Detroit's vision and revision
Framework for change looks promising, but watch who controls the reins
Published: January 16, 2013
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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