Forefront Excerpt: Can Urban Planning Rescue Detroit

Forefront Excerpt: Can Urban Planning Rescue Detroit

An introductory excerpt from this week’s Forefront.

Credit: Tanya Moutzalias

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Detroit Future City, a 50-year, philanthropy-backed endeavor, takes on all of Motor City’s most pressing issues. But in a place where any vision for far-reaching change is met with justifiable skepticism, how will this plan to reverse Detroit’s problems differ from the legions of failed efforts that came before it?

In Forefront this week, Detroit-based writer Anna Clark takes an in-depth look at the vision, as well as the movement it is sparking in a city that planners sometimes mistake for a blank slate.

Toni Griffin and Charles Cross are only the latest in a long line to imagine Detroit’s future. Those who try often spin into the weeds. There have been nonsense proposals, like one offered by a group of moneyed libertarians to turn Belle Isle, the city’s 985-acre island park, into a private self-governing commonwealth where citizenship is priced at $300,000, a unique currency — the “Rand” — is adopted, and neighboring Detroiters are employed to build skyscrapers and helipads for the Belle Islanders.

Other imaginings of Detroit’s future are profoundly offensive. It’s been suggested the city be left “in ruins” as a warning story for citizens elsewhere — a bizarre proposal in its erasure of the hundreds of thousands of modern Detroiters, and its notion that the city’s best use is as a museum piece for people who live far away.

On the shaky precedent of imagining a way forward, Detroit Future City is not exempt from stumbling. Its launch, as the Detroit Works Project, was indisputably bad. Rumors that this plan would push residents out of their homes as the city “downsized” its 139 acres were baldly affirmed when Bing indicated that relocating residents was “absolutely” part of the plan. “There will be winners and losers, but in the end we’ve got to do what’s right for the city’s future,” Bing said in February 2010.

Backlash was intense. Community meetings devolved into chaos. Two people then working on civic engagement under Griffin abruptly left the project. The whole initiative was nearly dropped with an ignominious thud. Its second life came in 2011, when at the behest of its major funder — Kresge — Detroit Works split into two. The city took on short-term planning efforts, while a team of local and national planners led long-term planning. The new program management office is a distinct entity, created to turn the ideas into reality.

Why did Kresge prioritize such a tricky project? Wendy Jackson, senior program officer with the foundation’s Detroit and community development team, said the decision grew from Kresge’s “very robust structure and groundwork in Detroit.”

“It was extremely important to look at [a long-term vision for Detroit], not only for how to improve our own grantmaking, but also — looking at where the city was at three years ago — it was clear that a comprehensive framework for the future was imperative,” Jackson said.

Relocation is off the table. However, the framework does suggest incentives for Detroiters to move into denser neighborhoods (about 104,000 of Detroit’s 385,390 parcels are vacant, as are nearly 80,000 of 349,170 housing units). While demand for multi-family housing is rising, the city’s miles of single-family homes are increasingly unused. Somewhat surprisingly, only 88,900 residents live in high-vacancy neighborhoods, compared to nearly 619,000 in more stable areas. However, high-vacancy areas make up 21 percent of the city’s footprint — and images of them have come to symbolize Detroit.

Future City defines high-vacancy neighborhoods as those with “very high rates of both land and building vacancy” that have “largely lost their residential character.” Most of this land is neglected, with a great deal of illegal dumping, and is largely under public ownership. “For those who would choose to relocate (if they had means or opportunity), programs should be developed to allow them to do so,” advises the framework. “For those who choose to stay, it is imperative to ensure that their basic levels of service are met, including provisions for safety and security.” Incentives might include a voluntary house-to-house swap program.

The framework further recommends tiered transportation that would serve high-vacancy areas by providing smaller, flexible and on-demand shuttle services, instead of propelling full-size buses down long routes several times a day with only a handful of passengers rattling in the back, as happens in the current system. Roads with 100 percent vacancy, and no use for through-traffic, would be repurposed as stormwater catchments or green space. Core city systems would take a “maintain only” approach in areas where “the future population level remains uncertain and the infrastructure system is of such an age that prolongation of its renewal is still viable.” DFC takes pains to note that this strategy would be used sparingly, and in respect for how residents and businesses will stake claim to the land in the future.

Is this a plan for divestment from high-vacancy neighborhoods? Not now, at least. Instead it’s a tactic for maintaining basic city systems while focusing upgrades on populous areas. Investment in high-vacancy neighborhoods will model an alternative urban density that measures more than just numbers of people — instead of trying to fill empty homes on a residential street, deconstruction could make way for urban farms and retention ponds, using the land beautifully and efficiently. But divestment is possible in the future, once “maintain only” is no longer practicable for aging infrastructure and either an upgrade or shutdown is necessary. In other words, the plan prepares for divestment but does not implement it: Implementation depends on how many people are living and working in these areas in years hence.

Threaded through Future City is an emphasis on reforming the city’s blight management. Increasing the cost of demolition by neglect will discourage neglectful private ownership; the towering ruin-porn icon Michigan Central train station, last used as such in 1989 and owned by Michigan billionaire Manny Maroun, is the city’s most infamous example. (Maroun’s company also owns the Ambassador Bridge, connecting Detroit with Windsor, Ontario.)

But Detroit Future City’s vision goes far beyond high-vacancy areas.

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