Apparently, activists in Detroit have convinced the city’s Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr to halt plans to shut off water to customers delinquent on bills, return the management of the Detroit Water and Sewer Department to the city’s elected government, and implement caps on billing linked to household income. The decision apparently comes as a bankruptcy judge was preparing to issue a decision on a restraining order preventing DWSD from shutting off water for unpaid bills. If this is a signal that Orr expected the ruling to favor water users, it’s a bit of good news.
We commend the move by Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, City Council and U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Stephen Rhodes to return control of Detroit’s water to the democratically elected leadership of the city of Detroit. This is a positive step in the direction of popular control of Detroit’s water and other common resources by the people of Detroit.
Indeed, this is bigger than Detroiters’ access to water as a right of habitation (n.b.: if you inhabit Detroit, it’s hard to imagine what could be more important) and speaks to a more general way of thinking about the way that cities have historically developed to provide for common need, as well as the ways that a privatized political economy has grown out of suburbanization to become a dominant model for urban governance as well. Because the relationship between cities and suburbs is one of dense but non-reciprocal interactions, the governance models of privatization and minimal local states that have arisen in suburbia are not just ill-suited to urban communities, they essentially depend, in the favored places where they do work, on those places’ relative advantage over other nearby places.
As I wrote in summary of Carl Smith’s excellent City Water, City Life, urban water systems provided a material basis around which cultural and political debates about common provision could cohere, and gave thousands and then millions of people a material stake in a common environment and social system. We risk more than public ownership by privatizing resources like water; we risk the idea of a public itself.