We Are You, You Are Us
Dan Kinkead makes a point of mentioning that he lives in Detroit when he meets with city residents. He’s raising a daughter here. His stake in the city’s future as a member of the Detroit Works planning team is not just professional, it’s also personal. This is an important point. As a young white planner in a city dominated by working class black people, he’s viewed as an outsider telling locals what to do. His personal asides are meant to communicate an alliance with residents as he presents data that emerged from nearly three years of planning work.
Kinkead is an architect with Hamilton Anderson Associates (HAA), a firm founded in Detroit in 1994 with a holistic approach to architecture, landscape, and planning. HAA was chosen to help lead the technical team of Detroit Works’ long-term arm by Kresge, which is bankrolling the effort with $2.7 million. (The Ford and W.K. Kellogg foundations added $3 million to aid the technical team and community outreach.) Kresge officials have already pledged support for initiatives that arise from the project’s research.
HAA’s office is in Detroit’s Harmonie Park, a part of town with a charged history of urban planning failure. Locals are cultivating the revival of the area’s legendary Paradise Valley arts district, adjacent to the Black Bottom neighborhood (named for its rich soil) where much of Detroit’s black community lived prior to World War II. In Black Bottom, boxer Joe Louis grew up, trained, and, as reigning world champion, sponsored the Brown Bombers softball team. Jazz and blues clubs thrived, as did theaters and speakeasies.
But, in the name of “urban renewal,” the city began demolishing swaths of Paradise Valley and Black Bottom in the 1940s and ’50s. In their stead came the I-75 and I-375 freeways and the 78-acre Lafayette Park complex, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as a model neighborhood (and is home to, more recently, Comerica Park and Ford Field). With no relocation plan, many displaced residents moved into housing projects. The community’s decimation is a charged memory that fuels suspicion about Detroit Works. Hence the need for Kinkead to send the message to residents: We are you, you are us.
Kinkead reports to Toni Griffin, who heads long-term planning and, like HAA, was handpicked by Kresge. Griffin also directs the City University of New York’s Bond Center on Design for the Just City, so she comes and goes from Detroit. As the on-the-ground lead, Kinkead fields questions and explains the project’s tentative findings at community meetings, where he starts conversations with a 50-minute presentation. At a recent meeting, the piles of information proved overwhelming to some residents, who, poised to take notes, slowly put down their pens.
One attendee said that Kinkead made an impressive effort to be transparent by “putting all the cards on the table,” a crucial counter to obfuscating tactics of past planning projects and residents’ suspicions that Detroit Works was only looking to sell a plan it had already made. But, the attendee added, “You don’t need to show all the cards at once.”
This is one of the project’s biggest challenges: sharing a large amount of data in a way that engages residents instead of overwhelming them. “We’re trying to take this massive thing and land it so precisely on the ground,” Kinkead says.
The project’s long-term effort considers 14 quality-of-life factors, such as safety, health, and mobility. It introduces a goal for each (for example, crime-free neighborhoods) and suggests metrics (a reduction in crime relative to total population) and strategies to achieve those goals (forming effective community watch groups, say). The framework emphasizes that residents can define their own priorities and their own ways to measure progress. The analysis moves from hyperlocal to citywide, encompassing land use, sustainable neighborhood revitalization, and infrastructure; it details ways that government, private, and other Detroit-focused initiatives can be better aligned with each other.
Nothing will improve quality of life more than the reinvention of the economy, the plan stipulates. Detroit needs job growth within city limits and a strengthened tax base. While most U.S. cities have between 35 and 75 jobs per 100 residents, Detroit has 26, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the nonprofit Initiative for a Competitive Inner City. Twenty percent of Detroiters don’t have a high school degree. And even though the volume and usage of Detroit’s industrial land surpasses that of peer cities, 22 percent is underutilized.