Five Takeaways from Detroit Opportunity Sites’ Kick-off Workshop
Last month, GMF’s Urban and Regional Policy Program and Detroit Future City hosted the kick-off workshop to Detroit Opportunity Sites to explore the creative reuse potential of large-scale vacant industrial sites in Detroit. The two-and-a-half day workshop focused on key lessons that could be applied to Detroit from eight U.S. and European examples of redeveloped industrial sites. Here is a selection of these lessons from the presentations and discussions that followed:
- Redevelop Industrial Sites Creatively
The scale of the problem in Detroit, which involves 6.1 square miles of vacant industrial land and property, demands great creativity. However, this reuse does not always have to go through traditional development processes. Consider Holzmarkt in Berlin, a proposal to reuse a part of the Berlin waterfront that came about after disappointment with the vision proposed by the municipality. Now, the waterfront will be a kind of citizen-drive urban district with space for “creativity, to live and work,” and will include a technology center, restaurant, hotel, and workshop spaces. The ambitious project was even able to gain financial backing from a Swiss pension fund.
Indeed, these kinds of inventive processes should be seen as a viable way for Detroit to overcome the scale of its problem and to match the unique architectural legacy of industrial sites. For example, consider also the reuse of industrial buildings in Berlin for clubs and pop-up events, such as in the case of Kraftwerk and Tresor. These were perhaps radical uses for the time, but are now intimately linked to the very identity of the city itself. Such uses were able to come about only with flexibility from the city to accommodate creative and bottom-up solutions.
- Celebrate Industrial Heritage
For many of the reused sites, industrial heritage was an invaluable asset for owners, investors, and local governments. Despite the challenge of matching function with the existing space and structure, industrial heritage is an intrinsic characteristic that sets any redevelopment up for success. Users are drawn to a space that has a story and identity, and as a result, it can be easier to make the case for needed investment and public attention.
This was seen on a site such as the Gas Works Park in Seattle, where the preservation of the original gas structure made the new onsite park a destination within the city, contributing to its ongoing popularity. Another example of this during the workshop was the Duisburg Landscape Park, the dramatic reuse of a large industrial facility for recreational and cultural activities, including for a diving center, climbing walls, and multifunctional event spaces. The success of this interactive model can be clearly seen in the visitor counts to the facility, which now average over one million annually.
- Strategically Reuse Industrial Sites to Renew Local Identity
In Torino, Italy the Lingoto Plant is so iconic because of its role in local automobile production that it itself is considered to be a representative of the city’s history. This reuse of this site therefore contributed to a renewed local identity, showing that the city can evolve beyond its industrial past and adapt to a new economic context. The same could be same of the Manufakture Plant in Lodz, Poland, a once highly industrialized city that, like Detroit, continues to suffer from deindustrialization. While the successful reuse of the plant did not solve the city’s social and economic issues, it boosted the sagging confidence that city residents had of their city, and is now a center of innovation, ideas, and investment that flows out into the rest of the city. Its success also proved to many other local stakeholders that with the right design and idea, revitalization can be a winning strategy.
- Activate Civil Society
The reuse of industrial sites does not always have to go through the traditional channels of redevelopment. For instance, take De Ceuvel in Amsterdam, which shows that using resources and ideas from civil society, such as young people, students, and neighborhood residents, is a worthwhile and sustainable tool to achieve your reuse goals. However, the right framework for this type of strategy must often be set at the top. In De Ceuvel’s case, for example, the city of Amsterdam put out a call for tender for ideas of how to reactivate a small brownfield site in an isolated plot in the northern part of the city, allowing Metabolic and other partners to collaborate on the site’s reuse. Such strategies also lend themselves to interim uses that can blaze new trails in a city and demonstrate what is possible.
- Make Sustainability a Guiding Principle
Take Hammarby Sjostad in Stockholm, which made sustainability and integrated planning a guiding principal of the reuse of an old harbor, vastly decreasing the development’s environmental impact and the behavior of the site’s residents. The same is true of Amsterdam’s De Ceuvel site, which is now host to dozens of low-tech solutions that are part of the so-called circular economy, including such features such as 100% renewable energy sourcing and 100% water self-sufficiency. These cases show that the reuse of industrial sites is an opportunity to completely rethink development itself.
Detroit can be a pioneer in the adaptive reuse of its industrial structure. Such reuse can not only boost the city’s brand, but importantly, accommodate place-based uses that could begin to host some of the things that Detroit needs most, namely jobs, recreational facilities, and other neighborhood services. In addition, reuse can change the entire city’s narrative and rebuild it such that it allows the city to become accustomed to succeeding.
Continue to follow the Detroit Opportunity Sites Initiative here, and look for full profiles about each of the cases featured during the workshop this summer.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.