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1960s proposal for Detroit never came to fruition


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1960s proposal for an improved Detroit never came to fruition

August 22, 2004



Stuck in traffic on a suburb-to-suburb run, my thoughts run to Constantine Doxiadis.


Only the guy who was going to fix everything around here by the year 2000, a metropolitan planner from Greece who came to Detroit in the 1960s and, over the next few years, was paid a then-enormous sum of $6.3 million to map the region's future. Working with experts from Wayne State University, Doxiadis in 1970 laid out a breathtaking vision for a new Urban Detroit Area with extensive mass transit, an interlocked grid of freeways and a new anchor city on the St. Clair River.

His ideas died almost before the applause did.

Not all of them were realistic. He was just wrong about some stuff. And his overall vision was far too extensive to achieve in a mere 30 years. But the real reason even his good ideas fell flat was political.

Doxiadis offered a regional vision with little concept of the region's fractious, go-your-own-way politics. Plus, like most visionaries, he wasn't a particularly inclusive fellow. He seemed to assume that everyone would fall in behind him, so he didn't bother lining them up ahead of time. As a result, very few of the region's movers and shakers were aboard when he unveiled his plan and, denied their usual advance homage, moved little and shook even less.

Doxiadis died in 1975 without ever changing a thing about the Detroit area.

His plan caused quite a stir in Port Huron, where I was living in the '70s, because of the growth he forecast for St. Clair County.

Using computer modeling that was then in its infancy, Doxiadis rejected the hub-and-spoke layout of metro Detroit, predicting erratic growth along the freeway legs radiating out from the central city and decay between them. Instead, in his vision, the region's growth would be directed in a more uniform way up from its long shoreline -- that is, the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River and Lake Erie. Doxiadis saw a second major coastal city arising in St. Clair, just south of Port Huron, and the area growing west from there into the lower Thumb.

"There will be well-planned and zoned commercial, residential and industrial areas in and around the new center," Doxiadis wrote, "along with a new seaway port, a new major airport and a new educational and research center. This would attract much of the increased population, thus relieving pressure on metropolitan Detroit."

Cynics who couldn't figure out a statistical basis for the Doxiadis forecast pointed out that it seemed tailored to the service area of Detroit Edison, whose chairman at the time, the legendary Walker Cisler, was a big booster of regional planning and the man who brought Doxiadis to Detroit.

Doxiadis forecast the Detroit area's population would double from 1970 to 2000, which would mean we'd have 9.4 million people around here today. We have about 5.4 million. Thinking even bigger, the Urban Detroit Area was, he projected, going to be at the heart of a new, international Great Lakes megalopolis that would stretch from Chicago-Milwaukee all the way east to Montreal and Quebec City on the St. Lawrence River.

In an introduction to the Doxiadis report, then-Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh said the "giant supercity" would by 2000 be more populous than the East Coast and "Detroit and the entire southeastern corner of our state has the potential to become the economic center of it all."

All this growth was going to be manageable because the region would see the wisdom of investing in significant mass transit and a highway system that was more grid-like rather than centered on Detroit. Imagine a freeway along every other east-west mile road and north-south artery. Not only that, instead of merging pedal to the metal, Doxiadis foresaw drivers hooking into a computer system that would take over a car and maintain speed and a space cushion all the way to a designated exit. (Wouldn't that take the fun out of rush hour?)

But alas, none of this was to be. Instead, we connected our spokes with the I-275, I-696 and M-59 beltways and have grown in fan-like fashion ever further from Detroit. One trend Doxiadis and most other planners of his era missed was the coming change in commuting patterns, from exurb or suburb to suburb instead of suburb to city. Doxiadis also seemed to think that people around here could agree on a shared vision -- preferably his -- and work together to make it happen.

"As the Urban Detroit Area looks to the 21st Century," Cavanagh said at the time, "it has the choice of continuing present trends characterized by haphazard urban sprawl and decay, or rebuilding and developing in a planned, orderly manner."

Now that was visionary.

RON DZWONKOWSKI is editor of the Free Press editorial page. You can reach him at 313-222-6635, at [email protected], or write him in care of the Free Press editorial page.

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