Detroit's vision and revision

Framework for change looks promising, but watch who controls the reins

After the “new vision” for Detroit’s future was unveiled amid much fanfare last week, we gave a call to Dan Pitera, one of the many people involved in the two-year-long effort to create what’s been dubbed the “Detroit Future City” plan.


As the reporters invited to an in-depth briefing about the project before its official coming-out party were told, this isn’t a “plan.” It is, instead, “a strategic framework for future decision making.”

So you got that — this is a framework that will help guide future development.

We’re not exactly sure what the difference is, but that’s OK. It is enough to know that this effort is big and important and groundbreaking in some fundamental way.

We’re not being sarcastic when we say that, either. In terms of breadth and depth, it is an unprecedented undertaking. And not just for Detroit. Nowhere is the world, the journalists were told, has anything quite this extensive and multifaceted been attempted.

A big part of the reason for that, unfortunately, is that no other city has endured the level of abandonment Detroit has. The numbers are painfully familiar, but worth repeating nonetheless: At its peak in the 1950s, Detroit’s population topped out at more than 1.8 million people. In April 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau counted just fewer than 714,000 people living here. And now, despite the ongoing resurgence of such neighborhoods as Midtown and Corktown, the overall exodus continues, with the population now almost certainly dipping below 700,000. And the projections are that the number of people living in the city will to continue to fall until it bottoms out at about 600,000.

Declining population means declining tax revenues, which means a continued decrease in public services, leading to even more abandonment. The city’s downward spiral hasn’t yet stopped.

And its not just people who have left. Detroit has become the poster child for what’s now described as the postindustrial city, with once high-paying factory jobs largely a thing of the past. Just this week, on the television program 60 Minutes, there was a piece on the ever-expanding — and now rapidly accelerating — role robotics is playing in the workforce, with machines replacing not just workers on the shop floor, but everywhere from warehouses and grocery stores to call centers to stock trading.

Money is being made — a lot of it. The problem is that many more jobs are being lost than created, and so the wealth being created continues its concentration at the top of the economic ladder. But the machines only produce; they don’t consume. And without workers earning wages to buy things, the prospects of an economy that flourishes on all levels, for those on the bottom and in the middle as well as on top, seems pretty dismal.

Where it all ends, nobody knows.

What’s certain is that Detroit, the former Arsenal of Democracy and onetime “model city” in terms of racial diversity, has long been in the forefront of decline. And now, as a result, it is looking to take the lead when it comes to figuring out how we as a society adjust to this new world we’re facing.

The “Detroit Future City” effort is supposed to be a blueprint for decision-making as Detroit moves forward. As we were watching the presentations last week, however, especially when the discussion turned toward talk of what planners call “green and blue infrastructure,” things like orchards and storm water retention ponds envisioned for mostly abandoned neighborhoods that were once filled with people, we began thinking about another plan, one featured on the cover of this rag more than a decade ago.

In October 2001, we did a story titled “Down a green path.” about an “alternative vision” for what was then an already devastated area on Detroit’s east side.

Called the Adamah Project, it was the result of an effort undertaken by a group of architecture students and their advisers at the University of Detroit Mercy. In place of vacant lots and the charred remains of burned-out homes, they envisioned community vegetable gardens and tree farms that supplied timber for a local lumber mill, tulips growing in hothouses and aquaculture projects producing fish and shrimp.

It was a plan both fomented and embraced by the folks at the Boggs Center, an east side nonprofit that serves as a sort of incubator for grassroots progressive activism.

What was striking at the time, at least to us, was the critique of Detroit’s recovery efforts that was inherent in the Adamah Project.

Here’s what we wrote back then:

“During the ’90s, while the U.S. economy was experiencing unprecedented growth, Detroit capitalized on the surge by directing much of its resources into big-ticket items such as a pair of new sports stadiums and downtown development projects such as casinos.”

The problem with that kind of approach, as we reported back then, is that it was destined to fail in terms of reversing Detroit’s decline if it wasn’t part of some bigger, more comprehensive plan.

“You can have all the stadiums you want,” Stephen Vogel, then dean of UDM’s School of Architecture and a prime force behind Adamah Project, told us then. “If you don’t have housing, if you don’t have livable neighborhoods, you are not going to have a revitalized city.”

“It’s great that you have a company like Compuware coming in here,” Vogel added. “But you should be devoting equal time to making sure that my neighborhood is not declining. And that’s not happening. Small businesses are continuing to leave, and that’s tragic.”

Political philosopher and social activist Grace Lee Boggs, who, along with her late husband Jimmy Boggs provided the intellectual underpinnings of the Boggs Center, offered this observation back then:

“A lot of folks in the bureaucracy know that the approach we’ve been taking up until now has failed.  The city can’t be built from the top down by politicians reacting to crises or by developers seizing opportunities to make megaprofits.”

Which brings us back to Dan Pitera, an associate professor of architecture at UDM and executive director of the university’s Detroit Collaborative Design Center, which, as the school’s website notes, is focused on “fostering university and community partnerships that create inspired and sustainable neighborhoods and spaces for all people.”

As for Pitera, his online biography describes him as “a political and social activist masquerading as an architect.” He’s also someone who, long before becoming a key member of the Detroit Future City team, helped put together the Adamah (Hebrew for the word “earth”) Project.

How, we wondered, are the two connected?

There is a link, says Pitera, but not exactly what could be called a direct one. It’s not as if the planners involved in the Detroit Future City effort pulled out the Adamah Project blueprint and said, “Oh, yeah, we have to copy this and this and this.”

Where Adamah broke ground, at least in part, was in its recognition of the fact that Detroit isn’t ever again going to be what it once was: an industrial powerhouse that’s home to nearly 2 million people. A new vision of the city had to be embraced by planners, and Adamah was an attempt to do that on a small scale.

In that respect, explains Pitera, Adamah was a “catalyst” for looking at urban development in a new way. The idea wasn’t to find ways to recover what had been lost, but rather to realize that 21st century Detroit would be a metropolis much different than the city it once was.

The specific vision offered up by Adamah may not have found its way to reality, but the underlying framework, one that acknowledges the fundamental necessity of inclusion and collaboration rather than the top-down approach decried by Boggs, is key to the Detroit Future City effort, Pitera says.

Which may be why those involved in the project insist on calling it a “framework” and not a plan. A framework sounds as if it’s more flexible.

And it’s more than encouraging that the Detroit Future City team, as its promotional material boasts, conducted “hundreds of public meetings: had “30,000 conversations” and received more than 70,000 survey responses en route to creating the new framework.

Certainly, the 347-page document that is the result of all this offers a level of detail about what is currently going on in the city — in terms of who owns what abandoned and vacant properties, where economic opportunities exist and can be furthered, what types of environmentally beneficial projects can be pursued that will make the city more livable while improving the overall economy, and more. Detroit has never had a planning tool this detailed or this far-reaching.

Moreover, the framework — in a way we don’t recall having seen — recognizes that a comprehensive approach is vital if the city is eventually going to stop its decline and find a level at which it is truly sustainable. No one sector, be it local government or well-funded foundations or grassroots activists or the business community— can achieve the needed transformation be acting separately.

Collaboration, both vertically and horizontally, is crucial for this to all work. And for the Detroit Future City team to recognize this is more than encouraging. The fact that it held hundreds of public meetings “connecting with people over 163,000 times,” through both conversations and surveys, demonstrates that the people behind the new framework understand that input from the ground up is crucial to future success.

We have much to build on: a surplus of cheap land, an immense supply of fresh water at a time when shortages of that crucial resource are only expected to intensify around the globe, and a location well-positioned to capitalize on international trade.

And as the new framework acknowledges, no one aspect can occur in isolation. From a functioning public transit system, to the encouragement of entrepreneurs as a way to spur economic growth, to massively reworking the city’s zoning ordinances — all this and more needs to take place in a coordinated way involving government agencies, nonprofits, the private sector and the public at large.

But before we got too carried away with our enthusiasm and joined the rest of the media in offering what sounded to us like a near-unanimous “hurrah” for this new framework, we put in a call to Shea Howell, a decades-long Detroit community activist, a founding member of the Boggs Center and a journalism professor at Oakland University.

Like us, she saw the grassroots-based approach inherent in the Adamah Project, as well as the strategic framework subsequently created by the Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD) project, as having laid the groundwork for crucial parts of the Detroit Future City effort.

And that encourages her. What concerns her, though, is what happens going forward.

It is not enough that the community  “buys into” what’s being proposed. Instead, it is crucial that the big money players — be it philanthropies, such as the Kresge Foundation, which last week pledged to provide $150 million to help implement aspects of the Detroit Future City plan, or major corporations, bankers and others— not be allowed to gain control of the reins going ahead.

The same is true of city officials.

Howell points to the recent decision by City Council to sell 170 acres of vacant land on the east side to one businessman for a project known has Hantz Farms — despite a massive outpouring of community-based opposition — as an example of going in the wrong direction.

For Detroit to halt its decline, and to become a sustainable city far into the future, for it to achieve the grand vision that’s found in the new framework, the real lesson of the Adamah Project has to be kept in mind:

The creativity that will save Detroit won’t come from bankers or bureaucrats or big foundations. It will emerge from those who are engaged in the struggle to survive, because their creativity — and their community — is fundamental to that survival. It is, in many ways, their greatest asset.

It is also Detroit’s greatest asset.

Taking that into account, and continuing to incorporate the ideas and energy of these people, and keeping their interests at the fore as things move forward, is absolutely crucial.

As Howell says, the question now is how this grand vision gets implemented.

“This is where things get interesting,” she says.

It is also when we will see how much has really been learned.

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