It’s impossible to talk about Detroit without talking about poverty. What relevance does design have in neighborhoods lined by miles of abandoned bungalows, where families navigate patchy streetlighting and unreliable bus service? In April, the city government’s ongoing fiscal crisis led to a brokered consent agreement with the state, a last stop before emergency management and bankruptcy.
With the usual systems of power cracked at the core, numerous artists, entrepreneurs, and urban thinkers are experimenting in Detroit, infusing the streets with a slow-burn creativity. But it’s naive—and offensive—to pretend that Detroit is a “blank canvas,” as many newcomers and reporters have suggested. It’s not. More than 700,000 residents live in the city’s 139 square miles. But most haven’t yet benefited from the revival of investment in downtown and Midtown—where companies such as Chrysler, Quicken Loans, and Twitter are relocating thousands of jobs.
A host of neighborhood groups, nonprofits, and other organizations are trying to alleviate the city’s ills, but without the benefit of a strategic framework. Enter Detroit Works, an exceptionally comprehensive—and controversial—planning effort unveiled in 2010 by Mayor Dave Bing and supported by funding from the Kresge Foundation, a $3.1 billion philanthropic organization headquartered in Troy, Mich. The project’s initial launch was inept and acrimonious, with Mayor Bing telling a reporter, “We will depopulate some neighborhoods.” The comment confirmed residents’ fears that the real plan was to force them out of their homes. (Portions of the raucous town halls are captured in the documentary Detropia.)
The city backed off its explicit message of relocation, but the outcry threatened to collapse Detroit Works. So, after some behind-the-scenes restructuring orchestrated by Kresge and the city, the project split into halves. A city-led team is focusing on short-term planning, pursuing immediate resident needs. In August, for example, Mayor Bing announced a multi-year plan to fix the city’s street lights, prioritizing major thoroughfares and stable neighborhoods. The final phase calls for the removal of obsolete fixtures, as a new lighting authority decides the needs of each neighborhood.
“You have to identify those neighborhoods where you want to concentrate your population,” Chris Brown, Detroit’s chief operating officer, told a Bloomberg BusinessWeek reporter in May. “We’re not going to light distressed areas like we light other areas.” In other words, with the declining tax base, the city simply cannot afford to provide the same level of services to every block, requiring decisions that will have a clear effect on residents in “distressed” areas.
Meanwhile, a team of planners is focusing not on the city’s day-to-day, but on its future. The long-term planning arm of Detroit Works is crafting a strategic framework for decision making—not a master plan—that assumes the need to “raise the quality of life for all,” as the program’s leaders defined its primary goal.
Detroit Works could be a game-changer. It could help residents chart a course for their own neighborhoods, become a guide for businesses looking to expand in the city, and help city officials (members of the planning commission and development departments are on the long-term arm’s steering committee) come up with strategic approaches for the investment of scant resources.
Or Detroit Works could sit prettily on a shelf, largely unused. With the final results soon to be released, we’re about to find out whether City Hall will buy in to the long-term vision. The project’s effectiveness depends on the quality of conversations that its champions have with city officials, as well as with business owners, nonprofit leaders, investors, activists, and, of course, the hundreds of thousands of residents who, as one east-sider put it, have “the brilliance of lived experience.” How calibrated Detroit Works is to that brilliance will define its future as rhetoric, or reality.