In conjunction with architecture and planning students at Michigan, the director of development for the county that includes Detroit is conjuring visions for a new kind of city of 450,000 to be constructed along a linear swath between Detroit and Ann Arbor, on land that is currently economically stagnant suburbia. The city would be called Airport City:
March 1, 2026: Gathering speed on the immensely popular light rail line from downtown Detroit to Metro Airport is a car full of executives on their way to Manila. It's a beautiful sky-blue day. As the train leaves the station stop in Taylor, passengers gain an eye-level view of the Detroit area's newly built, ultra-modern and world-renowned Airport City. This is the eastern edge of a 25,000-acre stretch of western Wayne County that not long ago was a congested mismatch of aging neighborhoods, cracked parking lots, traffic-clogged highways and featureless warehouses stretching from Dearborn Heights to Willow Run Airport.
A generation later this part of southeast Michigan is entirely engaging, fresh and globally significant. An astonishing display of stone and steel and glass, straight lines and beckoning angles, unveils itself to passengers, a modern metropolis with 450,000 residents and 350,000 jobs. Like Silicon Valley of another era, Detroit's Airport City brims with deep pools of entrepreneurial and technical talent supplying an array of product laboratories, technology manufacturers, suppliers, global distributors and corporate offices unrivaled in the Midwest.
This vision, inspired by Airport Cities springing up elsewhere around the world, is founded on transportation links both existing (Detroit Metropolitan Airport, the sixth busiest in the United States, and nearby Willow Run Airport, a freight hub) and planned (a commuter rail line stretching between Ann Arbor on the west and downtown Detroit on the east). The esprit of Airport City would be breakneck speed:
Efficient public transportation is needed to turn western Wayne County—now a congested mismatch of aging neighborhoods, cracked parking lots, and featureless warehouses—into a modern city teeming with offices and condominiums and brimming with entrepreneurial and technical talent along the park-lined tributaries of the Huron River.
The mobility of people, goods, and ideas is a cornerstone of the 21st century economy and of Airport City. At a time when news circles the globe in seconds, people and goods need to move fast too. That’s why Mulu Birru, the development director of Wayne County, is focusing his efforts on “Airport City.” He hopes to capitalize on existing and planned transportation infrastructure, to attract and generate 350,000 jobs in Airport City alone.
Airport City would stretch across disparate economic, class, and race lines, while renewing a push to build on the power of transportation, which has traditionally been Detroit's business. It could provide a new focus to a region that has none and overhaul Detroit's image in a lasting way no Super Bowl ever could provide. Airport City would also link three research universities in a type of latter-day Research Triangle:
In vision and values, though, the lines trace a potentially smashing project to revive southeast Michigan's economy and reverse Detroit's 50-year population decline. The intellectual foundation for Airport City is to add multiple layers of value to realm of transportation, one of Michigan's historical strengths. The concept joins the new global economy developing around air transport, with fast commuter rail and other efficient ground transport, the interconnected economy that Thomas Friedman describes in his 2005 bestseller The World Is Flat. In fact, futurist Alvin Toffler envisioned such bustling markets in The Third Wave, his 1980 bestseller which predicted that the 21st century would link information globally so that data, people and goods could move very fast.