breaks will lead the way; instead, he argues,
innovation will come from community-based organizations and foundations.

“It has become apparent that old redevelopment won’t
work,” he said. “No matter how many tax credits are offered, there is no
demand for them.”

He admits Detroit’s casinos look nice, but he said, “Not
much has been done around them. The Detroit Riverwalk has made a bigger
difference, along with wider sidewalks.”

Pointing to Detroit’s Mexicantown as an example, Gallagher
said, “Most of the good work has been done by non-profit

Gallagher can tick off multiple neighborhood organizations
and nonprofit groups that do what he calls “special work,” like the
corporation that runs Eastern Market, which he says "flourished after
city government got out of the way.”

The author, who developed his thesis after observing the
city of Detroit for nearly a quarter century as a reporter covering
architecture, urban issues and economic development, has come to the
conclusion that the normal method of getting things done in the city is

He believes that Detroit’s decline, including population loss, may not be over, but that it still can be a better city.

In his book, Gallagher points to cities like Philadelphia;
Turin, Italy; Youngstown, Ohio and Kalamazoo, which are smaller but

To solidify his thesis of how smaller can be better he
cites how cities with population levels of 170,000-250,000 consistently
are ranked among the best places to live in national surveys.

To support points in his thesis of what can work in
Detroit, Gallagher made a trip to Flint to find Dan Kildee, a former
Genesee County treasurer who heads up the national nonprofit The Center
for Community Progress. Gallagher believes Kildee is leading the way in
the national debate of redefining cities.

Kildee’s idea, Gallagher writes, is that “our perceptions
need an adjustment.” He quotes Kildee: "There’s nothing that says that
the quality of life in a city is determined by the number of people who
live there.”

One future the author sees for cities like Detroit is
building on the “greening movement,” and he writes extensively in his
book about urban agriculture, which, to a great extent, is already
underway in Detroit, led by nonprofit organizations.

His book points out that the massive amounts of vacant
property (approximately 48 square miles of the city’s 128 square miles)
can be adapted for urban farming.

At one point he compares Detroit to the European cities
that were rebuilt after World War II, noting “no city in America offers
so vast a canvas for new thinking as Detroit.”

In a chapter titled “The Best Idea Detroit Never Tried,”
Gallagher writes that as treasurer, Kildee established a county land
bank program that deals with abandoned land in a whole new way. Tax
foreclosed properties revert to the county, which then disposes of them
in a thoughtful way, rather than leaving it up to speculators. 

Gallagher asserts that Detroit and Wayne County have bungled an opportunity by not fully implementing a land bank program.

Flint, like Detroit, is reeling from the impact of
deindustrialization, but Gallagher maintains the land bank program in
Flint has seen some amazing results.

The Free Press writer also authored two books on
architecture, “Great Architecture in Michigan” and “AIA Detroit: The
American Institute of Architects Guide to Detroit Architecture.” A third
book on Detroit architecture is planned.

Taken as a whole, Gallagher’s book is hopeful. “The future
city may be home to no more than five hundred thousand residents," he
writes, "but it can function as a world-class city all the same.”

As part of the Michigan Notable Book Tour, Gallagher will visit Lansing’s Art Alley at 7 p.m. May 26.

Following the event, members of the local architectural
and built environment book club will meet at the SoupSpoon Café for a
discussion led by Karla Barber. The event is sponsored by the Capital
Area District Library and the Greater Lansing Capital Gains.

John Gallagher: ’Reimagining Detroit’
7 p.m. May 26
Art Alley,
1113 S. Washington Ave., Lansing
(517) 367-6300