In Next City, I have a longform article on urban planning in Detroit, and the hope, fear, and possibility of (re)making a city. It opens like this:
In the basement of Detroit’s Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, in the brisk early dark of a February evening, dozens of activists and neighborhood residents come together to talk about the future. It’s a touchy subject. This is Detroit, a city pinned to what went wrong in its past, not what will go right in its future. Organizers ground the discussion in conviviality. The meeting opens with a meet-your-neighbor exercise and will end with bowls of chili served out of tall steel pots. In between, longtime activists discuss Detroit Future City, an unprecedented, philanthropy-backed plan to guide the next 50 years of decision-making in a place that has, to many, become emblematic of backward-looking stasis.
To a casual reader, the sprawling 347-page plan can feel like a kind of Choose Your Own Adventure for liberal urban planners. In one section, authors champion the possibility of transforming vacant land into “carbon forests” to buffer neighborhoods from expressways, and urge the city to “become a national leader in green industrial districts.” Another section imagines the city’s downtown as a center for “new creative, digital, and professional services,” where historic structures are reinvigorated for a “24/7 mixed-use environment.” Elsewhere, “Live-Make” neighborhoods are introduced as a solution for adapting former industrial areas into artistic and residential spaces. In high-vacancy parts of the city, the framework proposes investing in sustainable landscape and incentivizing job creation around productive land use. The word “engagement” appears roughly 61 times in the first 150 pages.
The hope is that Detroit Future City will inspire decision-makers at all levels — block club presidents and city councilmembers, community patrol leaders and investors — to make choices that align with a coherent vision for a city that is working to become whole after decades of bleeding.
... (but) planning in Detroit was fraught with questions about the role of national foundations in local matters, and about how to actualize an urban agenda that arose outside of popular elections. “The foundations, which are really corporations in drag, are making sure that certain neighborhoods are… getting infrastructure improvements, lighting improvements… [while] other neighborhoods are decommissioned,” said Elena Herrada, a Detroit Public Schools board member and city resident who opposes the framework.
There was no vote at the meeting about whether the group supported or rejected the framework. Rather, a cautious, hopeful, ambivalent mood settled in the room. But this was a group attentive to means, as well as ends. They closed with a familiar crescendoing chant: “This is what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!”
Detroit Future City needs that energy if it hopes to transform a city staring down 40 square miles of vacant land, 72 Superfund sites and food insecurity at double the national rate. “We have to let people know this is not for someone else,” (Charles Cross, co-director of civic engagement for DFC) said. “This is for you.”
If Detroit Future City succeeds, it could be the most significant urban turnaround story the country has ever seen. If it doesn’t… well, there’s no plan for that.
You can find a longer (and accessible) excerpt from this story that asks whether "urban planning can rescue Detroit" here.
Meanwhile, Next City is going all out on this strange, beautiful, and provoking place this week, with coverage on, for example, what it will take to bring mass transit to the Motor City and the thumbprint of Detroit in the news.