Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Detroit Dilemma

As mentioned previously, I spent an intensive three-day long whirlwind charrette in Detroit, Michigan as part of on interdisciplinary team for the Sustainable Design Assessment Team (SDAT) program as part of the AIAs Communities by Design Program. This was my first SDAT experience, as well as my first visit to Detroit (short of passing through the airport). In short, it was intense and amazing.

:: Landsat Detroit - image via Wikipedia

For starters, an interesting facet of what the AIA does in this program is to pull together teams that relate to the specific needs of the the project. In this case, our team was led by Alan Mallach, a planner who specializes in revitalization of communities, captured aptly in his book Bringing Buildings Back: From Abandoned Buildings to Community Assets. The team was rounded out with a variety of specialists, including Subrata Basu, architect and planner from Miami Dade County Planning and Zoning; Steven Gazillo, Director of Transportation Planning from URS Corp from Connecticutt; Colin Meehan, renewable energy expert from Environmental Defense Fund in Austin, Texas; Teresa Lynch, economist and Research Director for the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City from Boston; Edwin Marty, Urban Agriculture Specialist and Executive Director of the Jones Valley Urban Farm in Birmingham, Alabama; and myself, representing GreenWorks Landscape Architecture and covering land use and open space.

Then there was Detroit itself, which is faced with a post-industrial situation that is mind-boggling in its scope. Through historical development as a single-industry (auto) and single-land use (typically single family) - the City of Detroit, perhaps more than anywhere else is suffering from the loss of manufacturing, and widescale depopulation, and a preponderance of vacant lands. This has been widely covered throughout, but was quite stunning to see.

:: images via Forgotten Detroit

Imagine this: A city of 2 million folks grew to a land area of around 140 square miles. With economic downturn and white flight to the suburbs the population has shrunk from this number to somewhere around 800,000 persons currently, with a final balancing point around 600,000 people project for 2020. In terms of the future - this means a significant shrinking city, with plenty of land, road capacity, and infrastructure to deal with. What could be a very big headache, can also become a definite opportunity to reinvent the City in a new image.

There isn't just widespread blight... To create a foundation for this new growth, I was surprised by the vitality and vibrance of many areas - perhaps contrasted by the vast tracts of vacant land. Areas of Downtown, Midtown, Mexicantown, New Center, and a sprinkling of neighborhoods throughout Detroit are hanging on due to education, medical, and other industries that are still viable. The Eastern Market was a real treat to see the lively urban agriculture hub operating within the city.

:: Eastern Market - image courtesy of Edwin Marty

And there are vibrant green spaces - include a (reworked) Olmstedian gem- Belle Isle Park (which I got a mere glimpse of) and the front yard of Jack White's old Indian Village home, prior to his exodus to Nashville. Also, there are plans for an extended RiverWalk, and other open spaces throughout the region, including the Inner City Greenway and the Dequinder Cut rail to trail bikeway. That's not to mention the lively Heidelberg Project - which you definitely have to see to believe.

:: image via The Heidelberg Project

The process literally was non-stop - spanning from 8am to 10pm on a typical day (factor in 3 hour time difference), with little time to take a break. This is due to the accelerated nature of the charrette. This process was facilitated expertly by the AIA staff (Erin Simmons and Marcia Garcia) and a team of local experts - who got us up to speed on the issues facing the community. Along with a townhall and a series of focus groups, we got to meet the groups and individuals that are making a difference every day. Our goal was not to tell them what to do... but to give them some outside perspective to confront their issues.

How did we do this? Well, you can see the final report (and I won't be able to capture all of the great info in a short post), but there were a few items I thought had real relevance and life into the future in terms of Detroit becoming a model for Shrinking Cities in the US, using all of the lenses we aimed at the city. There was obviously the need to reinvent new economic models that tap into green manufacturing as well as propping up local business and existing industry. There is also a great opportunity for energy efficiency and production of green power, which could supply and possibly be an export for Michigan, specifically when used for off-short (i.e. Great Lakes wind production).

Culturally there were many opportunities to tap into the cultural history of music and racial integration, as well as using this to sustain urban vitality. From a more physical point of view, the fact that the population of this 'new Detroit' could fit within 50 square miles - leaving 80-90 square miles of 'opportunity area' that could consist of greenways, parkways, and urban agriculture - along with urban reserves. This leaves areas of density - core and urban villages - intertwined with the new fabric of community that is regenerative.

:: Urban Village model - image via SDAT

A big portion of these 'opportunity areas' would become significant portions of urban farming, building on the great urban agriculture movement already in place in Detroit, but ramping this up to an economic and viable commercial scale (remember, 80 sq.mi. is about 50,000 acres - talk about urban ag!). Ideas such as bioremediation, urban forestry to reduce air pollution and heat island, growing sunflowers for biodiesel, biomass production, large scale garden farms, and more - occupying green belts within the city. An amazing proposition.

:: Farmadelphia - image via BLDGBLOG

Another bummer for me was not being able to see Ford's River Rouge plant (next time for sure), although it did offer a viable model for industrial redevelopment along the Detroit river - replacing old industry with more eco-friendly models, as well as retaining the industrial heritage similar to the Post-Industrial Parks in Germany's Emscher River Valley, such as Duisburg Nord.

:: Park Duisburg Nord - image via Archidose

This is a mere glimpse... to be sure. For more, check out our final presentation powerpoint here, and stay tuned for the final report, which will flesh out some of these bullet points and provide a blueprint for local groups to continue their great work in giving the City of Detroit and sustainable and economically viable future.

:: image via AIA SDAT

Overall the SDAT process is a great way to work collaborative with other professionals to look at creative problem solving and testing us to look beyond the obvious to see the potential in all places. There's a limit to how much can be done in 3-4 full days, but that's also part of the fun. There's also a definite arc that these processes take depending on the team and the direction they chose. For instance, I was disappointed that we didn't get to put pencil to paper in coming up with some real ideas in visual form - but due to the scale of the city and the issues - it was determined that any specifics would be seen as outsiders telling a community what to do. I guess I thought that was the whole point? Anyway, it was amazing, and I would do it again in a second. And it's definitely opened my eyes to the potential of Detroit and other Post-Industrial cities... and how landscape urbanism and multi-disciplinary approaches to idea generation will create more applicable and viable solutions.

And, in what seemed like some immediate positive reinforcement - as we set to leave Detroit on Sunday morning, many of us picked up the Sunday New York Times (great for a long plane ride, for the crossword alone). In this issue we saw a very fitting article related to our trip, and not specific to Detroit, very applicable to the city's dilemma. 'A Splash of Green for the Rust Belt' offered a glimmer of a new economy for cities facing the loss of manufacturing and looking to reinvent themselves.

:: Manufacturing Turbine Blades in Iowa - image via NYT

A apt finish to a great week. Look, it may be our future.


1 comment:

  1. Great post. As a native Detroiter it's always nice to see someone taking an objective look at the city. I think the concept of condensing the city (and removing all those extra infrastructure costs) is intriguing. I look forward to digging into the full report.


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