Detroit’s Innovative Survival Plan Is A Model For The World- But Will It Work?

Detroit‘s future — or a fascinating version of it
anyway — is laid out in a series of colorful maps,
charts and illustrations papered from floor to ceiling
on the walls of a windowless room in a dingy,
single-story building in the midst of Detroit’s
historic Eastern Market district.
Together, they portray a sustainable metropolis, 50
years in the future, where vibrant neighborhoods
and bustling commercial zones are swaddled by
forests, farms and lakes that protect the city’s air
and water supplies.
Urban planners from as far away as Europe, Russia
and Thailand have flocked to this room lately to
soak up insights from what is likely the most
ambitious and innovative urban makeover strategy
in the world.
“Detroit Future City,” unveiled this week, is a 349-
page game plan for the next 50 years that suggests
channeling future investment toward population
centers, while gradually turning vast swaths of
vacant land into “green and blue” landscapes that
will be not only beautiful but also help the
The culmination of more than two years of study
and 30,000 conversations with the public, Detroit
Future City is less a master plan and more a
guidebook that lays out a path for how Detroiters
can begin the gargantuan task of rebuilding a
decaying city that can no longer afford to provide
even the most basic services to its shrinking
The 2010 U.S. Census, which showed Detroit lost 24
percent of its population over the last decade, was
a wake-up call to many city officials and residents.
At its peak in 1950, Detroit was home to 1.85
million people. Today only about 700,000 live there,
mostly in single-family homes, and that number is
expected to keep shrinking for the next 20 years,
eventually bottoming out around 600,000. Wide
boulevards that once carried eight or nine lanes of
traffic are practically empty. Only 9 percent of
Detroiters use public transit; during peak hours,
buses are only 75% full, compared to 105% average
capacity in other U.S. cities. About 20 square miles
— roughly the size of Manhattan –is vacant.
Clearly, Detroit needs to adapt to its changing
reality. But rather than just shrinking, urban
planners see an opportunity to re-imagine the city,
building on its existing strengths — an industrial
backbone, leading universities and hospitals, and
an abundance of land for redevelopment — while
investing for a modern, sustainable future.
It won’t be easy. The city is in dire financial shape.
Mayor Dave Bing and the City Council are
consumed with trying to stave off imminent
bankruptcy or a takeover by state government. Nor
is there much history of cooperation between
warring factions within City Hall and Detroit’s many
civic organizations. “Detroit Future City” could
easily wind up collecting dust on a shelf, just as the
last citywide planning effort, 1998′s Community
Reinvestment Strategy, did.
The new report argues that Detroit would ease its
financial stress by being more strategic about the
way it spends money. It recommends allocating
limited resources to the most densely populated
areas rather than trying to spread them thinly
across the city. Transportation, workforce training,
new housing and commercial development would
be directed to the busiest parts of the city, while
minimal services would be maintained in less
populated areas. This more strategic approach
would help officials decide, for instance, whether to
upgrade gas mains, sewer lines or street lights in
certain areas — costly decisions that will need to be
carefully weighed.
“It’s not about reducing services, but how can we
operate them effectively and efficiently?” said
Lawrie Robertson of London-based Happold
Consulting, whose assignment was how to optimize
city services, such as reconfiguring transit routes to
concentrate on areas where people live and work.
Clearly, the success of Detroit Future City depends
on building population density around certain
neighborhoods that are already in decent shape and
stabilizing home values there. No one would be
forced from their existing homes, but they would be
offered incentives like home swaps to move to
more populated areas. New multi-family
construction would be directed to these areas as
well. New innovative types of neighborhoods are
envisioned, such as converting obsolete industrial
areas into “live-make” warehouse lofts and artists
communities, or lush “green” neighborhoods,
organized around a man-made city pond, for
Likewise, business investment and industrial
redevelopment would be directed toward seven
existing employment corridors, where about half of
all Detroit jobs are already located. Industry would
receive incentives to acquire nearby land and
regulations would be loosened to make it easier for
entrepreneurs and minority small business owners
to start companies in commercial districts.
Zoning laws would be rewritten so that, over time,
large parcels of abandoned land would be
converted into landscaped open space networks
that would capture and clean storm water, improve
air quality, and clean contaminated soil as well as
provide new recreational opportunities like bike
paths and hiking trails and create habitats for local
wildlife and migrating birds. Underutilized
roadways could be converted into storm water
boulevards, and man-made swales and ponds
would be created to collect rainwater rather than
letting it flow into the city’s overwhelmed sewer
system. Other sustainable ideas include creating
“carbon forests” or banks of trees along freeways
as buffers against pollution.
The key, say the report’s authors — an earnest
cadre of consultants, academics and community
activists — is keeping all stakeholders engaged,
from city officials and community groups, to
businesses and private citizens.
Change, in fact, is already happening.
Philanthropists, business leaders and entrepreneurs
are already finding ways to work around Detroit’s
broken government by rehabbing buildings,
creating jobs, and opening new businesses in the
city. Between 2008 and 2011, 10 foundations have
invested $422 million in the city, spurring projects
like light rail and a downtown riverwalk, and
providing incentives for people to relocate into the
city. Just today, the Kresge Foundation pledged an
additional $150 million over five years to support
the implementation of the strategic framework.
“We’re talking 50 years out, but that doesn’t mean
we have to wait 50 years to see these changes,”
said Dan Pitera, a professor of architecture at the
University of Detroit Mercy, who is director of civic
engagement on the Detroit Future City project


12 thoughts on “Detroit’s Innovative Survival Plan Is A Model For The World- But Will It Work?

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