Although the city of Detroit is not technically the most rapidly shrinking city in the United States, its role in the larger narrative of de-industrialization gives it some claim as the epicenter of urban shrinkage. The effects of sprawl, beginning with the mid-century federal housing and transportation policies that were pursued with particular vigor in Detroit in the hope of protecting the “Arsenal of Democracy,” have been dramatic. While the metropolitan region continues to grow in scale and population (until very recently), density continues to decrease. The central business district possesses an eerie aspect as a result of the presence of dozens of vacant parcels and abandoned buildings, some of a surprisingly large scale. Some surrounding neighborhoods mirror this condition and often appear genuinely rural in character. Most readers are all too familiar with this narrative of Detroit as a confounding landscape that somehow retains its sense of urbanity while it strains under the weight of absence; a bellwether of all that is “POST - industrial.” In fact Detroit has often been used metaphorically as a post-script or perhaps even an epilogue for modernism in general. She has been studied, maligned, lamented, and essentially been a victim of drive-by artistic exploitation [i.e. “ruin porn” produced mostly by outsiders] ad nauseum. In many recent portrayals the gaze remains fixated on the morbidly sublime; the city as an allegory for the failures of modern capitalism at best, but more often just a simple caricature of urban failure. Although strictly speaking those representations may reflect reality, most attempts to tell this story are severely limited by their own frame of reference: the author’s arm’s-length perspective; the running time of a marketable documentary; or the requirement for a dramatic cover story headline. The camera’s gaze must be framed somewhere within our expansive 139 square miles, and how can it not focus on the void? Perhaps it is easy to forget that cities are the most complex of all human cultural endeavors. Cities evolve quite slowly with participation from millions of individuals, and the reasons for their transformation and their waxing-and-waning over time are nearly infinite. Likewise, the current reality is complex. Detroit is not a simple metaphor. If one is willing to look, there are many alternative views of the city that set the stage for its future if we can move beyond the obvious characterization. However, for any designer considering the future of a contemporary shrinking city it is in fact difficult to avoid questioning the shifting role of negative space in the urban fabric. The pervasive condition of vacancy has become a significant component of the city’s very identity. The voids of streets, parks, vacant lots, and even unoccupied buildings begin to blur together to such an extent that the normative condition of void as connective tissue is lost. The pervasive void within an urban milieu also brings with it an undeniable sense of freedom and expectation. Much intellectual energy has been devoted to mourning the loss that this represents, as discussed above, or conversely celebrating the urge to capitalize on these circumstances with grand visionary schemes, nostalgic “new urban” models, or other more thoughtful but less familiar visions. In the words of Ignase de Solà-Morales Rubió; these spaces are “void, absence, yet also promise, the space of the possible, of expectation.” 1 So for those who are perhaps a bit more optimistically inclined, this second popular version of the story casts the city as a locus of peculiar possibilities; the unknowable and provocative promise raised by a condition that has moved so far and so quickly from its past that the potential for a progressive new urban condition is almost palpable. But even the storytellers who are fascinated with more positive examples of emergence in the city often require a process of reduction in order to make a compelling story-line. The gaze must again focus on a simple view in order to articulate the theme and complete the allegory; in this case an allegory of a city perpetually on the cusp of renewal. This second narrative casts Detroit variously as: a strange kind of garden city; America’s first new agrarian city; an urban frontier of creative freedom; the ultimate playground for landscape urbanism (or other as-yet-unnamed urban design mantras); or a city where effective action is thought to come exclusively from small-scale grass-roots social entrepreneurs. Again, to some extent these characterizations are all true, but reductive. Let’s not limit the complexity of the narrative of a place, its people, and its evolution for the sake of the avant-guard “PRE-something-not-yet-named” emergence theme. The story of Detroit’s de-evolution cannot be reduced to racial conflict and the implosion of the automobile industry, and likewise, what is emergent in that fertile urban territory left in the wake of de-industrialization is as rich and varied as the complexity of a woodland ecosystem. It may also be useful to point out that these polarized meta-narratives are distinctly focused on the past and the future at the expense of the present moment. If one is able to resist the simplistic views of the city as primarily abandoned or primarily pregnant with the expectation of a provocative future, then it can be assessed much more objectively. A particular space within the city may have a rich history that has been lost, so to speak, but if a wetland emerges in that space, we may be more effective in finding a productive alternative for that space if we consciously resist the temptation to give it a symbolic value that either longs for the past or revels in a provocative but unattainable future. So if “Detroit is a land of multiple narratives, and in the vein of Goodman’s descriptive relativism, all of these narratives are true,”2 how then can we tease out common threads in the context of an overall theme of pluralism? Several overlapping issues may help to reveal a pattern, but the pattern in this case is a tapestry that is evolving piece-by-piece rather than being set forth a priori. For many years Detroit has evolved without any clear overarching principles guiding development priorities, or any truly functional form of central authority to pursue a plan if one had existed. In fact many have argued that Detroit has such a robust culture of non-profit development and such a strong history of grass-roots initiatives precisely because a functional or effective means of directing such a vast territory has been nonexistent in the recent past. (Although the city has been through many planning processes in the past, most of these efforts could essentially be characterized as studies that never resulted in a real plan.) Without coherent objectives that could guide a conversation about what is in the best interest of the collective, it is not surprising that instead we find a passionate commitment to a working style that favors small, incremental, home grown moves. Even so, there are a wide variety of successful redevelopment strategies in the city from very small grass roots initiatives that essentially have no budget and emphasize an improvisational process, to large infrastructural projects that involve complex planning and design efforts with budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars. Regardless of scale, many current initiatives in the city, both those discussed at length in the following articles as well as others too numerous to name share several common characteristics. The first common theme is a strategy of incrementalism. Operating within a context of very limited financial resources, in order to build capacity and momentum from the drawing board to reality, many projects intentionally start very small and grow over time as small steps become successful. A second common theme is that much of the work now occurring in the city happens in an uncoordinated fashion without a guiding entity or plan that governs the relationship between individual projects. In some ways this proliferation of uncoordinated approaches is somewhat reminiscent of our contemporary digital networks. There is an “open-source” feel to the sum of these urban initiatives. The metaphor is not exact as there isn’t really an active sharing and peer modification of ideas, but all of the work happening in the city can be seen as being connected in a loose affiliation of concepts, values, and even common team members. Everyone has their own way of adding to the collective system, without the presence of an over-arching guiding source of control. That open-source approach also tempers the way incremental plans are considered. Instead of pre-planning many phases that are meant to be realized in sequence, the combination of these two trends may result in plans that are treated as living documents that emphasize objectives over techniques, process over specified physical outcomes. Finally, one sees in these examples how deeply the community values the importance of local control. Much of the history of Detroit in the 20th Century involved tensions resulting from a lack of local participation at best but often from more insidious forms of discrimination and disenfranchisement. This has resulted in a deep-seated mistrust of all forms of centralized authority, both those that are local, but especially those that are imported. So even at a juncture when the need for an articulation of common objectives is abundantly clear, it is likely that those objectives must out of necessity be loose enough to allow for different points of emphasis and different approaches from diverse neighborhoods within a vast sprawling city. Several projects are worth noting here as examples. At a very large scale, a public private partnership was formed recently to transform Detroit’s riverfront. A non-profit entity called the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy that involved dozens of high profile civic leaders was established with the goal of revitalizing public access to the Detroit River front. An 8.8 kilometer project is underway including a boardwalk and adjacent parks and other amenities. Over half of the project has already been completed. The hybrid public / private structure allowed for a wide variety of funding sources including public funds, grants from foundations, and private investment. Another infrastructure project that is well underway is a 15 kilometer light rail system running from the city center near the river to the northern edge of the city. The M-1 Rail Project is also being pursued as a similar public / private enterprise, but in both of these large scale examples, the themes of an incremental approach based on very localized control, and an open process are evident. At the smallest scale one could begin with a project that literally started one square inch at a time. The Loveland Real Estate Project is an innovative quasi-virtual development strategy that essentially encourages people to invest in Detroit by purchasing land one square inch at a time. In reality this project has served as a micro-grant agency that through an open-source approach is able to fund slightly more ambitious plans. For example, this form of “inchvestment” has now spawned a project called Imagination Station. “The Imagination Station is a new nonprofit whose first job is to clean up 2230 and 2236 14th street…The house on the right will be renovated into a community media center using sustainable green practices. The burned out shell of the house on the left will be disposed of and its boundaries used as a public art space. Through this process, the Imagination Station aims to create a replicable model of redevelopment fueled by traditional partnerships and grant practices, as well as new social media techniques for fund-raising, storytelling, and volunteerism”.3 This project, like other similar projects in the city brings together a loose collective of artists, entrepreneurs, designers, and volunteers who work collaboratively on all aspects of the project’s development and realization. Perhaps the greatest value of these kinds of micro-projects is not necessarily the transformation of the specific sites that they choose to take on, but their ability to leverage greater and greater resources that may eventually enable more elaborate plans to become feasible. At the middle scale, which is perhaps the most fertile, a hybrid condition of grass-roots, pulled-up-by-the-bootstraps development consciously seeks to anticipate an intermediate level of planning. The Roosevelt Park Project by Noah Resnick of uRbanDetail and Tadd Heidgerken is a clear example of an urban design approach that straddles the small and the large. Similar to The Imagination Station, the project begins with a very small territory - 150 square meters, but in this case a much larger civic gesture is anticipated by this first move. However in this case it is important to note that the planning process and the design vision are not meant to serve as a prescriptive step-by-step road map. The process values input from local constituents and actually anticipates possible changes in the design as various components of the plan are realized. In fact one of the most promising aspects of this proposal is that the concept of phasing for the project is not linear as might be assumed. Although there have been two initial gestures that were incremental in the traditional sense, the future of the project is left open based on a number of identified “phases” that overlap and intertwine. Each of these threads of the project are open to stopping and starting at different times and with different durations as needs arise. So not only is the project an open response to very localized community needs, it is also open in the sense that the concept of phasing is constantly reinterpreted and modified, rather than thinking of phases as pre-determined chunks of work that must occur in a specific sequence. The Recovery Park Project by the Detroit Collaborative Design Center is another excellent example of open-source planning. In this case loose plans for a small district within the city are unfolding under the direction of a wide variety of stakeholders. Although this project embraces a much larger territory than Roosevelt Park, this test case is also rooted in an approach to planning that favors fairly general guidelines that are then articulated by a series of smaller projects that operate within the larger vision. Part of the project focuses on a strategy for developing urban agriculture at a scale larger than the conventional community garden, but with an emphasis on the ability to connect non-contiguous properties in a manner that allows newly productive landscapes to be interwoven with existing uses and other new programs. Within this lager backdrop a number of specific architectural initiatives help to revitalize the neighborhood not by the imposition of an external vision, but through a series of very targeted amplifications of existing assets that could be seen as being connected conceptually as a constellation of hot-spots within a loosely defined territory. And finally, let us return to the largest scale - the city itself. Under the guidance of Mayor Dave Bing and a new team of progressive city leaders, city government has moved to develop a process for creating a bold and realistic vision for the future of our urban landscape. The Detroit Works Project is a recent city led initiative that at this time is in the very early stages of evolution. In addition to city officials and a variety of professional consultants, the leadership structure for the project includes a Task Force Advisory Board of 55 key community leaders with very diverse backgrounds. The process has included multiple community meetings that will continue as a fresh set of priorities are developed for land use, transportation initiatives, and other forms of redevelopment. Although it is far too early to judge the possible success of this effort, it at least promises to build on the strengths of our recent tradition of open planned urban intervention that is described above and illustrated in the projects that follow. To put all this in more general terms, it could be argued that in the 20th Century the greatest legacy of the city was not the automobile per se, but the Fordist inspired approach to logistical systems that orchestrated vast de-centralized supply chains from a centralized model of management. In some ways this methodology did translate into an equally hierarchical model of urban renewal for the city itself, but not in the sense of a coherent overall planning direction. In the 21st Century it would seem that the city is poised to demonstrate the irrelevance of a centralized, hyper-rationalized and formal approach to urban design. We are at a point where for the first time in decades the city is actually making some attempt to plan, but it seems clear that what is most likely to emerge from that process in the context of such a diversity of approaches and relevant players is not a prescriptive plan per se, but perhaps a strong sense of direction and a framework for action. We can hope at this juncture that Detroit will demonstrate an innovative approach to urban design, but that it will do so by resisting the idealized, dogmatic, top-down approach of the moderns. Detroit needs direction. Detroit needs investment. Detroit needs some bold moves and visionary thinking. Detroit desperately needs a progressive approach to the whole concept of zoning. Detroit needs to set objectives, but it does not need a dictatorial blueprint. It needs to continue to foster its open-source, incremental, intensely participatory approach to urban design. There are eight hundred thousand stories in the naked city... let’s hope that the story is actually told by her people this time.
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