Towns in Transition: From Grytviken to Detroit

Walking through the remains of Grytviken whaling station in South Georgia in 2006, Ellen experienced a defining moment in her life, one that would ultimately lead her to retire from professional offshore racing and set up the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “We go somewhere, use up a resource and move on to the next one”, she often says to emphasise the linear nature of the economy, the effects of which she saw for herself in the deserted whaling towns of South Georgia.

There were ships filling the harbours, some of which still line the shores today, and spare propellers and patterns for producing engine parts (…) This was a massive industry with thousands of tons of steelworks employing thousands of people and now it’s a dead, empty space.

Ellen MacArthur, Full Circle. Published by Penguin, 2010.

As striking as it is – and this is mostly due to the unintentional “museum” effect it produces as it’s been left untouched – the Grytviken example is at the same time archetypical and only partially revealing. Archetypical because it does provide a perfect case study of a system reaching its own limits, only partially revealing because geographically isolated from the global economic system, and as such simply cut off and left to drift into oblivion.

Its remoteness also induces a certain level of surrealism, and in a way the impression that lingers is that of an “out of this world” parallel environment… yet closer to us lies a very vivid example of the same phenomenon, on a much more significant scale:

South Georgia
Population in the 1950s: approximately 4,500
Population according to the 2006 local census: 30
Population in 1950: 1,849,568
Population in 2010: 713,777

Naturally, in Detroit’s case, the population simply did not vanish one day never to return as it happened in South Georgia, yet we are considering the unprecedented decline of what was, during its peak years, the fifth largest city of the world’s most powerful economy… not an epiphenomenon, and a process which should be monitored closely as it can apply to many major conurbations lacking industrial diversity and resilient systems.

One image, by unintentionally echoing Ellen’s words, brings together two worlds which although very different have experienced the same fate at the hands of the same causes:

“In these new towns we built shops, churches, dentists’ surgeries” (…) “But what felt so strange in those whaling stations was that everything was left as if we’d walked out yesterday.”


The picture above is part of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s astounding photographic essay called The ruins of Detroit, the city having become synonymous with urban exodus and infrastructural collapse. But rather than dwell on the causes of it’s decline – widely commented and documented – we should look at the (forcefully) reconfigured network of residential, industrial and commercial areas in search of a renewed potential, and see it as a laboratory of innovative solutions.

Re-inventing space

Left with many “blank pages” (read: areas in disrepair) scattered around the city, citizen groups and local philanthropic organisations – many of which were created during the booming years – have experimented with urban farming and innovative planning. Zones that were considered impossible to renovate or rejuvenate have seen their infrastructure torn down in order to make room for natural spaces, whilst the local council’s general vision is to “shrink” the city. Expanded for and by the car industry, the “Motor City” naturally developed as an automotive-fuelled urban sprawl and the need to re-densify is now at the top of local authorities’ priorities list.

The harsh reality is that some areas are no longer viable neighbourhoods, with the population loss and financial situation our city faces. But instead of looking at our land as a liability, we need to begin to think creatively about how it can be a resource as we rebuild.

Link: Read the complete State of the City address here

Detroit Mayor David Bing

Taking into account the wealth of materials trapped in decrepit buildings, there is certainly a good case to be made for urban mining in Detroit, if one refers to Professor Thomas E. Graedel’s (Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Science) point below:

The energy used for primary production is embodied, to a large extent, in the metal and, consequently, in the building too. Today’s buildings and their contents therefore present large “urban mines” of around 400 million tonnes of aluminium metal that can be extracted and recycled by future generations through the use of only 5% of the originally used energy, not just once but repeatedly.

In which case, the city could become a blueprint in terms of innovative de-construction methods and previously used materials management, with lessons to be learnt not only technically-wise, but also as far as jobs, logistical chain and claim back pathways are concerned (below: the disused Packard automobiles production plant).


Integrated food production

Intrinsically linked with this clearing-up policy, the use of newly-available land is the subject of many studies and experiments, most of which focus on food production and ecosystems regeneration (taking into account natural services such as for example water filtration). According to a study published by the Michigan State University and pointed out by,

“a combination of urban farms, community gardens, storage facilities and hoop houses – greenhouses used to extend the growing season – could supply local residents with more than 75 percent of their vegetables and more than 40 percent of their fruits.”

Using aerial imagery and the city’s database of vacant properties to identify potential sites, the study leaders have come up with a “conservative” (because excluding areas such as parks, school grounds etc) total figure exceeding 44,000 parcels. And that’s only taking into account publicly owned land clear of any building…

Michigan Central Station, a systemic failure of epic proportions

Despite being closer to our everyday life than South Georgia, the Detroit example remains, for those who haven’t visited it, a difficult reality to grasp. Is it the classic “Too big to fail” preconception which prevents us from fully realising the extent of the situation? There certainly is an element of that, and it’s not easy to comprehend how Detroit’s central train station, a 46,000 square-metre building boasting 18-floor towers, has been decommissioned and left to rot since 1988 (see footnote). Facing Roosevelt Park and sitting in front of a No Man’s Land of disused railway tracks, the imposing building certainly is one of the strongest symbols of the city’s fate.

detroit article1

But it is also a poignant illustration of a system failure: built away from downtown Detroit in order to spark the development of a new area, the station suffered massively when public transport to and from it was discontinued only twenty years after it was opened. To add insult to injury, lack of parking space (slightly ironic considering the city’s vocation) meant that when automobile use boomed, the problem wasn’t solved either.

Today though, local authorities and resident groups are trying something radically different, something that might well provide urban planners worldwide with fresh perspectives and solutions for the future… So it’s probably time to stop looking at Detroit’s eerily beautiful ruins as if they were frozen in time, and instead shine the spotlight on creativity at work.

  • Replaced by the Detroit Amtrak Station, the building has suffered periods of drastically reduced activity before eventually closing down. During the late 1960s, the main entrance, restaurants and waiting rooms have been closed, leaving only two ticket booths! 23 years after its closure, there are still no tangible plans and the giant Beaux-Arts Classical structure remains a ghostly empty shell.

Editors Note

This article was originally published at in September 2011, but it still resonates today. It’s worth noting that there are a number of ambitious projects and programmes designed to reinvigorate Detroit’s economy. A great example is Detroit Future City who run a number of city initiatives around issues just as urban food, transportation and energy. 

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The Author

Joss Bleriot

Joss Bleriot

Jocelyn Blériot, executive officer of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, has an academic background drawing focus on literature, philosphy and sociology. Having spent most of his career in the media industry as a journalist and editor, he notably develops written and video content, coordinates the production of reports and edits books produced by Ellen MacArthur Foundation Publishing. He represented the Foundation on the European Resource Efficiency Platform (European Commission) and manages the relationship with EU institutions.

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