Future Detroit, now
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“What do we need to do to build a vibrant Detroit with opportunity for everyone?” ~ Mayor Mike Dugganat the 2016 Mackinac Policy Conference
I get it all the time. From friends and colleagues in Brooklyn, Los Angeles and as far away as Milan, Italy. “I hear Detroit’s really coming back.”
During his opening remarks yesterday at the Mackinac Policy Conference, the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Sandy Baruah called Detroit “the hippest city in the country.” As a not-so ironic counterpoint, our “one tough nerd” governor, Rick Snyder, all but pleaded that we look at the positive rather than be an “Eeyore” and dwell on the negative.
To some degree, they are correct.
There is plenty of action happening in Detroit. Downtown is practically giddy with the razzle-dazzle of development ranging from design stage to nearly complete. Big-ticket projects under heavy construction disrupt the flow of Woodward Avenue: the M-1 Rail Line, the new Red Wings hockey stadium, and coming soon, a new Dan Gilbert skyscraper promised to rise from the ashes of the old Hudson’s building. Watch Gilbert’s session from Wednesday.
Walking out of my One Detroit office in the Detroit Historical Museum, I catch the action on a personal level. Continual foot traffic enjoying a beautiful 80-degree spring day streams in and out of new restaurants and cafes and marches to and from the campuses of Wayne State and the College for Creative Studies; then there’s always the hustle and bustle of field-trippers around the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and the Detroit Science Center.
There are the tourists too. No, this is not an auto-correct error – there are actual tourists coming in to see the resurgence firsthand while attending events like Movement or one of the many conferences coming to the city. A friend of mine who lives in Corktown listed her home on Airbnb several months ago and can’t remember the last time her and her husband spent a weekend in their bed. So when I look out from the window of my office in the heart of the cultural district, Detroit certainly feels like the hippest city in America.
But what’s beyond the horizon of Midtown?
Dan Pitera, an urban planning expert from the Detroit Collaborative Design Center at University of Detroit Mercy, told me not long ago that the city’s plan for development has been backward. That Detroit has focused on projects designed to attract people from elsewhere (particularly upwardly mobile Millennials) to fill the vacant homes littering our neighborhoods. Granted, this is where any rebuilding city would likely place its bet.
But Pitera, an expert who has spent decades working with Detroit neighborhoods and helped create the Detroit Future City strategic framework, reframed the approach. Instead of focusing on what we think others will want, he said, we should be creating a livable city for Detroiters already living in those neighborhoods. Life-long residents, who have remained in Detroit, raised a family and kept the city going. The plan should be listening to their needs and desires, giving them access to long-denied capital, information, connections, and support necessary to build new businesses and rebuild their own neighborhoods. When this happens, when we engage residents to help rebuild the city to meet their needs, by default we create a community and city that would attract anyone and everyone. Inclusivity gets us where we need to go.
It seems Mayor Mike Duggan may have listened. Yesterday he claimed at the Mackinac Policy Conference that his administration has “turned a corner” from reacting to problems to projecting outward asking the big question, “What kind of city do we want Detroit to be?” Hopefully this includes listening to residents. One sign that may be the case is his new-ish city-planning guru, Maurice Cox, who has spent a career in architecture and community building. I met Cox as a panelist on the One Detroit/MiWeek Live Roadshow at the University of Detroit Mercy. The Roadshow focused on retaining neighborhood identity while rebuilding economic corridors. Dapper and optimistically energetic, Cox enthused off-camera about an innovative project the city was embarking on with fellow Roadshow panelist and neighborhood activist, Gaston Nash, in the Fitzgerald neighborhood. The first sign of this plan was revealed yesterday as part of Mayor Duggan’s address at Mackinac in his challenge to “develop unique Detroit neighborhoods.”
“We’ve lost one million people over the past fifty years - some to other cities; most to the suburbs. How do we get them back?” mused Duggan, then he unveiled the 20 Minute Neighborhood plan. By the looks of it, the City’s plan of attack may be just what Dan Pitera has prescribed. As Duggan laid out in the 20 Minute Neighborhood, which has precedence in places like notably pedestrian-friendly Portland, Oregon, the plan emphasizes safe and convenient walk-ability to daily needs like food, transit, schools, parks from residential areas in twenty minutes or less.
Of all the new stadiums and refurbished condos, safe and reliable walk-ability in Detroit’s 100+ unique neighborhoods is the critical component to a city that lacks coherent and reliable public transit and has a footprint larger than most American cities at 139 square miles. To back this up, walk-ability is a desire One Detroit heard firsthand from some of our youngest residents in a story we produced a few years ago for PBS at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Middle School. Here we followed students as they competed in the annual Future City competition. Their task was to envision Detroit 150 years into the future. Instead of a typical Sci-Fi fantasy, we noticed these young Detroiters were designing the community that they wanted today. At the time, their model included such unimaginable things as a library across the street from their school and a pizza place adjacent to the library. In other words, they designed their own 20 Minute Neighborhood.
Perhaps Mayor Duggan saw this piece, likely not. But hopefully the young voices from Paul Robeson Malcolm X were heard somehow and the 20 Minute Neighborhood Plan is the response. Either way, we don’t have 150 years into the future to wait. Time’s a-wastin’.