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The role of the private sector in city building

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The New York Times published an interesting and popular article last Friday called The Post-Post-Apocalyptic Detroit. It of course talks all about the efforts of billionaire Dan Gilbert, but it also talks about the initiatives of many small and local entrepreneurs who are doing their part to help revive the city – while at the same time making a profit.

One thing that I found interesting about the article is the extent to which the private sector has taken over the responsibilities of the public sector. With only 35,000 of the city’s 88,000 streetlights actually working, the city simply doesn’t have the money to pay its bills. When I visited the city last fall, I was told that the city couldn’t even afford batteries for its parking meters. 

So the private sector has stepped up. 

In downtown, Dan Gilbert pays for his own security force to patrol the area 24 hours a day both on the ground and through 300 surveillance cameras. And in the Jefferson East corridor, John Stroh III – of the Stroh Brewery Company – is paying for 3,500 hours of private security in order to help transform the area into a walkable retail strip.

It’s a model that relies on the funding and vision of rich people to catalyze change. And it strikes me as a quintessentially American way of going about it. In Canada, I’m not so sure it would be approached in quite the same way, which I think is both good and bad. I think in Canada there would be more government involvement.

If the rich people are there and willing to step up (like they are right now in Detroit), then I would assume the capital would be deployed more efficiently and that change would happen more quickly. But if the rich people aren’t willing to step up, then nothing happens and the place declines.

That might be an oversimplification, but I think there are differences.

To end, I’m going to leave you with this Bloomberg video about Steve Case’s (former AOL founder) “Rise of the Rest” road trip to Detroit. If you can’t see the video below, click here.

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