Detroit Future City: Is Today a Turning Point?

Credit: Detroit Works Project
I was going to put something together that would kick off my exploration into shrinking cities today, but I found out in today’s Detroit News that the City of Detroit and a host of local foundations were going to release the Detroit Future City: The Detroit Strategic Framework Plan, the outgrowth of the Detroit Works Project.
Today could be a turning point in Detroit’s history, if even a fraction of this ambitious plan is enacted.
First, keep in mind that I have yet to read the entire plan, which I plan to do.  I have read the executive summary and excerpts from several chapters, and think I have enough of an idea to comment a little.  I’ll offer more thoughts as I read more.  But from everything I’ve read so far, the plan rests on two fundamental principles:
1) the stated goal that Detroit (current population 714,000, down from 2 million in 1950) would seek to stabilize its population in the 600,000-800,000 range by 2030, and
2) the city must implement a land use strategy that considers the transition of sparsely inhabited areas to more innovative, non-traditional uses.
The Plan was quite a major undertaking.  It was kicked off in 2010, to a great deal of publicity and fanfare.  The project was funded by seven national and local foundations, and the planning team was comprised of experts in planning, urban design, landscape architecture, inner-city economics, vacant land strategies, zoning, engineering, economic development and civic engagement, from across the country.  One firm on the planning team even hailed from the United Kingdom.  The effort was led by Toni Griffin, currently a professor of architecture at the City College of New York, but with significant public (deputy planning director, Washington, DC) and private (Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and her own firm) practice.
The project was beset with hurdles from the beginning.  The Detroit Works planning team wanted to take the issue of downsizing Detroit seriously, and that message often fell on deaf ears when taken to the city’s residents.  Furthermore, Detroit began to fall further into its financial abyss during this time, with increasing pressure from the state to straighten its financial house or risk takeover by state authorities under the auspices of a newly enacted law.  As we all know, Detroit still struggles with its budget.
Work continued on the plan, however.  The plan touts engagement by some 30,000 citizens in Detroit and its surroundings, was informed by more than 70,000 survey responses, and does indeed consider some innovative recommendations.  A few examples:
Economic Growth
  • Detroit is uniquely positioned to develop and grow a new employment sector that the plan calls the “industrial-creative” sector, a blend of food processing (from local urban agriculture producers), auto manufacturing and detailing, and traditional creative economy jobs, with a mix of local entrepreneurship thrown in;
  •  The city can capitalize on its location to expand its role in international trade and intermodal freight;
  • The city has two “eds and meds” corridors (Midtown and the McNichols corridor on the northwest side) that can serve as foundations for growth;
City Systems
  •  A tiered approach to the improvement of the city’s infrastructure, tied to the city’s changing land use, identifying locations needing immediate attention and those that should be decommissioned;
 Land Use
  • The development of a radically different land use typology that accounts for Detroit’s uniqueness and allows it to move to the forefront of sustainable development – this includes green residential (very low density, landscaped-based neighborhoods), innovation productive (urban food production, urban forestry, urban aquaculture), and innovation ecological (areas allowed to return to their natural state).
 Public Lands
  • The City would implement a publically-owned vacant land strategy that would support revitalization and stabilization efforts as noted in the plan, but also support blue and green infrastructure needs in areas that would remain open.
These are just some of the innovations tossed around in this wide-ranging plan, with much more to be explored.  The Kresge Foundation, one of the chief funders of the plan, put its money where its mouth is.  With the announcement of the plan the Foundation also said it would spend $150 million over the next five years to implement the recommendations of the plan.
At first glance this appears to be the first plan I’ve seen that effectively recognizes – even embraces – Detroit’s shrinking city reality.  Yet, the plan pushes the city to become an innovator in sustainable development, allowing it to become a model for the future of our nation’s sprawling cities, and still plants the seeds for future growth.  Honestly, if the City is serious about enacting the plan (and that is far easier said than done), I think it will generate far more growth than the plan calls for, as migrants seeking to be a part of an entirely different kind of city flock in. 
But that may be my American “growth is always good’ cultural mindset seeping in.

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