More Detroit Future City

So I’ve had a chance to more thoroughly go through Detroit Future City, the just-released plan for the City of Detroit.  To recap, I thought the plan brings an amazingly innovative approach to the revitalization of the Motor City.  The Urbanophile Aaron Renn also commented on the plan, and he was a little underwhelmed.  That prompted a comment from me on his site (forgive me for quoting myself; I know that’s not an especially cool thing to do):

“Aaron, I agree with some of your points on Detroit Future City. The online format is terribly un-user-friendly. And the 2030 job growth target was just plain crazy (I bet that’s something brought up by Detroit old-timers who want a return to the days when 2-3 jobs per resident was reality, in the ’50s and ’60s). But I think you sell the innovation of the plan a little short.
I was disappointed that the plan did not address the lack of neighborhood identity in Detroit. In fact it seemed they tried to create neighborhood identity in areas where there is none. But I was pleased to see how they propose to create distinct neighborhoods in the more intact parts of the city, in terms of density and housing choices. Detroit can be horribly homogeneous in its housing. As far as the eds and meds focus goes, I think the planning team simply wanted Detroit to give its full attention to its eds and meds assets so that it can contribute more fully to the city’s economy (I’d agree that Wayne State and the Detroit Medical Center are not nation leaders, but they can be region leaders).
The green focus of the plan did resonate with me because it uses green development in a context I’ve never seen before in a major city. I urge you to look again — this plan effectively calls for the decommission of some 20% of the city without explicitly saying so, either through urban ag, the continued reintroduction of forests and/or prairies, or “blue/green” infrastructure. The plan also calls for very low density residential land use typologies adjacent to the decommissioned areas, generally clustered development with broad expanses of open space. I think this demonstrates the growth and utility of the landscape urbanism theory/discipline — in the absence of an economy to build a new framework for a city, we can use its natural assets until something else emerges. To me this is not just innovative, but almost revolutionary. Think about it: no other major city in the country would make that statement.”

Detroit Future City achieves two goals, in my opinion.  One is a Detroit-specific goal that helps the city move toward a more sustainable future, and the other is a much broader and innovative policy response to conditions that shrinking cities like Detroit can employ.
Goal 1: Detroit has an official recognition of its economic assets beyond the auto industry.  I’ve always viewed one of Detroit’s main problems as being its response to the decline of the auto industry, not the decline of the auto industry itself.  At some point, it seems city leaders would have recognized that the auto industry created other economic opportunities and assets that the city could utilize to expand its economy.  In his book Detroit: A Biography, Scott Martelle detailed how the city was positioned right after World War II to be the nation’s leading defense manufacturer, after having performed that role during the war.  The Big Three opted to return to producing vehicles – a wise short-term decision, but devastating in the long run.  Defense manufacturing eventually shifted to Southern California and played a huge role in the growth of post-war California.  That was definitely an opportunity lost. 
As the auto industry has declined it seems Detroiters have been involved in a self-loathing, existentialist internal dialogue with itself – why is the auto industry leaving us?  Why can’t we have jobs like we used to?  I believe one of the successes of the Detroit Future City is that it puts an end to that internal dialogue and starts to envision a future that includes but goes well beyond the auto industry. 
The fact is, there are a number of economic assets in Detroit, even now, that can form the foundation of its revitalization.   Detroit Future City outlined four – eds and meds; international trade; minority entrepreneurship; and industrial/creative.  To observers outside of Detroit there may be nothing special about highlighting economic opportunities that can be viewed as somewhat conventional.  But this is a critical first step in the evolution of Detroit’s future.  The eds and meds sector has been featured as a significant part of every city’s economic strategy for the last twenty years – except in Detroit, where it has grown despite minimal attention from city government.  As a border city sited next to this nation’s largest trading partner, you would think Detroit would find ways to better leverage that position.  Until now it has not, but this plan can draw attention to that sector.  Much of Atlanta’s economic growth over the last two decades has been due to the explosion of minority entrepreneurship, especially in the African-American community.  A similar strategy could produce dividends for Detroit.  Lastly, the industrial/creative sector identified by the plan, a mix of food processing dependent on urban agriculture, local entrepreneurship and creative economy jobs, is an acknowledgement of work already going on in the city.  But more importantly, it identifies this as something that is distinct and unique to Detroit and can lead to the formation of even more economic innovation.  In my opinion, this sector recalls Detroit’s “tinkering” historical roots, which led to the rise of Henry Ford and others in the first place more than a hundred years ago. 
I’ll get to the innovation in an upcoming post.

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