Repost: What Is A Future Detroit Built On?

Cover of Detroit Future City Plan.  Source: Detroit Works Project.

(Note: I wrote this in the aftermath of Detroit’s bankruptcy filing at the end of July.  Since people were still berating the city for being the largest municipality to file bankruptcy, and trying to figure out what caused the city to sink to its current level, many people may not have seen my take on the assets and strategic opportunities that Detroit has in front of it.  Give this a look.  -Pete)

Everyone is talking about how Detroit became bankrupt.  No one is talking about what the elements of a new Detroit should be.

I’ve spent a lot of time studying my hometown from afar, and I’ve come up with some reasonable ideas (at least on the physical side) on why Detroit is what it is today.  I will admit that developing a set of reasonable ideas for its future is far more difficult.  However, I’ll be brave enough to make an attempt at some ideas that Detroit could use to establish a new and more sustainable economy, and a stronger social and cultural infrastructure.
Before I start, I want to state some caveats and a few explanations.  I acknowledge that the ideas I propose below will NOT generate immediate results.  Indeed, my goal is to consider long-term strategies that can promote prosperity for the city and region, making Southeast Michigan a far more sustainable region.  For decades, Detroit leadership has chosen to implement what I would call “paste” solutions rather than work toward the more necessary wholesale changes.  This attempts to move in that direction.  I also propose ideas that allow the city to build on current assets, so that the post-industrial transition is as easy as it can be, and the city can build on its already strong brand.  Third, some of the ideas proposed admittedly are pie-in-the-sky proposals, but I think most are aware that if Detroit is to have a future at all, it must dream big.  And lastly, because Detroit’s collapse is as much a social phenomenon as it is an economic or political one, so I propose ideas in that regard as well.
At this time I can only offer the proposed strategies with very short explanations, but here are twenty strategies that, if I were King of Detroit (or Emergency Manager), I’d work toward implementing:
Existing Assets to Build On
  • Traditional Manufacturing (the base of Detroit’s economy, not going away anytime soon)
  • International Trade ( greater trade cooperation with the largest U.S. trade partner in Canada)
  • Middle Eastern Migration Center (Detroit metro has the largest Middle Eastern population in the nation)
  • Education and Health Care (foundation for growth in the rapidly growing Midtown area)
  • Workforce Development/Skills Building (invest in building job skills for an undereducated populace)
New Strategies to Implement
  • Advanced Manufacturing (merging technology with manufacturing to create new businesses, not simply in the service of the Big 3)
  • Craft Manufacturing (building a base of small-scale manufacturers building niche products)
  • R&B/Techno Music Center (build on the Motor City music heritage to enhance music performance and production opportunities)
  • Neighborhood Identity Program (build neighborhood identity through stronger commercial districts, signage)
  • Urban Agriculture
  • Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) Center (turn Detroit into a national model for minority entrepreneurship)
  • Urban Laboratory (allow Detroit to become the experimental test grounds for innovative urban initiatives)
  • Green/Blue Infrastructure (implement sustainable practices — stormwater retention, permeable road surfaces — that utilize excess land)
  • Become a Tourism Gateway to Michigan’s North
  • Create effective City/Suburb Partnerships
  • Upgrade Public Transit to connect job centers
  • Develop a private research university with a technical focus
Social Strategies
  • Strengthen Civic Infrastructure (greater cooperation and leadership from Detroit’s corporate, political and philanthropic communities)
  • Detroit Alumni Program (reach out to the Detroit Diaspora, possibly through social media, willing to stay up-to-date on Detroit activities and potentially support local projects/initiatives)
  • Racial Reconciliation Project (possibly modeled after the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission, provide an opportunity to publicly heal the Detroit area’s deep racial divide)
This is admittedly a scatter-shot approach to a possible future for Detroit.  But the ideas exist, and it’s time to start the conversation on the city’s future.

Postscript: Even though I offer few details on possible future strategies, I think most observers would acknowledge that not many cities are noted for excelling in some of the strategies I’ve identified (Middle Eastern Migration Center and R&B/Techno Music Center stand out).  But as intriguing as those ideas could be, I think if Detroit were to take the lead on the social strategies I’ve outlined it would allow the city to far surpass anything done by American cities.  I believe Detroit’s collapse is a social one more than an economic one, and once it finds effective social solutions to revitalization the sky’s the limit.

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