The Detroiter: Resident Design Initiatives
Until recently, the City of Detroit has been slow to address these design problems for a variety of issues, while impassioned and concerned residents have come up with an arsenal of their own improvement strategies, taking matters into their own hands.
Detroit is often referenced as a test lab for urban ideas and the results are likely to be translated into a new form of post-recession urban theory. The implications are serious, as the discourse of urban design has been greatly limited by measuring success only in terms of growth; Detroit could emerge as a case study in other areas that are key to urban vitality.
Does Detroit have problems? Yes. Many of the debates about the city’s urban health and future depend on what one wants to call a “problem.” The most prevalent example in this debate is vacancy; Detroit is a 139-square-mile city with 40 vacant square miles. Those are just simple facts. How one decides to interpret them has a lot to say about biases, urban perspectives and familiarity with the many layers of Detroit’s complex past.
The Detroit Works Project is an initiative of Mayor Dave Bing—who was elected to complete the previous Mayor’s term on May 5, 2009, and won re-election for a full term on November 3, 2009—and it is also the best current representation of the city’s government perspective on urban design and planning issues. This project’s website avoids the word “problems” with a page that calls out “Challenges and Opportunities.” It lists the following:
- A 60% population decline since its peak in 1950 (from 1.85 million to 800,000)
- An unemployment rate of 30%
- 60,000 parcels of vacant space, which are underutilized
- The lack of a regional transportation authority, which makes the Detroit Metro area the only major metropolitan area in America without one
- A city median income of $29,000, well below the national average
- 33% of Detroit residents living below the poverty line
- 762,000 manufacturing jobs lost in Michigan over the last decade, resulting in a workforce that is moving away from both the city and the state
- 55,000 properties in foreclosure, a crisis that began in 2004 and continues today
What media-savvy reader isn’t tempted to see a political site’s insistence that these are “opportunities” as propaganda? In this argument over rhetoric, budget-conscious publications are the opposition and play up the drama with the term “crisis.” In either case, the complexity of the issues suffers; this happens in discussions of the economy and design. While unemployment and poverty are not primary concerns of urban design, they complicate the perspective on the city’s urban health. Several other issues that spark lively debate on Detroit’s allegedly dire situation include: closed and abandoned schools, the decaying train station at the center of endless photo essays and the decision to spend a large portion of the dwindling city funds to tear down unsafe structures.
The media’s ongoing love affair with Detroit-as-decay employs a familiar plot line in support of a biased artistic perspective. In an essay for Guernica (January 2011), author John Patrick Leary explored Detroit’s potential as a metonym: a literary device in which a smaller thing stands in for a bigger system of ideas. For Detroit, this has meant being used as a symbol for the entire American foreclosure crisis, the decline of the auto industry, suburban sprawl and a host of other issues. The comparison is easy and tempting, especially with so much readily available photographic evidence that has come to be known as “ruin porn.” One of the most grating examples for residents was the BBC documentary Requiem for Detroit, which went out of its way to show empty crumbling buildings, cropping the more vibrant parts of the city from view to endorse a tragic perspective of decline and collapse; this sparked a rebuttal produced by Palladium, a footwear company (arguably an unexpected source of urban criticism), titled Detroit Lives. This series of three film shorts, posted online in September 2010, starred Johnny Knoxville driving around the city and interviewing impassioned Detroit advocates. The debate rages on today: dying or thriving depends a lot on whom you ask in Detroit.
How to address that reputation for decline is a topic that residents and the Mayor approach with a new fervor. Shrinkage is complicated and not automatically a bad thing, as John Gallagher argues extensively while advocating the strength in Detroit’s smaller size; he points out that many small cities rank as “best places to live.” But a particular outcome of shrinkage is nearly impossible to defend—abandoned architecture that has lost useable potential, commonly referred to as blight. Vacancy within city borders leads to unsafe conditions—crime—and a ripple effect of bad economics. Maintaining roads rarely used or basic services like sanitation and police protection over such a huge, sparsely populated area, carries significant cost; when the population thins, cash-strapped cities have to adjust so that spending is proportionate to the tax base. When there are more buildings than residents can use; the city has a responsibility to repurpose the land.
Until recently, the City of Detroit has been slow to address these design problems for a variety of issues, while impassioned and concerned residents have come up with an arsenal of their own improvement strategies, taking matters into their own hands. However, Mayor Bing’s Detroit Works Project, launched on September 14, 2010, signals a shift in local planning that has the potential to alter that trend, including a task force that has been assigned to deal with blight and other myriad issues. In this thesis, I am interested in the momentum behind this project and possible outcomes as well as the community-based efforts that have succeeded in spite of the government, or at least without much help. What is the intersection of these two movements in Detroit, and how can they work together? This is a very personal question for its citizens, but a much bigger implication for urban theory thanks to the explosion of media attention focused on Detroit. What lessons from this so-called urban test lab will theorists extract, and is it prudent to do so? Is Detroit a unique urban condition?
It’s worth specifying that grassroots design and government plans do not necessarily duplicate the effort to make Detroit better. The Detroit Works Project is just beginning to look at options for land reuse and was designed to look for opportunities such as:
- areas where infill is appropriate
- sites that can be used for economic development, like business attraction
- productive landscapes for storm water management, environmental remediation and recreation spaces
- new forms of mixed use neighborhoods.
Residents working at the block or lot level are likely too preoccupied with safety to think about storm water. Nor should they if the government is functioning properly. But on the issue of where people should live, how and what to do with houses no longer needed, there is much overlap, debate, and “opportunity,” if you will forgive my use of this loaded term.