by Jack Bails, Vice President and Senior Consultant for Natural Resources

This report discusses federal initiatives to address the problems of the nation’s inner cities in the context of Michigan’s efforts to develop a statewide strategy of sustainable land use.


The plight of impoverished urban areas is once again getting much national attention. Past efforts to remediate the problems of inner cities have had modest or little success. Now, new federal initiatives will target cities throughout the nation in an effort to revitalize these older commercial centers.

If these initiatives are to be successful, they should be coupled with a statewide strategy for sustainable land use — policies that would meet the land needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. The first steps toward such a strategy for Michigan have been identified, and there is a growing consensus among diverse interests that state policies should discourage urban sprawl and encourage reuse of properties in older urban areas.

Over the next two months several Michigan communities will submit applications to the federal government in hopes of being selected as target communities in the new Department of Housing and Urban Development $3.5 billion effort to revitalize economically depressed areas of the nation. Detroit is seeking designation as one of six empowerment zones under the program that will make cities eligible for $100 million each over the next two years to address job training, drug rehabilitation, public works, child development, and related human service needs.

Detroit, Michigan’s largest city and one of the nation’s most impoverished, has identified as the basis for its application an 18‐​square‐​mile area where nearly half the 101,000 population has incomes that fall below the federal poverty level. In addition to the new federal funds for social programs, an empowerment zone designation provides substantial tax benefits to businesses there that employ zone residents (up to $3,000 per employee) and encourages private capital expansion by authorizing tax exempt bonds ($20 million in bond sales are authorized in each zone).

Other Michigan cities will be competing for designation as one of 65 urban areas to receive $10 million each as enterprise communities. Nationwide, economically depressed rural areas will be competing for similar funding set aside for 33 rural communities.

The Need for a Sustainable Land Use Strategy

Optimism about this new federal program is tempered by the realization that over the last forty years numerous federal programs have failed to halt the steady decline of our central cities. High unemployment and crime; deteriorating sewers, streets, public buildings, and other essential infrastructure; and decreases in public services are common characteristics of our older urban areas where private disinvestment has eroded both employment opportunities and the tax base. These problems were once common only in isolated urban pockets; they now engulf entire communities, including even older suburbs.

The success of the new federal program in Michigan may well hinge on the state’s ability to address the urban sprawl that has meant increasing growth at the suburban fringe at the expense of the central cities. A statewide sustainable land use strategy is needed.

Recent studies of growth patterns and the effects of sprawl have been completed in the 7‑county area of southeast Michigan [Regional Development Initiative, Final Report of the RDI Oversight Committee, prepared by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG)] and in the 22‐​county area around Flint, Saginaw, Bay City, and Midland (Saginaw Bay Watershed Land Use & Zoning Study, prepared with funding from the Saginaw Bay National Watershed Initiative). The map opposite shows the current urbanization of land in southeast Michigan and the 40 percent increase in urbanization projected by SEMCOG over the next 20 years if present trends continue.

Both document the conversion of agricultural land to other uses; the loss of valuable natural habitats; the proliferation of new roads, sewers, and utilities to serve an essentially stable population; and the abandonment of the buildings, land, and people in the older urban core areas.

These two studies outline essential first steps in the development of a statewide strategy for land use that would provide for rehabilitation of our urban centers and preservation of valuable components of our rural landscape. Those first steps include:

  • Better statewide information on land use trends
  • Examination of state laws and policies that affect growth patterns
  • Formation of new coalitions that benefit from managed growth to advocate for change
  • Increased use of regional approaches to guide future development

Land Use Trend Information

An up‐​to‐​date statewide inventory of land use patterns in Michigan is crucial to developing strategies to address the problems associated with urban sprawl. The last statewide land use, land cover mapping was completed 16 years ago by the computer‐​based Michigan Resource Information System (MIRIS) housed in the Department of Natural Resources. While efforts are under way to find funds to update the MIRIS database, the Michigan Society of Planning Officials has obtained foundation grants to initiate a study of land use, “Michigan’s Trend Future,” scheduled for completion in early 1995.

Governor Engler’s recently appointed Task Force on Farmlands and Agricultural Development has received private funding to examine the trends and causes of the conversion of agricultural lands in Michigan and make recommendations by the end of 1994. These and other studies will help identify current development trends in Michigan and highlight problems and issues that need to be addressed on a statewide basis.

Examination of State Laws and Policies

State policies that affect growth patterns need to be examined. Many state policies and laws discourage reinvestment in developed urban areas and have even subsidized sprawl by supporting expanded water and sewer service and roads to the suburban fringe.

As a follow‐​up to the Michigan’s Environment and Relative Risk Report that identified the lack of coordinated land use planning and the degradation of urban environments as top environmental risks in Michigan, the Natural Resources Commission has appointed task forces to look at a variety of policy issues that relate to land use and reinvestment in urban areas.

The bipartisan Special Ad Hoc Committee on Revitalizing Our Michigan Cities in the Michigan House of Representatives made a series of findings and recommendations in 1993 that resulted in four new laws designed to encourage the reuse of contaminated urban properties.

Conducting a comprehensive review of all state laws and policies affecting where growth and investment occur should be a top priority of state government. Particular attention should be given to updating statutes that currently limit local governments’ ability to manage growth and discourage cooperation among local government entities.

New Advocacy Coalitions

Environmental and conservation groups concerned with wildlife habitat and open space preservation; farm organizations alarmed about the irretrievable loss of prime agricultural land; local government leaders faced with increasing public needs, failing infrastructure and a decreasing tax base; and private businesses that see existing investments at risk and future investment opportunities limited are beginning to adopt common agendas to promote private and public reinvestment in developed urban areas.

The Michigan Economic and Environmental Roundtable, which includes representatives from environmental, conservation, agricultural, industrial, and commercial interests, is an example of a new coalition that has developed to influence public policy on the need to preserve our cities. The Wayne County Urban Recovery Partnership Program is another example of the diverse organizations and interests that have developed a common agenda and have successfully assisted a member community in both economic development and reinstitution of local public services.

These new coalitions of diverse interests are needed to advocate changes in entrenched public policies that elected officials are reluctant to address without broad‐​based support. The coalitions also provide the forum for developing commons goals that can lead to innovative solutions to the problems facing our cities.

Regional Cooperation

While regional cooperation is an essential element in the development of any growth strategy, it is the most difficult to achieve. Michigan communities have been operating for years on the basis of competition for jobs, tax base, and related economic development. The funding base for local governments in Michigan has encouraged predatory behavior among neighboring communities. Tax abatements have often pitted one community in a region against another.

The structure of local governments in Michigan (townships, cities, villages, and counties), with their widely disparate taxing and zoning powers, makes cooperation among governmental units problematic. Local home rule is extremely strong in Michigan, and sharing of power or decision making among neighboring communities is limited. While new property tax limitations may force local governments to form cooperative agreements to provide essential services, positive incentives are needed to encourage more communities to work toward regional economic development objectives.

Cautious Optimism

The plight of our cities is one our nation’s most intractable problems. The decline of Michigan’s older commercial industrial centers provide clear evidence of this. No single federal or state program can hope to reverse quickly the nearly half‐​century of disinvestment in our older urban areas or to solve the complex problems that have resulted. There are, however, positive signs at the local, state, and federal levels that we are beginning to recognize that we cannot ignore the plight of our cities and that the costs of unconstrained urban sprawl on our natural and human resources cannot be sustained.

Federal and state governments are beginning to examine public policies that affect growth patterns. New land use studies in Michigan, funded largely by private foundations, will be identifying key issues over the next year. In addition, a number of private organizations in Michigan have established sustainable land use as a priority, and new coalitions are forming that can become advocates for needed change.

If this growing understanding of the problem results in new public policies that discourage sprawl and encourage private reinvestment in developed areas, we could begin to see positive evidence of the revitalization of our cities before the turn of the century.

Copyright © 1994