Legacies of Emergency Management: Looking Back and Moving Forward

A public discussion co-organized by the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, Louise Seamster at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia University

Since the 1980s, the state of Michigan has been the national epicenter of the development of municipal “emergency management”—a project that allows state governors to declare “financial emergencies” in Michigan cities and thereby replace democratically-elected city officials with appointed emergency financial managers. In the three decades that emergency financial management has unfolded in Michigan, its cities have seen the large-scale sell-off of public assets, the privatization of public institutions, disinvestment in public infrastructures, the elimination of public services, the dissolution of municipal agencies, the hollowing-out of collective bargaining, and other acts of violence against the public sphere. Extending long histories of the extraction of labor, land, and wealth from communities of color in the United States, the transfer of public wealth and financialization of municipal governance under emergency management has been focused on Michigan’s Black-majority cities; in the ten years following the 2008 US financial crisis, around 52% of Michigan’s African-American residents were disenfranchised by emergency management as compared to 3% of white Michiganders.

On December 14, 2017, the office of Michigan governor Rick Snyder announced that there were, at the moment, no emergency managers in any of the state’s cities. That announcement prompted questions about the ongoing consequences and legacies of emergency management—a project that had become dormant rather than one that had been invalidated. What was the impact of emergency management on Michigan’s cities? What are the lessons that should be learned from Michigan’s experience with emergency management? How can the legacies of emergency management in Michigan inform resistance in other spaces of threatened or ongoing de-democratization? This panel was dedicated to the discussion of these and related questions.


Mark Fancher, Racial Justice Project, ACLU of Michigan

Catherine Coleman Flowers, Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise 

Shea Howell, the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center

Louise Seamster, University of Tennessee Knoxville

Moderated by Andrew Herscher, the University of Michigan


On Friday, March 23rd, 2018, a related workshop was convened in Ann Arbor. This conversation took up some of the issues presented at this event, considering emergency management as not only a local but also a national project, which engages with systems of infrastructure, environment, and culture at multiple scales.