Once a beacon of America’s promise, the city of Detroit is burning out. And if San Jose refuses to innovate in ways Detroit could have, it might face a similar future. To understand how, we must first uncover overlooked similarities between San Jose’s present and Detroit’s past.
Once a small fur trading town, Detroit’s population tripled between 1900 and 1920. By 1950, it was one of America’s most important cities. With 1.8 million residents, Detroit possessed the fourth highest population of any U.S. city. Detroit was the epicenter of one of the most essential sectors of our economy—the auto industry. This sector provided an excellent quality of life to those who flocked to work in it. As Detroit ballooned, businesses and their workers expanded into the seemingly endless suburbs.
Does any of this sound familiar, San Jose?
Flash forward to 2013. Detroit is now in free fall. One of the only major U.S. cities declining in population, half of Motown’s residents have permanently skipped town since 1970. The worst hit this summer when Detroit filed for bankruptcy. The city lacks the funds to pay its debts and the employees to provide adequate city services. When Detroiters call 911, the average police response time is 58 minutes. The national average is 11.
The writing was on the wall for decades. Detroit fell prey to mismanagement and corruption. But it also relied too long on a single sector that failed to innovate in the wake of competition and change. Meanwhile, Detroit grew wider instead of taller. As conditions deteriorated, residents abandoned individual homes, multiple blocks and then entire neighborhoods. When I was there in 2001, I observed this disturbing decline.
While San Jose is many missteps away from Detroit’s predicament, I nonetheless worry about its future.
Here in San Jose, we debate pension costs as the main contributor to San Jose’s precarious situation. But there is an elephant in the room that we have been ignoring: Like Detroit, San Jose’s hesitation to innovate how and where it develops jeopardizes its ability to retain top talent and attract emerging businesses.
Similarities between the two cities are the clues leading to this issue. Today, San Jose is 37 square miles larger than Detroit but shares roughly the same population density. Providing city services over such a wide swath of land is arduous; it contributes to Detroit’s 58-minute response times. A Smart Growth America study concludes that denser cities can save an average of 10 percent on such services. With San Jose’s emerging public safety challenges, ensuring cops travel shorter distances is crucial.
Cities expanding in already developed areas can average a 38 percent savings on infrastructure (such as roads and sewer lines) and receive ten times more tax revenue per acre than new suburban developments. Instead of building on untouched land in our Valley’s outskirts, San Jose must back up its new General Plan by doubling down on greater density in its downtown and urban core.
But is there demand for denser communities? In fact, many millennials like me find compact, walkable neighborhoods incredibly appealing. That is why many are moving to San Francisco. And that preference is intertwined with tech companies such as Yelp and Twitter—companies in theory well-suited for San Jose—also choosing to root themselves in San Francisco.
For San Jose, “The Capital of Silicon Valley,” tech companies should be our bread and butter. We cannot afford to lose them. While San Jose could benefit from a more varied economy, it must diversify its communities’ design to reduce costs and entice the next generation of tech companies and their workers to settle here.
San Jose is a tremendous light of economic innovation in our country. However, it must illuminate the path forward by generating more compact, connected communities. If San Jose fails, it could go the way of Detroit. And that is a power outage none of us wants to see.
Alex Shoor works in local government in San Jose and is a 2013 fellow of the Silicon Valley chapter of the New Leaders Council.