Cities in Flux: Urban Redensification in Detroit and Guangzhou

Abstract

A shrinking Detroit and an expanding Guangzhou shape this case, which aims to introduce readers to the nuances of population density and the importance of redensification in sustainable urban planning. Redensification policies in these cities offer a novel way of thinking about how to distribute populations and jobs to optimize public services and a city’s quality of life.

Detroit’s Future City plan aims to redensify the city by supporting citizens in forming new, diverse, and targeted residential hubs. These new neighborhoods will not only open up low-vacancy areas for productive development, but may also enable like-minded residents to collaborate on entrepreneurial pursuits. The plan also hopes to redistribute its economic centers in growing sectors and areas near these new residential hubs. Guangzhou seeks to redensify by developing modern, high-tech economic hubs and industrial zones in the suburbs, and then directing citizens to live in these less dense districts. The city aims to develop the suburban areas to provide its citizens better public services, a cleaner environment, and a higher quality of life. Guangzhou hopes pursuing both policies concurrently will attract the capital and talent necessary to support its ambitious economic goals.

However, achieving re-densification is a tall task for both cities. Detroit’s financial hardships constrain the government and engender a “chicken-or-egg” dilemma. The city needs economic growth to support new residential hubs, and vice versa. Guangzhou risks incorrectly predicting future industrial and demographic dynamics, leaving the city populated with ghost towns and its economy overpowered by its neighboring cities. These risks and challenges for both cities demonstrate that a city’s historical context, cultural constraints, and management philosophy all bear importantly on the success of any sustainable development strategy. A truly sustainable city must encourage citizens and industry to exist in close proximity, while also shaping an elastic city that may continue to provide its citizens a high quality of life when the city’s population and economy undergo their inevitable ups and downs.

This case study is part of a series of cases designed for the course "Case Studies in Sustainable Development" at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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