"If you don’t bring opportunity and hope you get violence and dope.” -Heaster Wheeler
Indicators of decline in Detroit are easy to find; nonetheless, high energy prevailed among the participants of the Legacy Cities Design: Bruner Loeb Forum 2013. The statistics are grim. One in 3 Detroit residents lives in poverty. Labor underutilization exceeds 50 percent. Ninety thousand structures are slated for demolition on 60 square miles of abandoned land, a third of it already devoid of buildings. Detroit’s bankruptcy and state-mandated emergency manager are unique, but the other problems are similar to those many Legacy Cities are facing. So what is the basis for optimism?
At the outset of the Forum, Toni Griffin (LF ‘99), director of the J. Max Bond Center on Design for the Just City, which co-coordinated and co-sponsored the event, stated the charge for the assembly: to learn from key successes in Legacy Cities, examine struggles and failures and begin to catalogue project innovations. She also challenged the group: "This room is a network. How can we build and grow it to maximize its usefulness?” A dozen Loebs and additional GSD folks attended the gathering, and they’re not inclined to don rose-colored glasses; in fact, they’re rather pragmatic. They provide some insight into how the Forum did in meeting its objectives.
"What strikes me after these two days is how bloody complicated solving the problems is in Legacy Cities,” reflected Rick Reinhard (LF ‘96). "Complex problems require a complex set of solutions. By comparison my job [as deputy executive director of the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District] is easy. This is not a decade-long process; there needs to be a 50-100 year plan, which is challenging because politicians have a short term tenure and view.”
Bob Shibley of the School of Architecture and Planning at SUNY Buffalo pointed out, "There’s no silver bullet, no superstar, no angel, no overnight success.” Instead, he and others saw small "friendly” neighborhood projects as a vehicle to have conversations with the community about larger needs and changes.
"Even many highly blighted high-vacancy areas have strong communities,” said Dan Pitera (LF ‘05), director of Detroit Collaborative Design Center and one of the Forum organizers. Detroiters are hungry for change and participate strongly to address ways to revitalize the city and create jobs, even in meetings for dry topics like zoning policy.
There was consensus at the Forum that communities’ participation is critical. Chris Reed (associate professor of landscape architecture) said, "There have to be partners among people on the ground and organizations active in the communities. They will be the stewards of the results. So the designers and facilitators become curators of interventions, effects and relationships.”
Maurice Cox (LF ’05) is director and associate dean for community engagement at Tulane City Center. He’s received national acclaim for his ability to incorporate active citizen participation into the design process while achieving the highest quality of design excellence, and he continues this work in a wide range of initiatives with Tulane architecture faculty and students throughout New Orleans. On the second day of the Forum he presented a selection of small scale projects in his city that have reverberating community impact.
"This is hard work, it’s complex, and it has profound impacts on people who don’t have a seat at the table,” he said. "We have to remind ourselves every day we are obligated to embody their interests for social and economic equity. When people are leaving the community, we talk about the challenges in making it livable to attract people so they’ll move there. People who have stayed get another message and they wonder, ‘aren’t we good enough?’ These people are deserving of quality, but they’re used to it not being on the table. If we can make the community livable for the people who are there, it will attract people who want to be a part of it.”
Liabilities and assets
The strong capacity and activism of Detroit neighborhoods is one asset, but Pitera pointed out that additionally some liabilities may be seen as strengths. He challenged the prevailing wisdom about population in Legacy Cities: "We all talk about the declining population and need for repopulating Legacy Cities. Well, this country isn’t known for dense cities. Atlanta has the same landmass as Detroit and a population of 443 thousand. Detroit has 701 thousand. But Atlanta has pockets of density and job clusters, with a policy to employ city residents. We have an opportunity create job clusters as we look at areas like the old Fashion district and a potential Eds and Meds corridor.”
Reinhard thought so many of the neighborhoods he saw would be great places for new immigrants if the policies didn’t unfairly prevent this. "As it is the pipeline has dried up. Hopefully this will change soon.”
From his vantage point as head of the technical team that developed the Landscape, Ecology, Environment section of the Detroit Future City report, Reed noted, "In Detroit vacancy is being seen as opportunity, which changes the conversation and the perception of open land. There’s a broader idea of what a productive landscape can contribute to the urban setting.”
Kathy Fox (LF ’02) said that although Detroit has one of the lowest levels of entrepreneurship in the U.S., she was impressed with the bright spots she saw of growth and social entrepreneurship. "There’s a generational thing: younger people want to do business and make the world better. This has to be put against the nostalgia for the past and fear of change by some residents.” History must be honored.
Fox is a Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) fellow in Youngstown, Ohio, a Legacy City far smaller than Detroit and thus with problems at a different scale. There are also fewer assets, and she appreciates the strong engagement between the University of Detroit Mercy and Detroit and the benefits of having a community design center. "There’s a role here for partnerships and big-D design,” said Pitera.
Next City blog, a new media partner for the Forum