Detroit to Test Out Zoning for the “Urban Life We Want”

"Pink Zone" project to identify hurdles to development.

Detroit wants to spur development of small business, like Astro Coffee, downtown. (Photo by Sam Beebe via Flickr)

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Plenty of cities want to boost small business development, but that’s harder to do when zoning and regulatory requirements stand in the way. In a bid to ease some of those burdens, Detroit is sourcing designs for revived neighborhood main streets. According to the Detroit News, under the “Pink Zoning Detroit” initiative, announced this week, the city has put out a call for urban planners, architects and designers to propose concepts for walkable, mixed-use development in three commercial sites in Detroit. Those designs will then be tested against the city’s zoning ordinances and building code in order to identify what hurdles exist to the kind of development the city wants to see.

“For us, it’s just kind of crazy that the urban life that we want is actually inhibited or stymied by the very rules that are supposed to enable them to happen,” said Maurice Cox, director of the city’s Planning and Development Department. “We turn this upside down and say: ‘Let’s visualize the reality of this urban life that we want. Let’s look at where our current regulations don’t allow it and let’s just change the rules.’ This process will get us that.”

Funded through a $75,000 grant by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the project will support three multidisciplinary teams as they develop their designs. After winners are notified in late September, they’ll spend six months researching and designing their proposals, with recommendations expected in spring 2017. Cox said pilot “pink zones,” where the city will test relaxed regulations, could be identified as early as next summer.

James Macmillen, a doctoral candidate and fellow in the planning department who is leading the project, told the Detroit News that after the bankruptcy, the city has an opportunity to reform zoning and building codes — particularly as they relate to startups. “It’s currently a hard ask for small business owners to go back and forth to city departments,” he said. “To that person, we would say: ‘We want to make your life easier.”

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Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at

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Tags: urban planningsmall businessdetroitinclusionary zoning

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