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Detroit Initiative Unveils Recommendations for City's Renewal

By Laura Mirviss
January 9, 2013
© Dave Jordano
The Farnsworth Community Garden in Detroit. Detroit Works recommends expanding existing neighborhood initiatives, such as community gardens.

After nearly three years of research, members of the Detroit Works Project unveiled yesterday a host of recommendations for tackling the city’s most daunting economic, infrastructural, and social challenges. From job growth to zoning reform, the recommendations range in scale from small pilot programs to 50-year infrastructure projects. And today the Kresge Foundation and W.K. Kellogg Foundation announced that they will jointly give $3 million to fund an office dedicated to overseeing the implementation of those recommendations. In addition, all of Kresge's grants for the city over the next five years—a minimum of $150 million—will be aligned with Detroit Works' recommendations.

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Detroit has racked up a large collection of shelved master plans, but Detroit Works—an initiative launched by Mayor Dave Bing in 2010, funded primarily by private organizations, to inventory the city’s challenges and make recommendations for renewal—has taken careful steps to buck the trend. The recommendations are the result of meticulous data crunching and communicating with approximately 100,000 community members. In addition, philanthropies, as well as other public and private funders, have pledged financial support for various projects. An implementation committee will continue to advocate for the recommendations.

While accounting for the grim prediction that the city’s population will drop from roughly 700,000 to 600,000 in the next 20 years, the report emphasizes Detroit’s strengths. It calls for building up existing business districts; adaptive reuse rather than demolition for vacant industrial buildings; creating incentives for small businesses to expand; and making use of empty space in large office buildings that have shed jobs over the years. Other recommendations include developing flexible land-use codes, turning little-used roads to rubble for stormwater collection, planting forests along highways, and reconfiguring public bus schedules for higher efficiency.

Forced relocation is a sensitive subject in Detroit, and the members of Detroit Works emphasized that their plan does not call for cutting off services in high-vacancy neighborhoods. Rather, the surrounding areas could be converted into landscaped green space. But developing green swaths in these neighborhoods will require new and flexible zoning patterns, said Toni Griffin, who led Detroit Works’ technical team. “We need change our land-use regulations and move away from the Euclidean grid to a neighborhood approach,” said Griffin.

Ambitions for the project go beyond Detroit—and even the U.S. Representatives from Russia, Thailand, China, Italy, and Great Britain have all visited Detroit Works’ headquarters in Eastern Market, a mile northeast of downtown. “They aren’t all interested in the same thing—some are interested in land use, some are interested in blue-green infrastructure, some in civic engagement,” said Dan Pitera, the director of Detroit Collaborative Design Center, who led Detroit Works’ community outreach. But Detroit’s lessons go beyond other shrinking cities. “This plan is about adapting to change,” said Pitera.

Disclosure: This story was updated to include information about the grants from the Kresge and Kellogg Foundations.

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