Thursday, 21 April 2011

Falling Tea Leaves in Detroit

Our contemporary world is gripped in tension between economic development and the use of increasingly scarce environmental resources. This issue is pertinent to architecture and 2011 is an appropriate time to be considering possible reconciliations to it – the 2008 financial crisis has opened opportunities to rethink aspects of our globalised systems of commerce and distribution and the 2010 election of the coalition government introduced the notion of decentralisation - or localism - to political debate in the UK. And last summer the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico illuminated the environmental hazards of our consumption of fossil fuels as well as the vulnerabilities inherent within dependence on this form of energy.

Within this frame Detroit is highly relevant. Once the fifth largest city in the US and home to the three largest car manufacturers in the world it is now becoming a post-industrial city; an apocalyptic landscape populated by empty skyscrapers, redundant infrastructure, abandoned houses and vacant lots. The entropic condition of this shrinking city reflects the shifting fortunes of Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. And, looking ahead to a 21st century defined by higher oil prices and diminishing oil reserves, the future of the ultimate symbol of mass consumer confidence – the car – looks increasingly uncertain. What destiny awaits Detroit itself as a result?

One answer is a neo-liberal apologia: to allow the spiral of decline to continue or even, as has been suggested in the press, to formally abandon the city by federal act. But there is another more hopeful solution already arising within the city. This is a radical form of localism – one which questions the assumptions of centralised industrial processes and challenges the role of institutionalised authority. Vacant land across the city is now being taken over by local action groups for food production and abandoned buildings are being requisitioned, restored and taken ‘off-grid’ with micro systems of energy production which operate independently from centralised utility networks. These resourceful and innovative solutions by social entrepreneurs, artists and architects are particular to the extreme landscape of 21st century Detroit. But the ideas they represent contain nascent solutions to the contemporary global tension between economic development and environmental sustainability. And, as the 2011 UK Localism Bill is being debated in Parliament, the basis for the success, failure or wider application of these ideas is a topical area for investigation.

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