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Can St. John be Stopped from Becoming the Detroit Of New Brunswick?

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Detroit is a city that has become emblematic of urban decay and decline, of what can go wrong with an American city, ranking top or near-top in U.S. crime rates, and having experienced steep population decline.

In 1950 Detroit's population stood at 1.8 million. By 2010 that number had declined to 713,777. Detroit has seen an exodus of people and industry from the city to the suburbs with freeways and the automobile enabling travel over longer distances. This move in turn brought decreased property tax revenues -- with less money for infrastructure and services -- feeding into the image of Detroit as an undesirable place to live.

Also contributing to Detroit's decline were pressures faced by the American automobile industry with outsourcing to lower wage jurisdictions and pressure from international competition, as well as the 1967 race riots in Detroit which accelerated the "white flight" from the city to the suburbs which had begun in the 1950s. Due to housing discrimination, African-Americans were prevented from moving into the suburbs, leaving many of them isolated in an inner-city where jobs and the middle-class were fleeing.

Where New Brunswick, with the Equal Opportunity reforms of Louis Robichaud, provided for centralized governance with equalization and common standards in health, education, and social development, in Michigan, more authority is decentralized to fragmented and overlapping municipalities which include counties, townships, and cities (analogous to pre-Equal Opportunity New Brunswick). Thus, an impoverished municipality like Detroit is left with more responsibilities and less support.

Education, an important avenue of upward mobility, has suffered in the City of Detroit with implications of self-reinforcing cycles of poverty -- though the 1994 School Finance and Property Tax Amendment did provide some degree of centralization and equalization of education. There are high dropout rates from schools, high unemployment, and poverty rates in the city of Detroit along with neighbourhoods of abandoned homes and buildings, making much of the city a modern day ruins.

While the city has declined steeply in population, this decline has not been as evident in the suburbs. In 1950, the population of Metro Detroit was 3.2 million, growing to 4.4 million by 1970. Thereafter, there were fluctuations up and down in the population, but it generally remained steady at four and a half million.

Some of Detroit's suburbs have become centres -- edge cities -- in their own right with the headquarters of Chrysler being located in Auburn Hills, and the headquarters of Ford located in Dearborn -- Dearborn furthermore is a cultural centre for the Arab-American community holding the highest population -- percentage-wise -- of Arab-Americans in the United States.

While problems of population decline are not nearly as severe in Saint John as they are in Detroit, there are some similarities worth noting: both are industrial cities with (traditionally at least) declining centres and growing suburbs -- in this sense one can consider Saint John a unique entity in New Brunswick as compared to Fredericton (a government and university town) and Moncton (a commercial hub).

Saint John has had to contend with problems of providing services with a decreased property tax base as well as concentrated urban poverty in neighbourhoods like the Old North End and the South End. As well, both Detroit and Saint John have had to cope with abandoned buildings -- though again this problem is notably more widespread in Detroit.

The Equal Opportunity framework has provided common standards across the province in education, healthcare, and social development -- even if there is growing demand in areas such as social housing in the province's urban areas. It is also worth noting that the recent census showed a 3 per cent population increase in Saint John which, while far less than in suburbs like Quispamsis, points to signs of revival.

Efforts to promote the city centre -- known as Uptown -- as a hub of artistic and cultural activity, with historic buildings, dense population, and walkable streets, have shown success and could serve as a model for other cities, towns, and villages in the province.

For many -- including many young professionals -- a dense walkable neighbourhood with many cultural amenities is more appealing than the traditional suburb.

This same potential for revival may hold true for Detroit. Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institute -- speaking to the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News -- identified potential revival in linking the city's traditional manufacturing sectors to innovation through research, education, and public sector support.

He identified densely populated and walkable neighbourhoods as draws for educated professionals, with Detroit's Midtown neighbourhood -- which includes museums, art galleries, and Wayne State University -- being a prime example.

In contrast to mega-projects like the mammoth Renaissance Centre skyscrapers along Detroit's waterfront, a much stronger potential for revival lies in neighbourhoods such as Midtown.

Detroit may be considered one of the bleakest urban environments in North America, but a potential revival lies in dense downtown-like neighbourhoods that include educational and cultural facilities, as well as through investment in research and education -- all factors to promote innovation, and attract young professionals and creative entrepreneurs.

These are keys to urban revival -- whether in Detroit, Saint John, or elsewhere.