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Detroit population plummets to 100-year low

Detroit's population hasn't been this low since the 1910 census. Can density get the city on the right track?

The U.S. Census Bureau delivered some devastating news for Detroit yesterday. It's population, once as high as 1.85 million, is now at its lowest point -- 713,777 -- since the 1910 census. And since the 2000 census there has been 25 percent drop. The New York Times reports:

It was the largest percentage drop in history for any American city with more than 100,000 residents, apart from the unique situation of New Orleans, where the population dropped by 29 percent after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said Andrew A. Beveridge, a sociologist at Queens College.

The number of people who vanished from Detroit — 237,500 — was bigger than the 140,000 who left New Orleans.

It's no wonder that more than 20 percent of the lots are vacant. Ron Dzwonkowski at Detroit Free Press said yesterday:

The city, however, has not shrunk physically. It’s still the same 139.5 square miles it was in 1950, when the Census counted 1.849 million people. You don’t need to pull out a calculator to grasp that the city is spread much thinner, with far fewer taxpayers. And you don’t need to take much of a tour of Detroit to see that some areas are already nearly empty.

It's no use looking back at what has already happened, an editorial in today's Detroit Free Press argues, but instead the city must look to consolidate neighborhoods to make the city more efficient and vibrant:

At 713,000 residents, the city has about 5,000 residents for each one of its 139 square miles. That's just a little more dense than Manhattan -- the eighth-largest city in Kansas.

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New Orleans is not distracted by squabbling over how to rebuild that city to accommodate all the people who have left. Detroiters and their leaders must similarly focus on making their city work for the folks who are still here.

Density is a big part of that. If there was any question about the city's ability to maintain its sprawling infrastructure in the face of a continuing population slide, the sharp decline in the 2010 census numbers put it to rest.

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Downtown and Midtown, which are attracting new workers and residents have to be girded with services that will continue to attract and retain people. And services won't get better until they're not spread over such a large, depopulated area.

Detroit's mayor has plans to demolish vacant lots, and there are a number of nonprofits and other organizations that are working to revitalize the city's neighborhoods. Here are some examples:

  • Detroit Works Project -- The mayor's project, with 55 city leaders and organizations, are coming up with plans to revitalize neighborhoods, which residents would be encouraged to move into.
  • Next Detroit Neighborhood Initiative -- Through community engagement, cleaning up neighborhoods, and beautification projects, this organization is working to make enhance Detroit's neighborhoods.
  • Declare Detroit -- This group has been advocating for better land use practices and transit.

Have you come across other organizations that are working to revitalize Detroit? Share them with us in the comments below.

Photo: Trey_Campbell/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com