Teaching Case - Detroit’s Troubled Waters: Race, Politics, Bankruptcy & Regionalism

Detroit’s Troubled Waters: Race, Politics, Bankruptcy & Regionalism


Educator Access
A review copy of this case is available free of charge to educators and trainers. Please create an account or sign in to gain access to this material.

Permission to Reprint
Each purchase of this product entitles the buyer to one digital file and use. If you intend to distribute, teach, or share this item, you must purchase permission for each individual who will be given access. Learn more about purchasing permission to reprint.

  • Product Description

    Regional governance, by contrast to municipal or state control, is the best level of government to tackle certain public functions—or at least, so it seems to most urban planners. Yet in many parts of the United States, it is all but impossible to build the political will to shift from local to regional governance. This decision-forcing case (which includes a video supplement, HKS Case 2093.0) places students in Detroit during the city’s financial crisis and bankruptcy, events that set the stage for the controversial 2013-2014 negotiation to create a regional water system in greater Detroit. Set after an initial round of negotiations has collapsed, and a second effort is about to begin, the case challenges students to step into the shoes of the negotiating team, including the City of Detroit, three suburban counties, and the state of Michigan. It describes how Detroit’s 2014 financial crisis and bankruptcy created an opportunity for regional governance, and also created conditions that made regionalization difficult. The case explores the history of distrust in city-suburban relationships, tensions over Detroit’s management of the water department, the role of an outside emergency manager in setting negotiations in motion, and the reasons the first round of negotiations collapsed acrimoniously. A video supplement provides critical background on the reasons for Detroit’s evolution as a majority-black city and the deterioration of its relationships with its majority-white suburbs, including racial discrimination, white flight, economic disinvestment and the controversial mayoralty of Coleman Young in the 1970s and 1980s.

    Learning Objective:
    Developed for a course in urban politics and policy, the case and video provide background for a traditional case discussion or simulation, in which students gain a deeper appreciation for how each party understands its own interests, goals, and red lines. The video is also available separately with guidance about using it to explore issues of urban racial history in the United States and the historical factors that led to Detroit's bankruptcy in 2013.

  • Other Details

    Publication Date: December 22, 2017
    HKS Case Number: 2114.0
    Case Author: Pamela Varley
    Faculty Lead: Quinton Mayne
    Pages (incl. exhibits): 28
    Setting: United States
    Language: English
    _year: 2017-2018
    _pages: 25+
    _geography: North America
  • Warranty Information