Rebuilding, renewing and revitalizing Motor City through urban planning and design

Wednesday, December 6, 2017 - 6:00pm


Courtesy of the DIA


Detroit — a city whose past reminds us of the American Dream. Once drenched in streamlined chrome and automated wonder, Detroit was the hottest city this side of the Mississippi. Yet, in July 2013, Detroit became the largest U.S. city to file for bankruptcy, leaving the nation and world wondering: What happened to Motor City? What caused this once-booming city center of culture and life to drown in over $18 billion of debt? Many have neglected the glory days of Detroit’s past, making it difficult to see the beauty that once was. Now, in the eyes of the broader American public, the city is decrepit, abandoned and forgotten. However, not everyone has forgotten about Detroit. Margaret Dewar, emeritus professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, has devoted much of her career to research centered around Detroit’s decline. Ellie Schneider, director of advocacy at DC3 is working to rebuild Detroit through design. Dewar and Schneider have not forgotten about Detroit, rather they live for the Motor City and want to restore it to its former glory.

Let’s start from the beginning. Henry Ford test drove his first car on the streets of Detroit in 1896, spearheading the industrial revolution of the Motor City thanks to his innovative building strategy, the assembly line. By the early 20th century, industry was blowing up in Detroit, and during World War II, the same efficient car-building methods helped to quickly produce war-winning weapons for the Allied Powers.

“Its peak population was recorded in 1950, about 1.85 million people,” Dewar explains. About this time, Berry Gordy was making waves in the music industry with his record company, Motown Records. Gordy himself was inspired by the Motor City for more than just the name of his record company. He used “quality
strategies similar to those of auto industry fame to ensure the creation of the best products possible. Gordy’s label gave birth to the gospel-meets-blues-meets-good-time sound of Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and the Jackson Five, to name a few.

The 1950s were good years in Detroit, when it was the fourth-largest city in the United States. The auto industry was thriving and Motown tunes could be heard from the Fox Theater to the Detroit River. People wanted to live in Detroit: It was fun, and there were jobs.. However, the city began to crowd, eventually leading to, as Dewar puts it, “the suburbanization of households.” The city was getting too small for the multitudes of people who wanted to live there, leading to a mass exodus to the surrounding suburban areas. Yet, not everyone could leave the smog for the clean air and spacious yards of Farmington Hills or Bloomfield Hills. The “suburbanization of households” was highly selective in the sense that only privileged, white families could move to the suburbs, whereas Black people were prevented from living in such areas due to racist policies.

“At the same time, industrial processes changed so that single story plants were much more efficient for access to highways, as transportation was changing from railways to trucks,”  Dewar said.

Therefore, many of the jobs that once required city living were suburbanized through the highways and change in transportation methods. Interestingly enough, Dewar said after World War II, Detroit had the same number of manufacturing jobs as people living in the city. In summary, Detroit’s decline, according to Dewar, was caused by “relocation of jobs and relocation of people and that meant loss of city revenues.” The city began to have greater and greater difficulty providing the kinds of services people would expect of their municipal government, which, as Dewar concludes, “drives more people out.” Now, the city that once boasted a population of 1.85 million in 1950 has lost over 60 percent of its population.

Seeing what happens after abandonment is exactly what Dewar’s research addresses. In the book she edited alongside June Manning Thomas, centennial professor of urban and regional planning at Taubman College, “The City After Abandonment,” the duo asks three big questions: What does a city look like after abandonment? What kinds of policies and changes make a difference in what the city becomes? And what should such cities become? Looking at other cities that have experienced population decline on a smaller scale, like Cleveland, and what kind of institutions they put in place to improve quality of life, influence what types of programs can be put in place to truly effect positive change in Detroit.

For Detroit, it seems, the original purpose of the urban planner — to manage growth and development — is unnecessary. However, Dewar’s research raises another question: What is the job of the urban planner when there is no growth, when there is no development? Therefore, Dewar’s work is focused on adding to the development of the city and creating an environment in which it is lucrative for people to come back to Detroit. For example, right now she is working with a task force to try to refinance affordable housing in Detroit.

When asked where she hopes Detroit will be in 10 years, Dewar responds with a laundry list of things that need to occur to revitalize and renew the city.

“Improving quality of life with better city services, more reasonable property tax levels, so it’s not so expensive to live there,” are important to Dewar in ensuring the rebuilding of Detroit. She knows it is a lot to ask for, but Dewar imagines a Detroit where people of all incomes, races and backgrounds can live together in harmony. She wants Detroit to be a place where people want to live, where there are jobs available and reasonable living.

Dewar was drawn to the University initially because of its proximity to Detroit and the opportunity to “engage with the people and communities of Detroit,” as well as because she is “fascinated with the fortunes of big cities.” Ellie Schneider, on the other hand, came into her role in rebuilding Detroit as a lifelong Detroiter with a background as a bankruptcy attorney. Now Schneider is Director of Advocacy at DC3, Detroit Creative Corridor Center, an organization working to revitalize Detroit through design. Schneider explains DC3 as an “economic development organization focused on strengthening Detroit’s creative economy and connecting people to it.” This manifests itself primarily in helping small businesses and creative practitioners to help build the market for design in Detroit making it a hub for creative businesses and activities.

Schneider highlights DC3’s network of designers, Creative Co. Through this network DC3 offers services for small businesses, including help securing contracts and connecting designers with potential clients. DC3 also supports activities and events to highlight the creative talent in Detroit. Schneider points out Drinks Design and the Detroit Design Festival as a few prime examples of emphasizing the creative communities emerging throughout the city. One of the biggest efforts of DC3 occurred in 2015, when UNESCO appointed Detroit as the only city in the United States as a certified UNESCO City of Design. DC3 played a huge role in helping Detroit obtain this designation — Schneider reports that she handled a lot of the application process. Since that victory, DC3 has been focused the ways in which design, as Schneider said, “can help Detroit to become a more sustainable and equitable city over the next 10 years.” Schneider and DC3 want to harness the creative energy of Detroit and use it to revitalize, renew and repower the city, because according to her, “creativity and design play a role in building a stronger city and community altogether.”

Detroit’s new title as a UNESCO City of Design means that it is now a part of a global network of cities from Cape Town, South Africa, to Shenzhen, China, focused on creativity and using that creativity to strengthen the economy and increase opportunities for the city’s residents. Schneider explains: “This network puts value on culture in the intangible sense.” Everything in culture, from furniture to film and gastronomy to galleries helps to create jobs and build a better, more sustainable city.

Now the question is: What can Detroit do with its designation as a UNESCO City of Design? What does this mean for the future of the city? According to Schneider, it means looking at other cities and how they have used this designation to their advantage and then looking at Detroit’s unique perspective to improve the city. The plan for DC3 and Detroit City of Design, Schneider hopes, will be “reflective of what our strengths and challenges are as a city.”

One may see Detroit as a sports city, a music city or even a motor city, but Schneider sees the future of Detroit as a city of design, and the future is now. Schneider reports: “Detroit houses the highest concentration of commercial and industrial designers in the country.” The hope is that through education, programming and policy the future designers of Detroit will see the power in the creative. Schneider explains there are a lot of great things happening in Detroit as far as design, “from the super corporate to the super grassroots,” but they are disconnected. Therefore, in the future DC3 hopes to cultivate a better network and community centered around a mutual respect and passion for design.

When asked where she sees Detroit in 10 years, Schneider said she wants design to play a bigger, more visible role in the city’s economy. This seems like an attainable reality thanks to the work at DC3. Yet, one cannot speak of the future without mentioning children; as the immortal Whitney Houston declared in “Greatest Love of All,” “I believe the children are our future / Teach them well and let them lead the way.” Therefore, Schneider emphasizes her hope that young designers will pursue careers in the field of design. But first, there needs to be a shift in mentalities to ensure that today’s youth are encouraged to pursue their creative passions instead of being deterred by lack of funds for the arts in public schools or preconceived and archaic notions that pursuing a creative career is a life sentence to starving artist status.

It is no shock that like many creative fields, design is lacking in terms of diversity. Schneider hopes that she can change that with education, workshops and hands-on creative opportunities for children. The future shakers and makers of Detroit are the children. Therefore, DC3 puts a huge emphasis on supporting programs and institutions that help to enhance the creative, young minds at work in Detroit. This starts with cultivating talent and letting kids know creative jobs are possible. Grace in Action and Living Arts are two of countless programs put in place to empower Detroit’s youth through art and design, from screen printing to graphic design. In addition, institutions of higher education are trying to appeal to a high school student audience as well in order to promote talent and curiosity. The University’s own Architecture Prep program introduces Detroit high schoolers to the practice of architecture through a semester-long college prep course on the discipline. In addition, Lawrence Technology University provides summer programs for high school students in order to cultivate future students of technology and design.

DC3 is not trying to create new programs — Schneider said that would be “impossible and irresponsible.” There are great programs and organizations in Detroit doing amazing work and DC3 wants to strengthen and support what is already out there instead of launching something new. One thing DC3 will be launching in early 2018 is its full strategy for cultivating Detroit’s creative economy over the next 10 years. Schneider guarantees “the education piece is absolutely imperative in order to think about any strategy that will be effective in 10 years. … I mean we are talking about the people who will be Detroit’s designers 10 years from now.”

“At this time in the world right now so many of us are closing in and withdrawing,” Schneider said. “I feel so fortunate that Detroit has this connection right now to these other cities around the world, dealing with a lot of the same challenges we are.” This global network of cities has been brought together, despite geographical or cultural barriers, for their passion for design and change. “For us to be able to not only see what other cities are doing, but also to promote the really innovative ways in which Detroit is navigating,” Schneider said. Yet, Detroit has a different perspective; as Schneider explained, “we have basically no government resources to support our work.” Therefore, now more than ever a platform for the exchange of ideas and a network built on innovations is crucial for the change that needs to occur.

Outsiders see Detroit as a city that is stuck in the past. Yet, there are those few revolutionaries that see beyond the Detroit of yesterday and look forward to the Detroit of tomorrow. As cheesy as that may sound, the people who are changing the city for the better are doing so from the ground up.

For some, like Margaret Dewar, this means literally from the ground up. From a glance, the green spaces in Detroit are a lovely addition to the surrounding grayness. But did you know that urban planners are using installations of greenery to control water and prevent an over-flooding of sewage systems? That unseen work of the unsung urban planning heroes is what will bring Detroit back to its former glory days.

Yet, Detroit’s legacy of innovation is not dead; it is refashioning itself into something different. Similar to Ford’s industry-shaking assembly line, Detroit is living through a renaissance of innovation. Now, the Motor City is officially City of Design, at least according to UNESCO. Henry Ford would be proud of the innovators making waves in Detroit and modernizing the city for the future and beyond. While Detroit is no longer the industrial hub it once was, it can be a center for design and creativity, according to Ellie Schneider and DC3. Detroit can be restored to its status as the capital of industry once again, only instead of automotive it is design-motive.

“Sometimes down, but never out / Take strength in us, your people / Stay up Detroit”

— Eminem, Letter to Detroit