The Detroit model: greater than the sum of its parts

Google Maps gave me four options for getting to Recovery Park from my downtown hotel: one-hour walk along an eight-lane M-3 then through a grass-covered neighbourhood; a 45-min walk-bus-bus-walk combination with buses running every 60 min; a 16-min bike ride on the vehicular road; or a 7-min drive on an interstate highway with a giant partial cloverleaf.

I resorted to Uber. Andrew, the Uber driver, swiftly took me to the neighbourhood, known as Chene Ferry, North Black Bottom or Poletown depending on who’s saying it. Following years of residential demolition works, nature transformed the land back to its beautiful green state, with vacant lots creating open spaces in a grid. It was a bizarre sight, reminding me of Christchurch after many landmark buildings had been demolished following the earthquakes. Unable to find signage, I got off the car in an approximate location and started walking, only to find Andrew drive back toward me 5 minutes later. “I think I found the building, and I didn’t want to leave you here walking around by yourself. I don’t know what this area is like – jump back in, I will take you”, he said and I obliged with much appreciation. Guns. I wonder if that’s what was on his mind. It certainly was on mine when I reached the building entry with signage that read ‘gun-free community’.

Being back in the US, my perception of safety is influenced by my lived experience in New Haven where I would receive regular email updates on local shootings from the police chief and my university would provide door-to-door shuttle escort service after 6pm. Prevalent media portrayals and data on gun violence and hate crimes don’t help. Detroit, despite its generally improving violent crime rate, still comes out on top as America’s Most Dangerous City.

Decline, bankruptcy, violence and poverty may have dominated Detroit’s headlines for decades, but the locals say the last three years have seen an unprecedented progress since the new mayor Mike Duggan took office. With good leadership, citizens have also gained momentum on their initiatives to serve their communities and build places. The local thought leaders I met with face complex challenges everyday yet see opportunities everywhere. Their resilience, expertise and empathy is changing Detroit one place, one neighbourhood at a time.

Few buildings remain to tell a story of what Poletown used to be.
2Cadillac Place
Cadillac Place was General Motors’ world headquarters for 80 years till 2000.


Urban farming by people with barriers to employment

There was virtually nobody walking around but the evidence of community in Poletown East was visible in the public realm. A small community garden on a vacant lot, a custom-made bus shelter and a mural painted by high school summer program students – these are a few of the community projects that Recovery Park facilitated to bring life back between derelict factories and remaining houses. Its CEO Gary Wozniak takes me back to a time – only about 4-5 years ago – when the city went bankrupt. Two thirds of the street lights didn’t come on, buses didn’t run, garbage didn’t get picked up and street sweepers didn’t work. In that turmoil, people who could find opportunities elsewhere left. Only one third of its peak population (1.8 million in 1950) remain today.

While the Detroit Land Bank, an authority set up by the mayor to manage foreclosures, has been securing 96,000 properties and demolishing 11,900 abandoned and vacant houses, Recovery Park has been streamlining its not-for-profit and for-profit missions. Gary believes everybody should be given an opportunity to develop “a skillset to self-determine their lives long-term”. An ex-offender himself, he understands that for ex-offenders, integrating back into a community is not easy. De-institutionalisation takes time, when your time in prison had been spent following routines and instructions. Recovery Park Farm’s workforce is mainly made up of people with barriers to employment.

I get a tour of the greenhouses, which currently house 20 different products managed by a hydroponic grower Jeff Gilbert, farming manager Michelle Lutz and five associates. It is Monday and the team has just finished harvesting. I get a taste of a tiny freshly picked cucumber with a yellow flower – it’s crunchy and delicious. The rest of the vegetables would bring US$5-6,000 per week in revenue, purchased by regional produce distributors. Anna Kohn of the team explains the associates are provided not only with long-term employment but also wraparound support. “100% paid health benefit, housing, support with substance abuse, getting an ID, even opening a bank account”, she says, as well as above minimum wages, is all important for folks to feel stable and be able to come to work.

The team’s vision does not stop with eight high tunnels and five associates. There is a plan in motion to create a whole neighbourhood of 40 acres, which currently has 17 houses compared to 851 in the past. Gary gives me a tour in his yellow buggy: there are bioswales managing stormwater runoff; houses and lots recently purchased; a grant won from a Knight Arts Challenge that will be used next year to bring chamber music, jazz, blues concerts; a plan for businesses to move into a vacant school; and ambition to transform an old German-Polish meat market into a community gathering spot. Their vision is a place where people have stable housing, meaningful work and a renewed sense of community.

5Recovery Park Farm
The Recovery Park team discuss the day’s harvest in front of a high tunnel.
Recovery Park office building has a mural painted by high school students during a summer program. In the background is an abandoned building waiting to be demolished.


Wraparound support for village-making

The Collective impact model is also at the heart of Focus:HOPE, a civil and human rights organisation founded following the 1967 riots to start ‘fighting racism, poverty and injustice’. Its long history and concrete mission has led to several organisational arms, ranging from food distribution and workforce programs to placemaking and neighbourhood network development. It serves a community that has repeatedly suffered from spatial injustice and human rights violations: water being cut off in occupied homes, overruled community voices, lack of schools, racial covenants, to name a few. Now with 92% of vacant lots secured, Focus:HOPE is working on the HOPE Village initiative, with the aim to support about 5,300 residents in a 100-block area impacted by riots, blight and disinvestment; and ‘by the year 2031, 100% of neighborhood residents will be educationally well-prepared, economically self-sufficient, and living in a safe, supportive environment’. Stephanie Johnson-Cobb, a community development specialist, wants to change the local mentality of young people who feel this is a place where they grow up but where they leave to get jobs and live in the suburbs. The Village includes a Center for Working Families to support with financial literacy, credit repair and employment; an arts department with various cultural programs; and Cool Cities Park.

Stephanie Johnson-Cobb illustrates HOPE Village initiative’s various programs.


Micro entrepreneurship

Detroit’s abundance of land offers numerous possibilities but invites blight when left uncared for. Detroit Future City (DFC), a NFP organisation that oversees the implementation of a community-led vision for Detroit, is guiding Detroiters to help keep their neighbourhoods safe and beautiful. Working with Lots – a Field Guide is a book of local examples and ideas that aims to bring a ‘green culture shift’; starting a conversation about blight and beauty, abandonment and maintenance. It began as a landscape-focused program to help individuals and communities use and maintain vacant lots, but the DFC team is starting to see its impact also as a channel to engage young people about stormwater management and food security.

Detroit’s entrepreneurial spirit perhaps has always been there, nurtured through its long manufacturing history. Citizens, when left with broken systems, found ways to improve their own lives, but there is no doubt organisational support accelerates the process. Detroit Creative Corridor Center (DC3), in its 7th year of existence, aims to diversify Detroit’s economy by supporting creative practitioners. It is an incubator for designers to test ideas, form a network and develop early stage ventures. The city has a unique history and entrepreneurial spirit to draw from, and is on its way to solidify its designation as a UNESCO City of Design.

A portrait artist activates Greektown.


Greater than the sum of its parts

How will these efforts connect spatially, economically and socio-culturally to form a stronger whole? Detroit covers a large area of 360km² (compared to Vancouver’s 114km², with a similar population). It was originally designed to be automobile dependent and the culture hasn’t shifted drastically. Many still live in detached homes in the suburbs, some a few vacant lots apart. What’s stopping people from living in downtown? The reasons vary from the perception of safety, affordability, lack of schools, childcare and supermarkets, to transport options – public transport is not great, drivers are stuck with expensive car insurance in the metro area, and retail doesn’t yet support everyday living.

Downtown is changing fast however, owing to investors like Dan Gilbert, a Detroit-born billionaire and Founder & Chairman of Quicken Loans, a mortgage lender. His real estate arm, Bedrock continues to acquire properties in downtown (this 2015 map shows 45 ‘Gilbert properties’). With building upgrades, investment into the public realm and amenities is on the way. Vacant buildings are being refurbished. More chain stores are moving in.

A city that has long suffered from class and race struggles, Detroit’s downtown is an opportunity to reset the course. Will the new downtown offer something for folks in HOPE Village, Recovery Park and new immigrants, as well as new professionals moving in? Or will the communities live in their own bubbles?

Supporting micro businesses with street level retail spaces, new restaurants sourcing ingredients from local urban farms, and public realm improvements upskilling future designers – I left Detroit thinking about the possibilities, greater than the sum of its parts.

6Campus Martius Park
Campus Martius Park is the city’s major civic hub. In the background is Campus Martius Building, which houses Quicken Loans’ headquarters.
7Vacant Buildings
My walking tour guide points to the building on the right as a lovely apartment where he lives in. The rest of the high rises are currently vacant but being refurbished.
Greektown is included in the Downtown Detroit Business Improvement Zone.
Public realm investment is evident is Greektown.


Many thanks to these organisations:

 This blog post was made possible by Westpac Social Change Fellowship, during which Julia Suh is visiting 15 cities to learn from their governments, social enterprises, consultants, academics and community organisers about how they are addressing inequality via design and management of the public realm and bringing about positive change.