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Detroit: rethinking the post-industrial city
Sian Disson

...continued The group was broken up into four sub-groups and looked at the city through the lenses of Social, Environmental, Governance and Economics. Armed with the statistics and interview sessions with members of the Detroit team – Marja Winters, Executive Director of the Urban Land Institute Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use Jess Zimbabwe, and Planning and Design Leader of the Detroit Works Project team Dan Kinkead – before presenting their ideas back to the group in an animated and highly impassioned presentation at the end of the day. It immediately became apparent that each group was approaching the task in a style parallel to their designated theme; Social became intensely animated with much gesticulation and energetic discussion; Governance almost immediately requested to be partitioned off (whether this was for privacy or close proximity to the Social table remains unclear!); Economics approached the topic with structure and originality; and Environmental immediately took to the stationary provided, creating intensely coloured pictorials rather than leaning on literary form to note down their visions.

Two weeks ago, car manufacturer Chrysler reignited interest in Detroit after using polarising rapper Eminem in their new ad campaign aired during the Super Bowl. The glossy television advert lasts around two minutes and features a velvet-toned Detroit native asking ‘What does this city know about luxury?’ This is the key to Detroit’s attitude – Detroiters know they face some serious issues, factors that are hampering their ability to progress and clamour back the air of opulence and expense that once defined them, and they are not too proud to admit that these airs and graces have now diminished. What they do have however is ‘hard work and conviction, and that know-how that runs generations deep in every last one of us’. The core principles remain and will provide the foundations for Detroit’s road to recovery.

After cordoning themselves off from the rest of the room, Governance began an earnest debate about the elements that go into the production of a prosperous city. One of the key aspects that came up time and again was crime – a serious problem in Detroit where youths are more likely to spend time in prison as they are to graduate from high school. Chairman of the Governance group and Deputy Chief Executive at the London Development Agency, Peter Bishop was quick to point out that the management of crime and education is intrinsic to the success of any population and is a major factor in the progression of the Motor City. In the group’s afternoon presentation, Bishop explained the need for Mayor Bing to establish a narrative for the city – an attainable message or mission statement that could define Detroit and be passed from mayor to mayor throughout the generations. Additionally, Bishop affirmed the need for the


city to address the so-called ‘Stoppers’ – crime, education, environment and transport – before families and individuals outside the city would be inclined to move in.

Governance appealed for the panel to discover a solid identity for the city, with the notion that with identity comes community. This may be true, but it seems that a vision of identity is not exactly lacking in Detroit. The Chrysler commercial climaxes with the line ‘This is the Motor City, and this is what we do’, whilst on Wednesday the three members of the Detroit Team readily enforced the idea that a sense of community had remained in the city despite its difficulties.

While conversing with the Environmental team, Jess Zimbabwe took time to embellish upon this sense of ‘One Detroit’. Yes there are still underlying racial issues she confessed, there may be an ongoing tension between the suburbs and city dwellers, but there is always a feeling of mutual respect and community. This proved too much for some on the Social table, who reacted fiercely to Dan Kinkead’s admission that many Detroiters find it difficult to welcome outsiders into the close-knit community; Piers Gough’s exasperation was clear to see.

It was this sentiment that propelled the Social team in their presentation (although with a slightly more positive note!). ‘Don’t fear outsiders’ was the theme, with Detroiters encouraged to make their city more accessible to tourists for short stays or developers and new settlers for the long haul. None of the experts could doubt the ingenuity of the city locals, the entrepreneurial skills and artistic flair that remain in the Detroit community, but all agreed that it is not enough to breed initiative – initiative must also be welcomed from the outside. In a concluding speech, Fred Manson OBE from Heatherwick Studio offered the tagline ‘Base for Place’, a phrase that was readily welcomed by the visiting experts and Detroit design team. In his accompanying speech Manson explained that the city needed to redefine itself as an incubator for innovative design and business experience, exploiting the immense underutilised space for commercial use. A triangular diagram aided the explanation, with a thick economic base, topped with two industries familiar to the city – cars and logistics – tapering to smaller, more localised businesses at the apex.

Mobilising the available space was a concept discussed in some depth by the Environmental team who attempted to disengage with the image of Detroit that is regularly portrayed in documentaries and journalistic articles, where broken shells of buildings and poverty stricken areas are said to encapsulate the ‘real’ Motor City. Headed by David West of Studio Egret West, the Environmental team argued that ‘there is actually nothing wrong with Detroit’, a city ‘blessed with so much land’. Centring on a philanthropic, high tech, futuristic spine, West ran with the line ‘Just Add Water’, and suggested redeveloping the waterfront in an effort to revitalise a compact area of the city. By concentrating on specific areas rather than the entire 2,026 sq mile footprint of the Detroit Metropolitan area, West argued that the city could manage the development of smaller urban hubs or nodes, and allow nature to reclaim the land in between. It was also suggested that sections of this land could be transformed into America’s first Urban National Park in a rebranding exercise to incite domestic and international interest.

John Gallagher, author of the thought-provoking book, ‘Reimagining Detroit’ joined the session by video link around midday and presented his vision for the city. Details of this will be published on WAN



Juliet Davis from the London School of Economics spoke sincerely for the Economics focus group, highlighting the need for reciprocal relationships between large and small scale businesses. Echoing the initiatives outlined by the Social group who focused on skills-based apprenticeships and mentoring schemes, Davis suggested that small scale micro-financing was the way forward for Detroit to establish a rich commercial foundation to generate much needed capital and employment opportunities. This was a point picked up on by all four of the groups, who saw the potential for young, innovative companies to partner the more established businesses still prospering in Detroit’s industrial centre.

An enthusiastic question and answer session ensued led by New London Architecture’s Peter Murray, where the Detroit panel conveyed their views on the ideas generated throughout the day and opened the floor to the experts who responded with many probing questions. The brutal honesty displayed by the professional thinkers in the room was refreshing, with Dan Kinkead declaring: ‘Things aren’t OK in Detroit – it’s got to get better’, followed by a torrent of ideas with suggestions of mass flooding to warehouse parties. One point touched upon by many contributors was an art-based event of national or international proportions, highlighting the richness and diversity of Detroit’s cultural heritage. Ongoing schemes such as the Heidlburg Project have cemented the city as a hub of artistic design and ingenuity, making it a Mecca for creative minds the world over. Many attendees of the WAN Think Tank were quick to emphasise the merits of this industry, with the suggestion of a musical biennale a hit with the three panellists.

One of the many defining tensions that were hotly discussed by the participants was the need for the administration to win over the hearts and minds of the Detroit residents with a plan for the city. A narrative for change had to be created that could be embraced by the community and become theirs, not belong to the transient administration. This was thought to be crucial if long term plans were to not be scuppered every four years.

Summing up, the Detroit team welcomed the opportunity to discuss the city’s issues and explore new ideas with such a wide range of enthusiastic intellectuals in London away from the relentless day-to-day pressure of servicing a demanding city.

Michael Hammond, Editor in Chief at WAN commented: “Despite the stark facts presented at the beginning of the day, the mood at the close of proceedings was noticeably positive. Many felt that despite the city’s significant challenges, it also had untold possibilities. Perhaps more than any other major US city, Detroit had a unique opportunity to become a new kind of American city, a beacon for a greener future founded on integrated transport and services and offering a new way of urban living. Detroit has all the resources. Get the vision right, get the community to embrace it and people will come.”

Click here to view a short film of the Think Tank.

Sian Disson
News Editor



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