Repost: What is a Future Detroit Built On?

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

I originally posted this last July, in the midst of the firestorm that was Detroit’s bankruptcy announcement.  With so much of the focus on the bankruptcy news, my cursory listing of the Motor City’s strengths and economic opportunities may have been missed.  Also, six months on, it might be good to see if the city’s moving in any of the directions I’ve cited.  Here it is again, with an added postscript.

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.


Six months after the bankruptcy announcement, how is Detroit doing in terms of capitalizing on its economic strengths and opportunities?  A few initiatives have made progress:

  • I can’t take the time to find and cite the data now, but by all appearances the Detroit area seems to be rebounding from the Great Recession.  Growth in the manufacturing sector is leading the way, with the Big Three automakers producing well and profiting more.  Detroit’s manufacturing sector will not disappear easily.  
  • Last month Michigan Governor Rick Snyder announced a proposal calling for the federal government to set aside as many as 50,000 special visas over the next five years to attract highly-skilled immigrants to the Detroit area.  I’m not certain on whether this is the best approach or not, but it does indicate an understanding by the governor and administration that migration is a key factor in Detroit’s future.  Detroit already has a built-in migration tap — it has the largest Middle Eastern population of any metro area in the country.  Turning that into an economic engine, however, presents some economic as well as political challenges.
  • Detroit has begun to make strides in the advanced and craft manufacturing areas.  The U.S. Department of Defense announced the Detroit metro area will be awarded with an Advanced Manufacturing Institute, coming with a $70 million grant for its development.  The Detroit consortium will conduct research on the development of lightweight metals, which on the surface pales in comparison to the similar grant awarded to Chicago (a consortium bringing together universities, research labs, nonprofit groups and businesses that will focus on digital manufacturing and design).  On the craft manufacturing side, luxury watch and bicycle manufacturer Shinola continues to build a reputation for quality goods produced in Detroit, and weave its reputation into the narrative of the city.  If they continue to grow and prosper, similar efforts could emerge.
  • Urban agriculture seems to be making progress as well.  After many fits and starts, Hantz Farms will begin planting for the first of many farms and forests within the city.  
  • Detroit’s philanthropic community worked intensely after the bankruptcy announcement to preserve the arts and cultural heritage of the city.  Nine foundations pledged as much as $330 million to ensure that the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection is not lost as a part of Detroit’s bankruptcy debt settlement.  This is an extraordinary measure, and could be seen as a sign of greater cooperation between corporate, philanthropic and political communities in Detroit.

This kind of elemental economic foundation building is encouraging, but more needs to be done.  Specifically, I’d like to see progress being made in the following areas:

  • International trade (construction of a new bridge crossing to Canada has been tied up in negotiations with the present bridge’s owner, to put it mildly)
  • R&B/Techno Music Center (maybe my idea of Detroit as an R&B/techno version of Nashville is far-fetched)
  • Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) Center (the growing spirit of entrepreneurship in Detroit is visible in its new residents, but not as much in its existing residents)
  • Detroit Alumni Program (I think there are legions of Detroit expats like myself who would love to find a way to help their hometown).
Perhaps the biggest pie-in-the-sky dream I’d like to see in Detroit is the development of a top-notch, private university with a STEM focus, on par with an MIT or Stanford.  I would love to see something like this created through a partnership of the Big Three and other major Detroit corporations, so that the Motor City can more effectively attract and develop talent.  
This is as likely as getting a getting a new 12-lane highway built through the middle of Manhattan, but I can dream.

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