Land Use Changes in Southeast Michigan
Southeast Michigan Council of Governments
The history of land use in southeast Michigan begins along the Detroit River. In the early 1700s, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac established a military post along the waterway to advance French control of the fur trade. The land was seen as a secondary asset compared to the river that allowed easier transport of trade goods and military activities. The expansion of urban development began in earnest in the early 1800s when big changes occurred in transportation methods. At that time, the waterfront was becoming lined with many docks to support the steamboats and ships containing goods of all kinds as Detroit became a center of commerce. The 1860s marked a decrease in water transport as an extensive network of railways was built. Recognized as a geographic center for population and business, Detroit was linked to the electric interurban railway system in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Since 1950, the region has experienced increases in urban area development and decreases in density due to the automobile.
Southeast Michigan is a major urban area with nearly five million people. Like many major urban areas throughout the United States, people in southeast Michigan began moving away from Detroit beginning in the 1950s seeking suburban areas with more space and within driving distance to their work place. Personal automobiles and cheap fuel made this possible. In addition, federal tax subsidies for home mortgage interest and property taxes, as well as infrastructure financing policies, all supported new growth outside existing cities (SEMCOG, 2003).
Different beliefs in private property rights and the role of government have emerged due to the development outside the cities. Anti-sprawl or “Smart Growth” proponents are now advocating for denser, more walk-able neighborhoods with a diversity of home designs and mass transit. Still others see regulations on growth as infringing on private property rights and a challenge to economic consumer demand. The 2001 Detroit Area Study found that 70% of respondents to a survey preferred the suburban auto-oriented neighborhood, instead of one that was more walk-able and transit-oriented (SEMCOG, 2003). The effects of current sprawl are realized in increased housing prices, decreased water quality, need for additional infrastructure and transportation, loss of open space and natural habitat, and decreasing tax revenues in older communities.
The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) has identified four factors contributing to current land use trends:
Southeast Michigan saw steady population growth through 1970, reaching a population of 4.736 million in that year. The region has since experienced two cycles of population decline and recovery, triggered by economic recessions, that left the region with fewer people in 2015 (4.722 million) than in 1970. The recent increase of 30,000 people since 2015 has pushed the region’s population to 4.752 million as of 2018, which is still 80,000 below its year 2000 peak of 4.833 million (SEMCOG, 2018).
However, it is not only population growth that controls land development. More importantly, it is the increasing number and size of houses. This means that about the same number of people are occupying more houses that are each consuming more land. Fewer people on average are living in each house and this is primarily due to the decrease in the number of children being born. The number of people in each house decreased with an average of 2.66 people per house in 1990 decreasing to 2.47 in 2018 (SEMCOG, 2018).
Status and Trends
Very early land use changes started at the riverfront in the early 1800s as large docking structures for holding ferries and steamboats were constructed. By the late 1800s, docks lined five miles of riverfront (Kerr et al., 2003).
By the 1890s, Detroit’s role changed from a commercial city with an even diversity of wholesale trading and retailing to one of heavy industrial manufacturing. At this time, convenient transportation was available with new electric horsecar lines, steam railroads, and steam-powered boats. This resulted in dense urban development that grew up around public transport.
A very significant change in land development occurred in the first half of the 20th century (Figure 1). A new transportation revolution began in 1920 as the number of people owning automobiles increased dramatically. There were 54,366 registered motor vehicles in 1913 and 989,010 in 1925 in the state of Michigan (U.S. Census Bureau, 1926). Development was no longer focused around rail lines as paved roads were built all over the region. The urbanized area increased from 1.5% in 1890 to 9% in 1950 (SEMCOG, 2001). Freeways and more affordable automobiles made transportation cheap and encouraged urban growth.
Agriculture in Southeast Michigan peaked between 1880 and 1900 and has decreased since 1910 (USGS, 2003). More recent land use changes in southeast Michigan are evident in our rapid transformation of agricultural areas and open space to low density residential, commercial, and business developments (Norris et al., 2002). The rate of residential land development continues to increase because of a greater demand for new, lower density housing.
Each house is consuming more land. From 1990 to 2000, the amount of land used for homes increased by 19%, while the number of households only grew by 9% (SEMCOG, 2001 and 2003). Prior to 1990, there were 2.84 housing units per acre, but this has decreased to an average of 1.26 for housing built after 1990 (SEMCOG, 2003). This increase in the amount of land used for each house is significant because it accounts for 43% more land developed than would have been with the higher density construction before 1990.
The demand for housing development is not the only reason for the decrease in agricultural land. Some land previously farmed is no longer used since farming is generally less profitable, especially for small farms where operating costs are high compared with revenue. The overall decrease has been a loss of 15% or 290,000 acres of undeveloped land between 2000 and 2015.
Not only has the amount of land used for residential space increased in southeast Michigan, but also the pattern of development changed substantially, with significant out-migration from Detroit to the suburbs through the 2000s. Today, Detroit’s population is less than half of what it boasted during its peak in the 1950s. In recent years, considerable infill housing development in Detroit has led to a stabilization in both population and out-migration. The city lost 23,000 persons a year during the 2000s, down to 11,000 per year from 2010 to 2015, with a further drop to a loss of only 4,000 per year since 2015. (SEMCOG, 2018).
Between 1996-2005, general nonresidential development showed a peak between the years 1998 and 2002. An average of 28 million square feet of development occurred during those five years compared with an average of 17 million for 1996, 1997, and 2003-2005. From 2006 to 2017, the region has averaged nine million square feet of nonresidential development.
In 1990, there were 936,700 acres of developed land and two million acres of undeveloped land. In 2000, there were 1.1 million acres of developed land and 1.8 million acres of undeveloped land (SEMCOG, 2003). As of 2015, it was almost evenly divided, with 1.4 million acres developed, and 1.5 million undeveloped.
The History of developed land in southeast Michigan, 1905-1992 (USGS 2003). This image shows the general rate of urban land growth in Southeast Michigan through the twentieth century where red represents the area covered by "urban or built up land” according to Anderson et al., (1976).
Management Next Steps
Future land use planning must balance the need for environmental protection, economic progress, and human development. There is need for well-defined roles and responsibilities in land-use planning at all government levels under a common future vision (Norris et al., 2002). This can be done by establishing concrete regional goals, specific responsibilities for each level of government, and empowering local governments with the best available information (Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, 2003). To carry out their responsibilities, local land use decision-makers have a number of training resources available to them. The Planning and Zoning Center at Lansing, Michigan Association of Planning (MAP) and Michigan State University Extension offer training sessions for planning officials. The Michigan Municipal League (MML) and the Michigan Townships Association (MTA) provide advice to elected officials. In addition, the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council has constructed nine recommended actions that serve to guide future decisions in the state (Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, 2003). In summary, these recommendations include preserving farmland and open space by incorporating new incentives for land-owners, encouraging partnerships with universities, foundations, and private and public entities, and clearly defining the allocation of funds in possible use of state bonds. More emphasis needs to be placed on developing model ordinances for sustainable land use practices. These model ordinances should be broadly disseminated through southeast Michigan.
Regional land use trends and programs need to be systematically evaluated and benefits assessed to help communities connect cost-efficiency and land use decisions directly (American Forests, 2006). The Urban Dynamics Research Program was created by the U.S. Geological Survey to aid community decision-makers in managing urban sprawl. Its focus is modeling land use change with respect to population growth. The National Science Foundation sponsors a Bio complexity and Environment Program, one being Project SLUCE (Spatial Land Use Change and Ecological Effects). From 2001-2006 researchers based at the University of Michigan investigated land use change at the urban-rural fringe and the environmental interactions and impacts using models. Their research focused on southeast Michigan and, ultimately, want to be able to use their models to evaluate the potential for specific government interventions in creating better land use choices. An important first step for many communities is to implement a master or comprehensive plan.
Agricultural land and open space is currently changing most rapidly. The value of agricultural land in maintaining biodiversity across the landscape is well established. Therefore, research must focus on alternatives to the current rate of development because it is unsustainable. Land is being transformed from rural to urban faster than the population is growing and the negative impacts on the environment are real. Future research needs include inventorying land use models and assessing their accuracy at predicting what actually will occur on the land. Others include understanding ecosystem response to current development patterns. There is also a growing need to evaluate the ecosystem response and its impact on climate (U.S. Climate Change Science Program, 2003). Continued research is needed in sustainable, best management practices for urban areas. In addition, research in cover crops, those that improve soil quality and farming sustainability, will better equip farmers with tools for managing their farms for profit and sustainability. Finally, more research is needed on quantifying economic, environmental, and societal benefits of best management practices in land use planning and management. Such benefits assessment can be compelling rationale for sound land use decision-making.
- American Forests. May 2006. Urban Ecosystem Analysis SE Michigan and City of Detroit Michigan: Calculating the Value of Nature. < http://www.americanforests.org/downloads/rea/AF_Detroit.pdf> (December 2006).
- Anderson, J.R., E.E. Hardy, J.T. Roach, and R.E. Witmer. 1976. A land use and land cover classification system for use with remote sensor data. Geological Survey Professional Paper 964. United States Government Printing Office. Washington, DC., USA.
- Kerr, John K., W. Steven Olinek, and John H. Hartig. “The Detroit River as an Artery of Trade and Commerce.” Honoring Our Detroit River: Caring for Our Home. John H. Hartig. Bloomfield Hills, Michigan: Cranbrook Institute of Science, 2003. pp. 35-47.
- Michigan Land Use Leadership Council. 2003. Michigan’s Land, Michigan’s Future: Final Report of the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council. (March 2007)
- Norris, Patricia E., Judy Soule, Carol Weissert, Stuart Gage, and David Skole. 2002. Michigan's Opportunities and Challenges: MSU Faculty Perspectives. East Lansing, Michigan, USA.
- Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG). October 2001. 2030 Regional Development Forecast for Southeast Michigan: Population, Households, and Jobs, for Cities, Villages, and Townships 1990-2030. Detroit, Michigan, USA.
- SEMCOG. March 2003. Land Use Change in Southeast Michigan: Causes and Consequences. Detroit, Michigan, USA.
- SEMCOG. April 2004. Land Use in Southeast Michigan, Regional Summary, 1990-2000. Detroit, Michigan, USA.
- SEMCOG. December 2006a. Population and Household Estimates for Southeast Michigan. Detroit, Michigan, USA.
- SEMCOG. September 2006b. Nonresidential Development in Southeast Michigan, Summary 2005. Detroit, Michigan, USA.
- SEMCOG. July 2018. Population and Household Estimates for Southeast Michigan. Detroit, Michigan, USA.
- United States Climate Change Science Program. July 2003. Strategic Plan for the Climate Change Science Program Final Report. (December 2006). Washington, D.C., USA.
- United States Census Bureau. 1926. Statistical Abstract of the United States 1925. Forty Eighth Number. Government Printing Office. Washington, D.C., USA.
- United States Geological Survey (USGS). October 2003. Detroit River Corridor Preliminary Assessment of Land Use Change. Lora Richards. Urban Dynamics Research Program. Washington, D.C., USA.