Transforming a City of Extremes: Detroit’s Lessons for Turin
Detroit has been described as a city of extremes—an urban grid dropped over a prairie. It went from a city of industrial might with population peaking at 2 million in the early 1950s to one of urban decay, shrinking to 673,014 as of 2017. All this within an area that could contain Manhattan, Boston, and San Francisco.
Detroit is changing. Population decline has abated, and since the 2013 bankruptcy, it is in better financial shape, with indicators pointing to the beginning of a rebound. And yet, vacant lots and blighted properties still abound, even after an extraordinary, and controversial, effort to demolish some 18,000 blighted structures in the last four years. As the manager for the City of Turin, Italy’s European Union-funded Co-City project, I visited Detroit though GMF Cities’ Vibrant Neighborhoods Forum in fall 2019 to see what I could learn from these extremes. As an architect and urban planner working for a city that has seen its share of industrial decline resulting in urban decay and abandonment, I was reminded of how very important strategic planning is for the transformation process of the likes of Detroit and Turin.
Yet, while it is important to have a strategic plan with a citywide perspective, this plan must have roots in the neighborhoods—to be relevant for and have crucial buy-in from the residents. How you get there is where the Co-City model plays an interesting role.
Funded by the EU’s Urban Innovative Actions initiative and based on the collaborative management of urban commons in specific city neighborhoods, Co-City provides the impetus for city and neighborhood stakeholders to experiment with new tools and methodologies that will contribute to a wider strategic perspective in the future. These include the collective care of public spaces through to the collaboration between public administration and community organizations in the co-design and co-management of innovative services.
While it is important to have a strategic plan with a citywide perspective, this plan must have roots in the neighborhoods.
What has happened, and is still happening, in Turin presents an opportunity to learn from a city like Detroit. During my visit to Detroit, I focused on two key stakeholders: the city administration and neighborhood intermediary entities (community development corporations and the like). I wanted to better understand how these two stakeholder groups worked together to carry out a vision for neighborhood revitalization. Specifically, I was interested to learn more about how Detroit was managing the intersection between neighborhood-based civic engagement and citywide strategic narratives. In 2000, Turin was the first Italian city to adopt an official strategic plan. The strategic plan was responsible for spearheading a much-needed transformation from what was once a city that relied on a single industry (automobiles) to one that fostered an innovative and diversified local economy. But in the last few years, strategic planning has lost momentum.
In Detroit, the process of change hit a crucial milestone in 2010 when, with the support of philanthropic and community-based organizations, it embarked on a planning process that resulted in the 2012 Strategic Framework Plan “Detroit Future City.” The original intent was to have this plan formally adopted by the city, but for various reasons this never came to be. Nevertheless, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly, the 2012 plan stands as a point of reference for neighborhood revitalization policies, such as the Strategic Neighborhood Fund (SNF).
The design and implementation of initiatives such as SNF is the outcome of the work of different actors. SNF is a funding source drawing from philanthropic contributions and public subsidies, managed by Invest Detroit, a community-development financial institution, with support and oversight provided by Detroit’s Planning and Development Department (PDD) and Department of Neighborhoods. Starting in three neighborhoods in 2014, one of SNF’s first interventions was the Fitzgerald Revitalization Project, in which vacant land and blighted homes were repurposed into the new Ella Fitzgerald Park.
In recent years, a leading role has been played by the city administration. The PDD, guided from 2015 to 2019 by Maurice Cox, has been restructured in its composition (hiring a diverse, interdisciplinary new team of 36 planners, architects, urban designers, and landscape designers) and in its attitude towards a visionary, out-of-the-box, and design-oriented approach. Far from simply delivering plans and regulations, the PDD drives interagency planning teams in each of the neighborhoods identified through an agreement between the city and Invest Detroit within the SNF initiative. The PDD and the Department of Neighborhoods seeks not only to be more imaginative, but to work with each neighborhood in the city to re-establish trust among residents. The departments make sure residents have a say, and therefore a stake, in decisions made about the revitalization and redevelopment of their communities.
This is made possible by the rich variety of organizations—from specialized professional entities to informal community groups that operate as an intermediary “third party” between residents and the city administration. Intermediary organizations are of crucial importance in the implementation of effective urban policies. These organizations fill the gaps between city and residents, acting as mutual trust-builders.
Extremes can open new unexpected points of view and opportunities to reshape discourse on what a city can be.
“We want people to have bigger ideas about Detroit. The Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC) is a fully operational architecture and urban design office that employs students every semester. So, just like students work alongside doctors in a teaching hospital, our students here work alongside architects,” says Dan Pitera, dean of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture and formerly executive director of the DCDC. The center is an example of an organization that fills the gaps between institutions and local communities. It reframes the dialogue around planning and delivers on-the-ground community support, such as for the launch of the Fitzgerald Revitalization Project.
In the Fitzgerald neighborhood, as in many others, the city landscape is not ordinary. Abandonment and demolitions left more than just some vacant lots between buildings. The street grid missed the walls of buildings that typically border each side of an urban street. Blocks are now transparent. However, the DCDC and the PDD are trying to refocus the conversation from one of threat to one of opportunity: you can now design new “desire lines,” or informal footpaths, to move between blocks in a way that most cities do not allow.
These examples from Detroit help give policymakers and city planners a sense of what kind of lessons can be learned from a city of extremes. Extremes can open new unexpected points of view and opportunities to reshape discourse on what a city can be, starting from the links between strategic thinking, strategic planning, and day-by-day implementation at a small scale. Often it is a non-linear fuzzy link. A strong commitment toward a flexible implementation process, sensitive to a community’s changing needs, is required. This is true in Detroit and in Turin. Everyone must learn to (as an American saying goes) “build the plane while flying it.” But strategic visions and inspirational out-of-the-box thinking—as well as coalitions and an organized plan—are important. It is not a matter of “checking boxes” through strategic priorities, is a matter of having a common ground, an operational landscape, and a shared vision of a future city.
Giovanni Ferrero is an architect working for the City of Turin, Italy.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.