A Framework For Creating A Thriving Detroit Of The Future

A new plan outlines how the Motor City can go from grabbing headlines about decay to being a model for a new kind of American urban center.

The once great city of Detroit has been in free fall for years, and now it’s left with a hollowed-out population and a chunk of unproductive land. Detroit disaster-porn headlines are common in the news (a few samples: “Detroit’s Beautiful, Horrible Decline“; “Detroit: The Ghost City Gradually Being Reclaimed By Nature“)–there’s nothing that Americans love better, after all, than to watch successful cities and people fail spectacularly. But Detroit residents are not standing idly by; they’re working hard to revive their city, and in the near-term, to at least stabilize it with a decision-making framework called Detroit Future City.

Check out these beautiful mashed-up photographs that show the thriving Detroit of the past contrasted with the decaying Detroit of the present.

In 2010, the Detroit Works Project, a public-private partnership between the City of Detroit and a number of foundations, launched with the goal of rethinking land use by understanding the demographics of the city (today, Detroit has miles upon miles of vacant land). “We understood from the beginning that land use had to be understood, but there were many pieces beyond land use that had to be part of the study,” explains Dan Pitera, executive director of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center and one of the driving forces behind Detroit Future City.

So in 2011, the Detroit Works Project was split into two: one piece worked on short-term planning, and the other focused on longer-term goals. After two years of research and discussion, the Detroit Future City report was released this month. The goal, according to press materials for the launch, is nothing short of a citywide reboot:

Ambitious but attainable, Detroit Future City begins to align our assets with opportunity, mapping a framework that best coordinates investment of our resources–people, time, money, brainpower, and more–in ways that can move us forward collectively. How to best use our abundance of land (particularly publicly owned land), create job growth and economic prosperity, ensure vibrant neighborhoods, build an infrastructure that serves citizens at a reasonable cost, and maintain a high level of community engagement that is integral to success. And each is addressed with the understanding that in many ways they are all interlinked.

Check out these photos of modern day Detroit that capture both the city’s decline and it’s potential better future.

The city framework–which is broken down into sections including economic growth, neighborhoods, land use, and city systems–comes from 30,000 conversations with city residents and more than 70,000 survey responses and comments. “When it was launched, we weren’t revealing a plan or framework because people have been seeing the work develop. It’s more of a celebration,” says Pitera.

We won’t try to sum up the mammoth report here, but Pitera stresses that the key point is that “Detroit is closer to its future than it imagines.” Much of the work that needs to happen is already beginning–now it just needs to be tied to a larger framework. One of the best known examples of Detroit’s burgeoning revival is the urban agriculture movement that has sprung up in response to all the abandoned land. The report describes this as an integral part of Detroit’s future:

Landscape, open space, and environmental systems are envisioned as a new, healthy, green, and productive structure for the city of Detroit. Large-scale ecological and productive landscapes will take the place of vacant lots, and begin their work cleansing the water, the air, and the soil, all the while putting people to work. They also become a center for public health, sustaining Detroit’s rich mix of cultures, and strengthening social connections in neighborhoods and across the city.


The initiative’s creators imagine that these open spaces and environmental systems will sit alongside repurposed transportation corridors that accommodate pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers, all while collecting storm water runoff in swales located in the right-of-way. At the same time, new walkable retail districts and residential developments will keep things buzzing.

The movie Detropia focuses on the Motor City’s decline, but also the people still there who are working on bringing it back.

The authors aren’t done generating awareness for the project. Pitera tells us that a street team shows up at barber shops, grocery stores–wherever people are–to have conversations with people. Because while Detroit Future City calls for sweeping change on a systemic level, it needs individuals to get onboard too. “In our minds, civic engagement never ends. It’s the way a city should do business,” says Pitera. “People can come in, look at this, and see very realistic but aspirational plans and see themselves in it as well.”

Detroit Future City looks 50 years into the future: the first five years are focused on stabilization of the city, years five to 10 will grow and nurture the city, years 10 to 20 will sustain a larger population, increase in local jobs, and a new and improved infrastructure, and years 20 to 50 will ideally see Detroit regain its position as one of America’s great cities.

Is it possible? Sure. Detroit has one big advantage over many U.S. cities: It has already hit rock bottom, and so it can build a resilient, sustainable city from the ground up instead of trying to modify its infrastructure piecemeal–a strategy that will ultimately hurt some of today’s thriving urban centers.

Armed with funding (the Kresge Foundation has committed $150 million over five years for implementation), Detroit Future City is pressing forward. Not everyone in the city is convinced that implementation will happen smoothly, and it probably won’t. It’s effectiveness, though, can only be judged years down the line.

The full report is available here.


About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more