Let IKEA take over Detroit!

by Ryan Streeter on April 3, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

As I was listening to NPR coverage this morning of Detroit’s bankruptcy and the potential intervention of the state to appoint an emergency manager to fix Motown’s wayward finances, my mind drifted to this story, via Tyler Cowen, about IKEA’s plan to start building entire neighborhoods within cities. IKEA wants to apply its smarts about big box Scandinavian design to urban renewal.

The author writes of one such IKEA endeavor in London:

I recently made the long drive into the vanguard of Ikea’s city-building ambition, in a triangle of post-industrial wasteland surrounded by goods-shipping canals and highway ramps in the far reaches of East London, not far from the 2012 Olympics grounds. Here is the site of Ikea’s effort to bring a very Scandinavian model of urban design and managed living into the English-speaking world.

Amid this 11-hectare expanse of ancient rusting machinery, waste piles and grinding construction equipment is a converted brick sugar warehouse where a team of Swedes and Brits are poring over blueprints and renderings. LandProp Services bought the land in 2009. Their vision is to turn this grey netherworld, once planning approval is done, into a tightly packed neighbourhood they’ll call Strand East.

It will look, once complete, like a reproduction of the sort of historic, chic downtown neighbourhoods you find in the far more central parts of London or Paris, not in this distant expanse of former dockyards and bloodless public-housing project. At its core are straight, car-free streets lined with simple townhouses and ground-floor-access flats in five-storey rows. In the alleyways behind – an imitation of the classic London backstreet, the mews – will be little two- and three-storey homes, all with direct access to the street.

“Grey netherworld” is an apt description of a lot of Detroit. As I listened to advocates and council members in the NPR story this morning lambast the pending takeover by the state, as if Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has some deep desire to “own” the smoldering ruin of a city that Detroit has become, I began to reflect on just how deeply the rivers of tribalism flow – better to protect the failed status quo and watch your town crumble to the ground than to fix the mess with some tough love.

The vitriol would be understandable if the people running the city had any clue how to actually run a city. But the proof is in the pudding in Detroit. The place has been a wreck for a long time. You can’t blame it all on the Big Three’s penchant for making cars people don’t want. Governance has been a longterm problem there.

So why not do something radical and give the city – or swaths of it – to IKEA? I know, it’s an insane idea. But then again, when you really think about it, what is more insane – letting IKEA redevelop parts of the city or leaving it to the people who have been doing it for years?

I realize that Detroit won’t bounce back simply on the merits of design and smart land financing itself. And I realize the issue before the city right now is not redevelopment per se but budgeting. Yet, any longterm plan for the city will always involve the usual HUD-funded suspects, among others. My IKEA idea for Detroit began as something of a joke this morning, but the longer the words of the Detroit boosters rang in my ears, the more sane the IKEA idea began to sound.