Detroit’s Lafayette building, demolished in 2009. Credit: Wikipedia commons
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They're bulldozing a fifth of Detroit

No more ruin porn? 

Bad news for fans of ruin porn: Detroit is hoping to rid itself of its unique collection of dilapidated buildings and elegantly rubbish-strewn abandoned lots, and all within the next five years.

In May, a group ominously titled the “Detroit Blight Removal Task Force” released a report claiming that around 22 per cent of the city’s properties were “blighted” – vacant, damaged or considered dangerous. They also found that, of the 84,000 properties owned by public entities, just over 5,000 were occupied by squatters, making the city of Detroit, the report’s authors noted, “a very large and inadvertent landlord”.

The task force’s proposed solution is to demolish it all over the next five years and start again. Unfortunately, the plan doesn’t extend to rebuilding the properties – it’ll be down to private companies and developers to buy up the land and rebuild.

First on the city’s agenda is removing empty family homes, a move that, paradoxically, is intended to stem the free-fall in the city’s population. In 1950, Detroit’s population stood at 1.85 million, but it’s fallen to 700,000 as residents leave for the suburbs or other cities in the face of the shrinking industry and rising crime.  Cleaning up the neighbourhoods, the thinking goes, will entice suburb-dwellers back to central Detroit.

All this will cost the city around $850m. In total, the plan will cost $2bn – around $3,000 per city resident. That’d be painful enough, even if the city hadn’t filed for bankruptcy in July 2013 with debts of around $20bn, giving it the dubious honour of being the largest US city ever to go broke.

To help take some of the pressure off, the Mayor’s office has also launched Building Detroit, a house auction site, intended to sell some of the blighted homes; the lucky buyers will then be responsible for fixing them up so the city government doesn’t have to. The programme has seen houses sold at anything from the bargain rate of $40,000, right down to the rock bottom price of $1,000. Mayor Mike Duggan has been doing his bit by waving the gavel on his Facebook page.  

This is a preview of our new sister publication, CityMetric. We'll be launching its website soon - in the meantime, you can follow it on Twitter and Facebook.

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.