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Design

Can Detroit's Suburbs Survive a Downtown Revival?

The city is experiencing a sustained real estate boom, poaching employers—even pro sports teams—from surrounding municipalities. Places like Southfield, Pontiac, and Dearborn will have to find ways to keep up.
A few thousand Ford workers might be moving down Michigan Avenue, but the automaker is also spending more than $1 billion to reimagine its Dearborn headquarters along the lines of a Silicon Valley Tech Campus.
A few thousand Ford workers might be moving down Michigan Avenue, but the automaker is also spending more than $1 billion to reimagine its Dearborn headquarters along the lines of a Silicon Valley Tech Campus.Paul Sancya/AP

Throughout the 20th century, as American metro areas sprawled ever outward, Detroit—the city that arguably made the modern suburbs possible—led the way. It began with developments in the auto industry; while early plants were multi-story, like 19th-century mills, the continuous assembly line required cavernous single-story buildings on larger plots of land than were available in the city. Between World War II and 1960, automakers built some 20 new facilities in Southeast Michigan, but not one in Detroit city limits.

“That drove the employment structure, and as the economy shifted all types of employment went to the suburbs,” says Avis C. Vidal, a professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Detroit’s Wayne State University. “Since the postwar period, there’s been a great deal of suburban housing built on the fringes—in excess of the number of households in the region.”