January 16th, 2012

old gm building

the township system and an idea for detroit

If you've ever looked at a map of metro Detroit, you might have noticed that many of the municipalities happen to be exactly six miles square (e.g., Canton).


This was the result of the Public Land Survey System, adopted in the late 18th century to organize Federally-owned land. The first step in laying down a grid in a particular territory was to establish a Meridian (vertical axis) and Baseline (horizontal axis). In Michigan, the Meridian runs near Jackson and coincides exactly with the line of longitude at west 84 degrees, 21 minutes and 53 seconds. It was chosen in part because it was already the established eastern boundary of lands ceded by the local Indian nations to the United States in the Treaty of Detroit. The Baseline in Michigan is none other than 8 Mile Road--established eight miles north of the Point of Origin in Campus Martius Park. I have been unable to find out why the Baseline was laid down north of the city and not, say, directly through the Point of Origin.

Due to surveying errors, Michigan technically has two baselines. They intersect the Meridian 935.88 feet apart in what is now Meridian-Baseline Historic State Park, which unfortunately is not currently accessible to the public. (Sucks, right??) Once these lines were established, Michigan was subsequently divided into six-mile-by-six-mile townships, each of which was surveyed in the early 19th century.


Each township has both a name and a designation that indicates its relation to the baseline and meridian. For example, Shelby Township is designated Township 3 North, Range 12 East--the third township north of the Baseline, and the twelfth east of the Meridian.


Townships in this system are generally divided into a grid of thirty-six sections, each measuring one mile square. The roads built along these grids are what give us our familiar Mile Road System.


Cities and villages may be created out of parts of township land (e.g., Mount Clemens from out of Clinton Township), but sometimes all thirty-six square miles of a township are incorporated into a single city (e.g. Livonia). City borders may overlap multiple townships--the south half of Fraser was once part of Erin Township, and the north half was annexed from Clinton Township. The massive city of Detroit ultimately annexed land from no fewer than seven townships: Redford, Greenfield, Hamtramck, Grosse Pointe, Dearborn, Springwells, and Ecorse. The map below illustrates what northeast Wayne County looked like in 1875, when the City of Detroit was only a fraction of its current size. The neat and tidy township grid had to be adjusted due to land patents already issued to owners of the ribbon farms along the river.


_kissingchaos recently said something on her LJ that I have also been thinking--the City of Detroit is too vast to be efficiently served by a central, bloated bureaucracy, and it should be divided into smaller cities. Reading this idea from a homeowner and lifelong city resident made me think that this idea might actually be accepted by others in the city.

I think the most logical way to partition the city is along the old township lines. Instead of imposing artificial divisions onto the city, the land would simply be reverting to what it was in the 1890s. Using MS Paint and a map from openstreetmap.org, I tried to show what the city would look like if the bulk of it was dissolved and the borders of suburban municipalities were not altered. The new Detroit city limits would coincide roughly with Grand Boulevard, which I used to think once marked the exact borders of the city. I asked Allan about that, and he told me that only one part of the Boulevard ever literally coincided with the city limits. If shrinking the city were up to me, I would say that any parcel with a Grand Boulevard address remains a part of Detroit, and everything outside reverts to its respective township.

Click here for a larger map of these borders.

One problem that is immediately apparent is that the portion of Redford Township that was not annexed by Detroit in the 1920s was never incorporated. The existing Redford Township shouldn't be forced to merge with northwest Detroit, so the "new" township might have to be called "East Redford Township" or something like that. Then again, any of the townships could probably change their name to whatever they want.

The residents of the dissolved portions of the city might not want to give up their identity as "Detroiters". But when people from South Lyon and Rochester Hills tell out-of-towners that they live "in Detroit", what is going to stop the residents of Greenfield Township from doing the same thing?

Although Detroit would be shrunk back approximately to its size circa 1890, it would retain its most iconic institutions of the Central Business District and the Cultural Center, as well as stable residential areas (Corktown, Woodbridge, Lafayette Park, etc.). The government of this relatively dense urban core will be able to focus on the issues faced by normal urban cities. The annexed townships were, for the most part, developed in a way that isn't technically different from the suburbs. Most of their oldest neighborhoods were built around the 1920s as intentionally low-density suburbs (e.g. Palmer Woods), and their newer portions consist of tract housing indistinguishable from that of ordinary suburbs (e.g., the upper west side).

Consolidating the tri-county area into a megapolis, as advocated by some, seems to be less likely to become reality than dividing an overburdened city into independent municipalities. At least this way neighborhood taxpayers will know that they are funding local services, and not paying police overtime to ensure that drunken suburbanite sports fans downtown behave like rational human beings.