Recently released United States census data have confirmed the sad truth that Detroit's 40 square miles of abandoned and vacant plots have conveyed in recent years: the city has collapsed. Over the last decade, Detroit, which in 1990 was the seventh largest city in the U.S., lost 25 per cent of its population. In absolute numbers, this outward migration is worse than what happened to New Orleans after hurricane Katrina ravaged it. Detroit's urban decay explicates the perils of myopic urban policies that tether a city's growth to only one economic activity and neglect the challenge of urban inequalities. Since the beginning of the 20th century, when Ford revolutionised automobile production, the city has emerged as one of the world's largest hubs of the automobile industry. It peaked in population in 1950. In the two decades that followed, city planning imprudently encouraged urban sprawl: as many as 20 auto plants were set up in the suburbs, draining the city of employment and importance. This unsustainable suburbanisation also split the city racially, with the relatively affluent white population living in the periphery and the deprived African-Americans inhabiting the core. Investment in infrastructure on the less inhabited periphery at the expense of the deteriorating city core widened the inequalities. From the late 1980s, the automobile industry in Detroit witnessed an economic slide and this one-industry town a flight of capital and people. The recent recession made a bad situation much worse.

Detroit is an example of what could go wrong when industries get complacent and cities lose their bearings. Efforts to revitalise the core area of the city by constructing a spectacular convention-cum-office complex and a $300 million baseball stadium did not produce the desired results. Such cases demonstrate that development projects, however huge they may be, will not deliver unless they are integrated with the overall redevelopment and the benefits get equitably distributed. Lessons can also be learnt from Turin, the Detroit of Europe and the headquarters of Fiat, the Italian car company. Between 1980 and the early 1990s, the city was severely affected by the economic slide in the automobile industry: it lost 80,000 jobs and was saddled with one million square feet of abandoned industrial sites. Good governance, the creative re-inventing of Turin as the cinema capital, and a public-participatory planning process turned the ailing city around. All this should serve to remind Indian city managers — who in the last decade have tended to over-emphasise the role of the IT sector in urban growth — that the key to a prosperous city is economic diversity and equitable growth.

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