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Quantifying Downtown Detroit's Comeback

When people talk about the resurgence of urban America — the shift of people, jobs and commerce back to downtowns and center cities — they're usually talking about a narrow group of elite cities like New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Boston, and San Francisco. 

That's why a report [PDF] released this week on the transformation of downtown Detroit is so interesting. It documents the ongoing regeneration of a decent sized swath of the city's urban core. Detroit's Greater Downtown spans 7.2 square miles (reflected in the title of the report). It runs across the city's riverfront*  from the central business district to trendy Corktown, home of Slows Bar B Q and Astro Coffee; Mies van der Rohe's verdant Lafayette Park and Rivertown, north to the Eastern Market, Detroit's farmer's market; the Cass Corridor, with arts institutions; Midtown, home to Wayne State University, up Woodward Avenue to Tech Town and New Center (see the map below).

Image from the report

The report draws on new and unique data from local surveys as well as national data from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey and other national sources. It is the product of a partnership between the the Hudson-Webber Foundation, the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, the Downtown Detroit Partnership, Midtown Detroit, Inc., D:hive, and Data Driven Detroit. 

The Greater Downtown corridor has a population of 36,550 people or 5,076 people per square mile. It might not be not downtown Manhattan, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, or Philadelphia, but it compares favorably to other Midwest city-centers, like downtown Minneapolis, with 3.4 square miles and 28,811 people; downtown Pittsburgh at 1.3 square miles and 4,064 people; and downtown Cleveland at 3.2 square miles and 9,523 people. Of these downtowns, only Minneapolis has greater density than Greater Downtown Detroit.

Greater Downtown forms the Detroit region's commercial, educational, and entertainment hub home to major higher ed, arts and cultural institutions, its football and baseball stadiums and hockey arena, and several hundred restaurants, bars and retails shops. Each year, 10.5 million people visit the Greater Downtown area, according to the report.

(Left) Elizabeth Rose stands in the first branch of coffee emporium 'Roasting Plant' outside New York, in downtown Detroit on January 25.; (Right) Entrepreneurs Brian Doig and Cyndi Lareau (R), work on their web businesses in the M@dison building in downtown Detroit on January 25. (both by Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

While Greater Downtown is more affluent than the city as a whole, it lags behind other urban centers. The average per capita income of Greater Downtown residents is $20,216, considerably higher than $15,062 for the city as a whole but behind the nation ($27,334) as well as other urban centers like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Residents of Greater Downtown are also more educated than the city as a whole (see table below). College educated residents between the ages of 25 and 34 made up eight percent of the population for Greater Downtown compared to just one percent for the city as a whole, three percent for the state of Michigan, and four percent for the nation. More than four in ten young adults (42 percent) in Greater Downtown were college-educated, compared to 11 percent for the city, and higher than both the state and national rates of 29 and 31 percent, respectively.

Chart from the report

Still, one of the most interesting findings from the report is that Greater Downtown is considerably more racially diverse than the city as a whole.

Even in the fabled Motor City, downtown's regeneration is being driven at least in part by people looking to live more sensibly and efficiently, with less dependence on the car. The report highlights this trend providing the results of a survey of pedestrian and cycling activity across Greater Downtown's six main districts (see table below).

Table from the report

As in other cities, Detroit's downtown urban transformation has surfaced a variety of issues. This past summer, Karen Dumas, former press secretary to Mayor Dave Bing, asked if Detroit was losing its fabled grit and becoming too suburban, highlighting the tensions arising with the influx of new, more affluent residents. "On one hand, you see a 'new' Detroit. Young, white, educated and employed are the characteristics of those who are taking a chance on the city. They stand in stark contrast to native Detroiters — most of whom are African-Americans and many who are undereducated and unemployed — who have stayed and stuck it out over the years, through challenge and controversy."

And while Greater Downtown has seen considerable process, large swaths of the city remain terribly distressed. "We're a long way from gentrification," Kurt Metzger, director of Data Driven Detroit, the source of much of the data for the report, told the Detroit Free Press.

I will be looking in more detail at these important issues in the upcoming Detroit installment of my ongoing series on America's class-divided cities.

*Correction: An earlier version said lake front.

Richard Florida is Co-Founder and Editor at Large at The Atlantic Cities. He's also a Senior Editor at The Atlantic, Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, and Global Research Professor at New York University. He is a frequent speaker to communities, business and professional organizations, and founder of the Creative Class Group, whose current client list can be found here. All posts »

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