The Swamp Theory of Urban Decay

How does a great city like Detroit become blighted?  As it turns out, the same way a lake or pond can become a swamp.

The process is called “eutrophication.”  What happens is that as nitrates and phosphates are added to the water, usually through animal waste products in a forest pond, there is a corresponding increase of phytoplankton (the passively floating or weakly swimming animal and plant life of a body of water) in the water body as a response to increased levels of nutrients.  Hypoxia – the depletion of oxygen in the water occurs, reducing the population of fish and other animal populations.  Other species may experience an increase in population that negatively affects other species.

Eutrophication, or more precisely hypertrophication, is the ecosystem response to the addition of artificial or natural substances, such as nitrates and phosphates, through fertilizers or sewage, to an aquatic system.  One example is the “bloom” or great increase of phytoplankton in a water body as a response to increased levels of nutrients. Negative environmental effects include hypoxia, the depletion of oxygen in the water, which induces reductions in specific fish and other animal populations. Other species may experience an increase in population that negatively affects other species.  Species feces in the water is a natural pollutant, so humans aren’t always entirely to blame.

Eutrophication can be human-caused or natural. Untreated sewage effluent and agricultural run-off carrying fertilizers are examples of human-caused eutrophication. However, it also occurs naturally in situations where nutrients accumulate (e.g. depositional environments), or where they flow into systems on an ephemeral basis.

Eutrophication generally promotes excessive plant growth and decay, favoring simple algae and plankton over other more complicated plants, and causes a severe reduction in water quality.  Phosphorus is a necessary nutrient for plants to live, and is the limiting factor for plant growth in many freshwater ecosystems.  The addition of phosphorus increases algal growth, but not all phosphates actually feed algae.  These algae assimilate the other necessary nutrients needed for plants and animals.

When algae die, they sink to the bottom where they decompose and the nutrients contained in organic matter are converted into inorganic form by bacteria. The decomposition process uses oxygen and deprives the deeper waters of oxygen which can kill fish and other organisms. Also the necessary nutrients are all at the bottom of the aquatic ecosystem and if they are not brought up closer to the surface, where there is more available light allowing for photosynthesis for aquatic plants, a serious strain is placed on algae populations.  

Enhanced growth of aquatic vegetation or phytoplankton and algal blooms disrupts normal functioning of the ecosystem, causing a variety of problems such as a lack of oxygen needed for fish to survive. The water becomes cloudy, typically colored a shade of green, yellow, brown, or red. Eutrophication also decreases the value of rivers, lakes, and estuaries for recreation, fishing, hunting, and aesthetic enjoyment. Health problems can occur where eutrophic conditions interfere with drinking water treatment.

Detroit could be thought of as a once healthy lake or pond.  But the by-products of intense industrialization attracted an influx of non-native species.  Feeding on Detroit’s bounty, the plankton began eating up the nutrients other Detroit species needed.  That portion of the population began to die in the face of marasmus.  As the decay increased, all the nutrients fell to the bottom and more harmonious plant life that could bring oxygen back to the water were deprived of oxygen through the decomposition process.  They couldn’t reach the light for photosynthesis.

The fish – the workers of the pond – could not survive and other animal species could not live on the polluted waters.  Ultimately, the denizens of Detroit were driven away, leaving only the bottom-dwellers.  Detroit became, in a space of about 60 years, a swamp.

That is why it’s so important to note the degree of decay, litter and garbage in a city.  Like a pond or lake, a city must be periodically dredged of its physical litter and its economic impediments or it will eutrophy instead of gentrify.

Next time you see a piece of trash on the ground, take responsibility for it, even if it isn’t your job to pick it up, even if you didn’t put it there.


Published in: on July 26, 2013 at 12:13 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. What you have written here calls to mind a joke about a river in which all of the fish were dyeing out. Scientists tried to use gene splicing to create new fish that could survive in polluted and oxygen poor. They crossed a Coho Salmon with a Walli Pike and called it a Co-Wall. They put them in the river and they dyed within a day or two. The scientists were sure they knew just what to do. They crossed the Co-Wall with a Muskie and called it a Co-Wall-Ski. These new fish lasted for only a few hours. When the financial contributors to this project asked what went wrong the scientists said the Co-Wall was tough but not tough enough, the Co-Wall-Ski was tougher but it didn’t know how to swim. I know it is only a joke but it does relate to Detroit. Some things are best left to go their own way with very little or no outside intervention. My father always said that unions were going to bring America down. The unions were good at the start, improving conditions in the work place and such but as they gained power it all got out of hand. Controlling pay rates, benefits and employment contracts was to much intervention. Things like pay, benefits and employment contracts would take care of themselves if left alone. Aside from preventing the existence sweat shops and other safety issues the unions had no other practical uses. The workers would deal with pay, benefits and contracts by not working where they are not happy. If the employer can’t keep his people happy they will leave. If the employer can’t keep anybody happy than nobody will come to work for the company. It works the other way for the employees. If they can’t make the boss happy they won’t be able to keep a job. Without intervention this employer employee relationship will seek it’s own level.

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