A gentle reminder to the Detroit News: Detroit is not 1/3 vacant

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According to the latest junk research, the total vacant land area of Detroit could accommodate three Detroits. - ILLUSTRATION BY LEE DEVITO
  • Illustration by Lee DeVito
  • According to the latest junk research, the total vacant land area of Detroit could accommodate three Detroits.

Something amazing happened this morning. I was reading an editorial in The Detroit News and I agreed with it. 

The editorial concerned the need to alter local ordinances regarding the keeping of livestock. As city-dwellers know, it's not unheard-of for people to keep chickens, goats, honeybees, or other animals. And there's plenty of room for this to happen. The editorial said as much. What was happening here? The local conservative paper was sounding as granola as you can get. I was prepared to see pigs flying out of a frozen-over hell. 

And then I saw a quote that brought me back to reality: "Detroit, at 139 square miles, occupies a huge footprint. A third of that land is vacant."

I did the math, finding that stubborn statistic that finicky Detroitophiles like me have taken issue with time and again. It's the stubborn, unchecked fact that, despite our best efforts, won't go away.

If a third of Detroit is vacant, that's 46 square miles of vacant land.

Yes, that's true, if you include cemeteries.

And public parks, like Belle Isle and Rouge Park. And every other city park.

Our friends over at Michigan Radio looked into the issue more than three years ago, and published actual research debunking this figure. The actual figure, as estimated by the numbers-crunchers over at Data Driven Detroit, is 21.39 square miles, as one of the organization's data-drillers put it, "Just a hair over half of the 40-square-mile figure.”

Why is this important? Because for several years now, actual researchers have been pushing back against news media that, for whatever reasons, have a tendency to repeat a figure that overstates the actual condition of the city. 

And to tie this junk statistic to an argument for something worthy, like urban animal husbandry, has the effect of undermining the very argument one is trying to make.

We know that news outlets get it wrong sometimes. (A former MT editor once compared fact-checking to shooting flak at bombers going overhead: Some are going to get through no matter how careful you are.) But after several years of people pointing out that, if anything, Detroit is just over 1/6 vacant, some outlets don't seem to be listening very well.

I mean, sure, you don't get to use that gasp-inducing line that "the size and population of San Francisco could fit in Detroit's vacant land" anymore. Instead, you'd have to settle for the much less impressive idea of putting the size and population of Pontiac in Detroit.

The problem with saying that is that L. Brooks Patterson would make a plank it his re-election platform.

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