50-year Roadmap to Detroit's Future

50-year Roadmap to Detroit's Future

The Detroit Future City planning document is about 350 pages long---literally the size of a book.

Credit: Detroit Future City

Placemaking Among Ruins

Placemaking Among Ruins

Terina Davis sits on the steps of a building in her apartment complex on Whittier Street in Detroit, now vacant, where a young man was murdered. Her block was once thriving until an absentee landlord, squatters, drug dealers, and a fire destroyed most of the apartment buildings.

Credit: Sarah Schmid

Home Sweet Home

Home Sweet Home

Terina Davis visits with a guest inside her apartment, a light-and-plant-filled oasis in an often chaotic block on the east side of Detroit.

Credit: Sarah Schmid

A Haven for Squatters

A Haven for Squatters

The back-alley view of Terina Davis' apartment complex on Whittier Street in Detroit.

Credit: Sarah Schmid

Broken Home

Broken Home

An inside view of a building inside Terina Davis' apartment complex on Whittier
Street in Detroit.

Credit: Sarah Schmid

Blowing in the Wind

Blowing in the Wind

A piece of garbage hangs off a tree behind Terina Davis' apartment complex on Whittier Street in Detroit.

Credit: Sarah Schmid

Community Engagement

Community Engagement

Dan Pietra, co-leader of civic engagement for the Detroit Works office of long-term planning, hands out copies of the Detroit Future City framework document at a press conference on Jan. 9, 2013.

Credit: Detroit Future City

Leave No Detroiter Behind

Detroit residents at a press conference announcing the Detroit Future City framework document, a 50-year roadmap to a revitalized city.

The Opportunity Detroit Vision

The Opportunity Detroit Vision

A rendering depicting the Opportunity Detroit plan in downtown Detroit.

Credit: Rock Ventures

Cadillac Square

Cadillac Square

A rendering of what the Cadillac Square would look like under the Opportunity Detroit plan.

Credit: Rock Ventures

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view the Detroit Future City exhibition. There’s even a toll-free number (1-800-234-7184) people can call for more information on the Detroit Future City plan.

Detroit Works itself is not technically a city office, though it considers city government a major stakeholder in the project. The final Detroit Future City document is an offshoot from the 2010 “rightsizing” effort attempted by Mayor Dave Bing that outraged Detroit residents, particularly those living in neighborhoods targeted for resettlement. Detroit Works split from the city’s department of planning and went on to produce the framework plan.

Dan Pitera, co-leader of civic engagement for Detroit Works’ office of long-term planning and a professor at University of Detroit-Mercy, says now that the information-gathering and analysis portion of the Detroit Future City project is over, the next task is trying to define the tactics of engagement necessary to unpack it.

When the framework document was released in early January, the Kresge Foundation immediately pledged $150 million in existing grants for work that furthers any of the Detroit Future City objectives. “It’s not new money, and that’s a good thing,” Pitera says. “If Kresge would have put out a large sum, other foundations might not have aligned. It’s not about creating new money, but aligning in a new way.”

Pitera also wants to keep community skepticism that one community partner’s agenda will receive priority over another to a minimum because his office spent so much time building relationships and engaging with a variety of city residents. For instance, there was a “roaming table” set up on random street corners or places like the Rosa Parks Transit Center downtown where Detroit Works staffers would hold one-on-one city planning conversations with whoever sat down and wanted to talk. To appeal to younger people, gaming and social networks were incorporated into the information-gathering process. Telephone town halls were held to appeal to those age 75 and older.

Pitera says the data shows the exhaustively inclusive process paid off: 14 percent of respondents ended up being under age 17, an “unheard of” number; a good thing since they’re the ones who are more likely to still be living here in 50 years. More than 20 percent were in the age 18 to 35 demographic, and 61 percent were female.

Detroit Works hosted meetings, but it also made an effort to go out and attend existing meetings held by block clubs, churches, and other community organizations. Detroit Works made itself part of the agenda, Pitera points out, and had three mandates: To be as transparent as possible, to be accountable, and to interrupt people’s lives as little as possible by going to them. The work was conducted much like a political campaign in terms of the amount of “shoe leather” expended and the effort to canvass every corner and demographic in the city.

The most surprising thing to Pitera about the whole thing was how enthusiastically people responded in a place that has already been “planned to death,” though often with hiccups along the way that eventually derail the planning. “To see people willing to engage and still be hopeful and excited drove our passion forward,” he adds. “A lot of the work was taking neighborhood-level engagement to a city-wide level, where the scale of the city can be paralyzing.”

Since so many of the Detroit Future City action items will require city participation and, often times, significant policy changes, Pitera says the Detroit Works staff held monthly roundtable discussions with government agencies. Detroit’s city government has the reputation of being a bloated, overly bureaucratic monolith, but he says that’s not entirely true.

“It’s not the folks in government who don’t want [reforms], but the systems in place that prevent it, particularly when it comes to land use,” Pitera notes. “There’s lots of criticism of our city government, so no plan should hinge on any one entity, including government—that’s really unsustainable.”

Marja Winters, deputy director of the city’s Department of Planning and Development, says that when her office first began meeting with Detroit Works there were a few surprises, but along the way the framework’s findings “validated points we felt but couldn’t quantify.”

One such point was whether it was more important to create jobs within the city of Detroit, or increase access to other places in the region where there were already more jobs. “The community overwhelmingly said it’s very important to have jobs within the city limits,” Winters explains. “Now it’s not just us who thinks that, the community does too. That was an ‘a-ha’ moment.”

Winters says work is already underway internally to amend zoning documents, but she points out that any official changes to zoning ordinances will have to be approved by city council, which is always a dicey prospect in the highly charged political atmosphere of today’s Detroit.

“It’s good that we have the momentum of the plan being done,” Winters adds. “Along the way, there are things that can be implemented now through pilot projects. It would be to the benefit of the city and state to work within the confines of the [framework] document. More good can come from going down this path than not, and I think the state sees the value of this work.”

According to the framework document, what’s key to the city’s future is focusing support to three or four strong core clusters of business—digital tech, eds and meds, design, and manufacturing—instead of relying on one industry.

“We disagree with the idea that industry will be gone,” Pitera says. “It will be present, but in a different form. It can be a clean and green industry making solar cells for cars, or a food and beverage development industry. Think of Eastern Market as a hub for the entire state, and that’s where urban agriculture fits in—processing, packaging, all of that. That’s what industry means. It’s not just things that relate to building cars— these buildings can be repurposed for other things.”

Also, in addition to the traditional downtown-Midtown-Corktown axis of development, Pitera says there’s an untapped opportunity in the corridor of northwest Detroit that includes … Next Page »

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com.

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  • Bill Ghormley

    Thank you for providing a reality-based picture of where Detroit is, and where it is aspiring to be — and yes, Pittsburg is a good model to learn from! Reading this makes me want to know a lot more — I will study the city maps — and look forward to your further observations.

  • Chris

    I would love to move to Detroit after college but as I look online there aren’t too many maps on the future and the maps they have are pretty bad could you find out if there will be an interactive map online anytime soon. Thanks and the article was a great read