Tying it all together

Sep 29, 2010 at 12:00 am

The first phase of Mayor Dave Bing's planning process for reinventing Detroit is done. The five forums for citizens to voice concerns, issues, gripes and goals were attended by some 4,000 people — more than the city initially anticipated. 

That was a great show of civic involvement by Detroiters who don't have much history of being asked what they think about the city's direction — beyond voting for one flawed candidate or the other. It was one of the most heartening developments I can imagine — even though these are only the initial steps of a long process. This has the potential to set things on a better path around here, and maybe the unimaginable task of getting voters more engaged in civic life has been started. 

However, last week I heard numerous comments denigrating the process as too slow and misguided. Some comments slammed Bing for not having a plan in place by now after having been in office more than a year. I actually heard a guest on WDET-FM's Craig Fahle Show say that Detroiters weren't capable of coming up with ideas to turn the city around. The Detroit News' Daniel Howes vented his frustration at the process Thursday, urging Bing to get his friends in the business community to devise a plan. I'd like to say that these so-called informed commentators displayed a level of sophistication beyond those who called in to vent on sports talk radio shows, but they were all pretty much playing together in the mud.

Even Detroiters seem a bit confused as to what is going on in the process. 

Yes, we are in a crisis. Yes, this is all critical to the direction of our city, region and state. And that is why we need to take a real and critical look at ourselves and set a course based on deep understanding, not the quick fix, not the I've-got-to-face-an-election-in-a-few-years mind-set that has colored past non-efforts.

This is the right way to do it.

"One thing for certain is that it's wise to have significant and ongoing public dialogue on this subject," says Daniel Kildee, president of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Center for Community Progress. "Making America's older industrial cities vital again is full of sensitive memories of the last 40 years. Policy makers and local officials did not listen to residents as they made their urban planning decisions. The result was that urban renewal was an unmitigated disaster. ... My advice from the very beginning is to go and get public involvement. The public is going to get involved one way or the other, so you need to include them even if it's painful at the beginning."

Kildee was the Genesee County treasurer from 1997 to 2009, and is on the executive committee of the National Vacant Properties Campaign. He founded the Genesee County Land Bank which won the Harvard University/Fannie Mae Foundation Innovations in American Government Award for Affordable Housing in 2007. He's familiar with urban planner Toni Griffin, Bing's designated leader in Detroit's effort.

"Griffin is brilliant, but she can't make decisions for Detroit," says Kildee. "She can bring incredible knowledge and expertise and experience to the challenge of Detroit, but it's not her role to make decisions."

Ultimately Detroiters will make the decisions, even if it's merely at the ballot box in the next election. We're talking about envisioning something that will take a decade or longer to put in place, something that will ultimately define Detroit, southeast Michigan and the state for decades to come. We have to get it right, which means it's time to put petty differences and personal political ambitions aside.

Here's an illustration of the importance of doing things right from the start. When I taught problem solving at Pennsylvania State University, there was a lesson on defining the problem that I always loved presenting. The setup is that there are two strings hanging from the ceiling several feet apart. Individuals were given the job of tying the two strings together. It seems simple enough. However, if you grab one string and go to get the other, the first doesn't reach far enough. So what's the problem? The string is too short. The solution is then to attach something to the first string to make it longer so you can then reach the second string to connect them. 

But what if you define the problem differently? The problem could be that the first string won't stay in the middle while you retrieve the second string. The solution could then be to tie the first string to a chair, pull it to the middle and go get the second string. Another definition could be that when you bring the first string to the middle, the second string won't come to you. The solution could then be to tie a weight to the second string and then swing it like a pendulum. Then go get the first string, carry it to the middle and the second string will come to you.

Three distinctly different definitions of the problem each lead to a distinctly different solution. And each solution calls for a different tool. Let's say you defined the problem as the strings are too short. The option of lengthening them only works if you have something to tie on to them. Lacking some extra string, if you can't see the problem differently, you get stuck.

That's why the planning process the city is going through is so important. We need to see the problems and define them from as many perspectives as possible in order to bring a wide array of solutions to the table. In the case of food issues, do we need more supermarkets or do we need more food production? Each definition points to a different solution, or maybe a variety of solutions to address different aspects of the problem.

"In Flint, we discovered that residents in neighborhoods had great ideas, and those ideas became a part of our programming. It was enhanced by their ideas," says Kildee. 

Regarding prospects for Detroit, he says, "There are all sorts of different types of great cities, but each of them is an intentional place. The cities that become great are cities that are not accidental, there is a purpose to the place and the purpose may change. That's the challenge that Detroit has to completely answer. What is the next Detroit and what role will it play in the region. The mistake that most cities make is in believing that things just kind of work themselves out."

The next phase of Bing's process involves 40 smaller neighborhood forums that will consider the tough choices. The size will be more manageable in terms of focusing ideas and getting them into the format of a useable plan. The process isn't perfect — I don't think a perfect process exists. But there is democracy in this process, and valuing people's thoughts. It's easy to stand outside and say what you think others should do. But in the case of Detroit — as big and complex as it is — it's the people walking around in the neighborhoods who bring a real sense of what is and what is needed. That's the difference between having things done with you or to you. Which process do you value?

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]