One year. One city. Endless opportunities.

New Geography

Read an interesting piece on new geography that talks about Detroit's struggles and its potential as a lab for cutting-edge urban planning ideas. I especially dug this rendition of a concept of a "green" Detroit put forward by the American Institute of Architects...


I really hope that city bigwigs like Mayor Bing are paying attention to cutting-edge ideas and visions like this. I'm not saying these AIA guys are all right -- and certainly the illustration above amounts to little more than a broad sketch -- but I'm hopeful that our city leaders are at least mindful that we need a better plan for the layout of this town than what's on the books now.

During a recent interview with the head of the Detroit chapter of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), I was dismayed to find out that a master plan for the city that had taken eight years to create was now more or less obsolete. And I was also a little disappointed not to hear more during the campaigns about land issues in the city or about how they impact everything major issue from crime to Detroit's structural budget deficit (but I also realize that explaining land banks doesn't play as well as to voters as denouncing crime or promising to create jobs).

Now that the elections are behind us, though, I'm looking forward to seeing fresh land-planning policy ideas from the fresh faces. I've heard some OK suggestions from our new leaders about tackling crime and reducing a structural budget deficit estimated at $300 million. But I also think that, in order to really solve these and and almost any of the other problems that Detroit faces today, leadership needs to articulate a clear vision of what our city needs to be tomorrow.

  • Print
  • Comment
Comments (26)
Post a Comment »
  • 1

    You know that's essentially the way the city grew - by annexing the surrounding villages (basically corresponding to the 'urban villages' above). Many of the areas now known as neighborhoods were once independent entities. To name a few

    (date of annexation)

    Chauvin (1908)
    Conner's Creek (1891)
    Forest Lawn (1916)
    Maybury (1915)
    Mt. Olivet (1925)
    Brightmoor (1926)
    Delray (1906)
    Five Points (1926)
    Oakwood (1922)
    Greenfield (1924)
    Ravenswood (1915)
    Rougemere (1922)
    Springwells (part in 1885, more in 1906, the part that had become Fordson was absorbed by Dearborn)
    Warrendale (1925)
    Woodmere (1906)

  • 3

    What are they planning to do ion the urban villages and opportunity areas? How is this different from the old empowerment zones, which cost the government trillions and for the most part still reek of crime and were full of graft?

    Will this be done for free, by the wonderful, positive energy of Detroiters, who have more than enough time and either welfare or newly-renewed unemployment $$$$? Will thousands be out there sweating and rebuilding their city? Or will this be like just about every other government entitlement program that Detroit has received, just big bucks for the next Coleman or Kwame, while the citizens soak it up?

    I've seen way too many government funded ideas to think this will work. There were totally different populations living in Detroit in the '20s, when these areas were incorporated. These groups rose above poverty and discrimination to be generally more successful in the US, unlike the current Detroit dwellers, who are not as industrious.

    See the movie Precious when it comes to Detroit. It was very revealing, but won't open there until November 20th. I happen to be in a city where it played this weekend and it is just great.

  • 4

    Every One is really missing the point about the City of Detroit. It does not matter if you create little communities in the city. That is what cities are to begin with, it is how they start, not how they end.

    The problem is that there is not enough sustainable work, no business to speak of that will employ the people. Even if you "shrink" the city it will not help if there is no business, no good schools, no oppertunity for advancement of the people who live there.

    To bring the masses back the city needs to improve first, lower crime, better city services, and start giving away property to families that will make it work. If some one needs a house just give it to them if it is city property. Let them rehab it and pay no propery taxes for a period of 5 years on the condition that they stay there and fix the house. I know I would sell my house an move if I could get that out of the city, and I'm sure alot of other people would too.

    There is no benifit to living in the city anymore when all the jobs are outside of it. What big jobs are there to be had in Detroit if you don't have a degree in something. You can work at a bar, a hair salon, gas station, restaurant, but there are not enough of those jobs even to keep people employed and food on the table.

    Where is there a mall to shop in in the city? There is not one. Why? every major city I have ever been in has a mall downtown.

    Even our museums are faultering due to people not wanting to go. That is just crazyness in my mind. Every time I have gone to Chicago there is a line to get into every museum, every single one! Here not the case. I would even bet that most people do not know that you can rent the historic museum for $500.00 , That is right $500.00 A weeks pay for most people.

    You know If every one would stop trying to find a solution and just do something for the city we would not be in this huge mess we are in right now. Go to the museum, the zoo, the restaurants, show the people of Detroit that you really do care, and don't leave it up to some one else to fix what we all broke.

    when you start pointing a finger remember there are three pointed right back at you.

  • 5

    Detroit has a unique opportunity to emerge from the desolation of the past 40-50 years and lead the country in a new way of planning living cities. In a sense, Detroit has a clean slate.

    Detroit faces numerous endemic problems: tax foreclosures, mortgage foreclosures, diminished tax base, crumbling infrastructure, some of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country and widespread unemployment. Here are some solutions.

    Tax foreclosures: I wondered if there was any way the homeowner could provide something back to the city in return for reducing owed taxes. Could some type of federal grant provide the homeowner with a small wind turbine or solar panels, which cover electricity used in the household and then “sell” the extra electricity generated back to the grid which is credited to the city? By selling electricity back the homeowner pays down its taxes and the city of Detroit reduces its energy costs. There are numerous state and federal programs with funding already available. Renewable Energy Renaissance Zones, Energy Efficient Home Improvements Tax Credit, Energy Efficiency Grants, etc. These incentives would also foster new industry (green energy manufacturing companies) to relocate to Detroit and create jobs (see below).

    Vacant land use: Community gardens…I've heard it mentioned before, but take the idea a few steps further and it could generate millions for the city of Detroit. Large community gardens which not only sell at a weekly city-wide farmer's market, but also become the “bread basket” for the region by becoming suppliers to the distribution systems already in place.

    If one looks at a map, Detroit is perfectly located to supply food to Cleveland, Chicago, Toledo, Columbus, Toronto and Indianapolis. The combined metro population of these cities is 26,157,174 people.

    City population Metro population
    Detroit 912,062 4,425,110
    Chicago 2,853,114 9,785,747
    Toledo 316,851 650,955
    Cleveland 478,403 2,250,871
    Columbus 754,885 1,773,120
    Toronto 2,503,281 5,555,912
    Indianapolis 798,382 1,715,459
    Total 8,616,978 26,157,174
    Source: wikipedia

    Expand the idea to not only growing organic fruits and vegetables, but also attract organic on-land fish farms. This would generate taxes for the city and as industry moves in – create jobs. (U.S. consumers spent an estimated $69.8 billion for fishery products (U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service 2008 data).

    School system & vacant housing: As i thought about falling graduation rates an idea came that would solve not only the graduation rate problem, but also the empty housing stock problem. California has been laying off teachers. Many of those teachers have had difficulty paying their jumbo mortgages because California housing prices are astronomical. Start a campaign to recruit the best and brightest teachers to relocate in Detroit. They will buy homes, which would raise property sales values overnight, and they will be living in the community spending money.

    Expanding on the vacant housing idea… since 2008 hundreds of thousands of retirees have lost significant portions of their net worth. Start to attract retirees to Detroit using affordable housing and city collaboration as the basis of the campaign. Utilize some of the properties in the land bank to create parks, green spaces and community centers (using empty buildings). This will bring people back into Detroit and will attract the medical industry – creating jobs and tax base. Hospitals, clinics and retirement homes will be needed to serve the population.

    Just some ideas... :)

  • 6

    I think the idea here is to NOT bring masses of people back to the City of Detroit -- but to re-vision it as a smaller more sustainable and self-sufficient place, with room to produce much of what it needs right there locally -- from food to forks. As I have said before, it will take a charismatic leader with a clear vision which s/he can articulate and then inspire people to follow. That's a first step -- having a vision, making a plan of how to get from here to there, and having people buy into it on the individual level first, then as a community, investing in the future in small ways that add up to a whole. Shunning controlling corporate dollars should be part of the plan -- everything on a small, local, sustainable scale, and leave those corporations which put Detroit in this position in the first place right out of it -- if things don't work, they'll sell you out again, so learn from mistakes instead of yearning to repeat them.

  • 7

    The "shrinking Detroit" concept makes sense and it is great to see consensus building around the idea but this is the easy part. The larger and, more important, task of shrinking metro Detroit won't be met with such goodwill. With a stagnant or shrinking regional population it makes no sense to continue the subsidy for building cul-de-sacs and strip malls further and further north and west of the city proper.

    And chalk this up to Burkean skepticism but I'm weary of clean-slatism. Too many theoretical concepts and we'll end up with Robert Moses 2.0 instead of a livable re-vitalized Detroit. The model city urban renewal efforts of the 1950's and the Great Society were rooted in the value of wiping the slate clean. For that matter, so was the French Revolution. Drastic cures are too often worse the initial afflictions.

    Detroit may be better served if we hide all the grandiose plans, charts, and architectural renderings in an archive somewhere. Let's adopt a regional smart growth plan consistent with other metropolitan regions, fund public services and infrastructure where people settle under that new system, and let the chips fall where they may.


  • 8

    Love the notion of green spaces in the city and moving people closer into communities. Native Detroiters have fond memories of neighborhoods, and bringing that notion back will give people more pride, ownership, security, etc.

    Not easy to do, for sure. But what a worthy goal.

  • 9

    This is the best idea for true renovation to come into the public eye. Please keep your blog informed of this and related approaches to restructuring the idle, excessively sprawled 140 sq mile city boundary that once worked well, but now has to be redrawn. It seems like a "win win" for all involved especially if the adjacent suburbs are able to annex the outer rim of villages following an overall plan with local, regional, state and federal support. This could be an important model for other cities which Detroit can be the first.

  • 10

    I would love to move back into my old neighborhood, but the crime rate is too high. I have lived in rebuilding urban areas before, and it was frightening to be around crime and gunshots.

    Until you change the culture, inevitably middle-class people will eventually be scared away. The flight out of Detroit was largely for self-survival. What in any of these plans will change the crime rate???

    • 10.1

      I'm not the planner, so I can't say, but here are some possibles:

      --One problem in the city now is that people are spread out so thinly that police, fire and other safety and security services can't cover the area well. If the population was concentrated in specific areas, it would seem it would be easier to provide those services better.

      --The same problem (people being spread out, lots of vacant buildings) is a good way to breed crime. Again, if people were living once again in closer community areas where there weren't many/any vacant buildings, that should help cut down on crime as well.

      --People with a strong sense of community, living and working together in a specific location, could more easily look out for each other and the new good things they are building and creating, which also could cut down on opportunities for crime.

      --In theory, if people can work and see immediate benefits of their work, such as one would have in a local economy supporting itself, then work is more rewarding and people are more likely to do that instead of turning to crime.

      That last one is more in the realm of theory, but in general, while you will always have a certain number of criminals and crimes, there are crimes committed by the unemployed which would not be committed if they were employed, by people who feel hopeless and are doing drugs or getting drunk because they have no work and nothing positive in their lives -- you should be able to decrease the overall number of crimes by improving conditions, giving people immediately meaningful work, giving them some hope. It won't magically cure generations of dysfunctional culture, but it would be a move in the right direction.

      Just throwing out some ideas....

  • 11

    [...] the New York Times as a must read Idea of the Day. It was also featured at Time (actually, featured twice). This attracted the notice of the Detroit News and [...]

  • 13

    "I'm looking forward to seeing fresh land-planning policy ideas from the fresh faces." " But I also think that, in order to really solve these almost any of the other problems that Detroit faces today, leadership needs to articulate a clear vision of what our city needs to be tomorrow."

    I agree with you, but don't hold your breath. Detroit's post war planning that helped create the freeways, Industrial Parks, Medical center, Lafayette Park, and the civic center also helped make planning a bad word. The 1953 peak in population and subsiquent fall since is rarely connected to the 1000's of displaced residents and neighborhoods that occured from Urban Renewal and eminent domain. Paradise Valley, Black Bottom, Corktown and the riverfront were a few of the neighborhoods that were decimated. Since then, planning has had a bad rap.

    • 13.1

      even as recently as Rivertown and the casinos

      (I'm sooo happy the casinos didn't get the riverfront!)

  • 14

    I was against the Urban Farming idea until I thought about it as a short term solution to urban disinvestment. Using the land for farming is an easy way to create jobs and green healthy locally grown veggies, shrubs, trees, flowers, etc. The land could be reclaimed for neighborhoods at any time, but meanwhile it would be tended to and productive.

  • 15

    I've been following this idea for over a decade and wondering what to do with the vacated in-between land. I think one answer was in an article I read in Scientific American today about veritcal skyscraper farming. MSU is involved in early research in urban farming, and Detroit would make a wonderful testbed for prototypes and full scale development of multistory indoor farms. Bringing REAL food and supporting jobs with a sense of a greater purpose to the citizens would be a wonderful outcome.

    • 15.1

      With the space we have readily available it seems it would be difficult to justify the expense of building a skyscraper in order to farm it.

Add Your Comment:

You must be logged in to post a comment.
The Detroit Blog Daily E-mail

Get e-mail updates from TIME's The Detroit Blog in your inbox and never miss a day.

More News from Our Partners

Quotes of the Day »

NICHOLAS FISHER, expert at Stony Brook University in New York who took part in a study which found that bluefin tuna contaminated with radiation believed to be from Fukushima Daiichi were present off the coast of California just five months after the nuclear meltdown.