Over the past few months, Detroit has experienced a renaissance, of sorts. There may be a dearth of public money, a staggering unemployment rate, and mounting poverty, but Detroit has been flush with what is shaping up to be the most important currency of the digital age: coverage. Unfortunately, as can often happen when something receives a burst of attention, Detroit is already seeing backlash from its citizens as it plans to tear down vacant neighborhoods and open large urban farms. Sudden limelight, as many former child stars would tell you, can often be confusing, and can wind up doing more harm than good (especially when visionary ideas get mixed in with plots to teach public schoolkids how to work at Wal-Mart). What’s necessary to turn interest into action is vision, and Mayor Dave Bing’s administration would do well to start offering its constituents a clearer picture of what the city could be if they hope to make headway in Detroit’s fortunes.
For inspiration, Detroit need look no farther than Chicago, which recently celebrated the centennial of Daniel Burnham’s famed 1909 plan of the city. One of the projects that coincided with that year-long event was the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s (CMAP) GoTo2040, a regional, visionary plan featuring recommendations for how Chicagoland can direct growth to shape the region in the coming decades. In fact, Chicago is one of a slew of cities around the world that is reviewing historical urban plans to draw cues for the future of their regions. Barcelona, for instance, recently reflected on the 150-year-old l’Eixample plan; Savannah has begun considering the expansion of its historic grid, the earliest example of a city plan in the US; and Adelaide, Australia is looking back on Colonel Light’s original plans for their city to craft a 30-year plan to rein in sprawl.
When it comes to historical vision, Detroit is hardly lacking. As anyone who’s ever visited the city’s central business district can attest, Detroit features a very unique layout at its core. Rebuilt along plans established by Judge Augustus Woodward after a fire in June of 1805, the city was planned around the central Campus Martius, with arterial roads radiating from that hexagonal plaza out into the surrounding countryside. While it did not follow Woodward’s plans for a series of radial hexagonal campuses extending out as the city grew and opted instead for a more standard American grid, Detroit did grow up along those principal avenues, which all remain major thoroughfares today.
If it was Woodward’s avenues that guided growth in the past, it is a project on today’s Woodward Avenue, named for the Judge himself, that could provide the glue that brings Detroit’s scattered plans together to create a model for right-sizing shrinking cities in the future. The M1 is a privately-planned and funded light rail corridor that will connect Campus Martius, which has seen significant redevelopment over the past few years, with the city’s New Center neighborhood. The 3.4-mile line, which will eventually be absorbed into a larger public transportation network planned for the city, has received Federal funding assistance, and is set to break ground this fall.
This should be especially exciting news for Bing, who’s looking at demolishing 2,500 houses around the city, leveling far-flung neighborhoods and turning the vacant stretches left behind into job-producing urban farms through partnerships with Hantz Farms and RecoveryPark. The M1 and the larger system it theoretically precedes should be positioned as the new arterial around which a re-organized Detroit will center itself. As the city tears down old neighborhoods and relocates their residents to other areas within its 143 square miles, presenting those people being uprooted with solid reasoning and a strong vision will be crucial to accomplishing those relocations as quickly as possible.
Right now, the vision for Detroit’s future is myopic, not necessarily in intent, but in scope. Converting abandoned neighborhoods into farmland could actually be an economic and social boon, but without being presented as part of a larger vision for the city, it’s easy for such a plan to sound like a massive step backward, or even a waving of the white flag of surrender. But contrast the image of today’s Detroit with one where a network of compact neighborhoods stretches out between large agricultural tracts, and parents walk their kids to neighborhood schools in the morning on their way to the trains that take them to the hydroponic greenhouses where they work. Americans seem to have a fixed idea of urban fabric as looking something like a quilt, but there’s no reason it can’t look like a web instead.
If there is the political will and the financial might in Detroit to privately fund a light rail line (which would take a miracle in almost any American city, much less one with Motown’s reputation), there should certainly be enough energy to create a broad, forward-thinking vision for the region to tie various initiatives together into a narrative that the whole city can rally behind. Detroit has everyone’s attention; now it’s time for the city to decide what story it’s going to tell.