Detroit’s land use patterns date back to the 1940s

Land use patterns from the 1940s show a preference for single-family residential development for the City of Detroit.

Detroit developed primarily as a residential community as early as the 1940s. According to Present Land Use in Detroit: A Master Plan Report, Detroit City Plan Commission, the predominant land use for the city was single-family and two-family residential. More than 60 percent of the developed land in the city was for residential purposes. Of the total land developed for residential purposes, 57 percent of the residential land was dedicated to single-family and two-family uses. Units accommodating more than two families made up less than 4 percent of the total units in 1941. For comparative Cities like Chicago, residential uses were less than one-half (47 percent) of the total developed land in that city.

The city of Detroit had 45 percent of all of its developed land for single-family residential use. In comparison, Chicago had 24 percent of its land designated for such a use during that time. Industrial and railroad land uses consisted of 14 percent of developed land for the city of Detroit. In Chicago, those same uses accounted for more than 28 percent of developed land uses for that city according to Present land use in Detroit.

A 2008 Land Use review by the Southeastern Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) shows that the single-family residential land use has not significantly changed since the 1940s. The percentage of land designated for the single-family use was 41 percent in 2008, compared to 45 percent on 1943, a reduction of only four percent in more than 60 years. Since the 1940s, the city has lost more than one-half of its total population but the single-family land use has not significantly changed during that 70-year period. Multi-family (two or more family uses) residential uses made up 16 percent of the uses in Detroit in 1943. In 2008, those uses had declined to less than 2 percent.

Some planners have argued that the concentration of the single-family land use made Detroit’s declined more difficult as the city lost population and did not have viable other uses for huge tracts of land dedicated to single-family housing. Higher multi-family uses, increased industrial and commercial uses as well as a reduction of single-family uses as demand decreased may have slowed Detroit’s economic decline. However, such a hypothesis may be an over simplification for a process that occurred over a more than 50-year period with numerous variables contributing to the issue. What is clear is that the city of Detroit still has huge tracts of land dedicated to a land use where the demand is significantly less than the available supply.

To discuss this topic or other land use issues with a Michigan State University Extension educator, visit the Planning topic on the MSU Extension website.

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