Robin Boyle is Professor of Urban Planning and Chair of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), Wayne State University (WSU) in Detroit, Michigan.
Active in professional organizations, he is co-chair of the Detroit chapter of the Urban Land Institute [ULI] and serves on the board of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance. In 2004 he was nominated to the Planning Board for the City of Birmingham, Mi., becoming chair in 2006.
Research interests include (1) planning and design for an aging society, (2) investment patterns in residential and retail development, (3) the issue of vacant land in central cities. This work led to securing funding from the Land Policy Program at MSU and to collaboration with the Michigan Suburbs Alliance (MSA) and in particular their successful Redevelopment Ready Communities initiative.
THE POSSIBILITY OF DETROIT FUTURE CITY
Introduced by Detroit Mayor Dave Bing in the fall of 2010, the Detroit Works Project was conceived “as a process to create a shared, achievable vision for our future that would serve as a guide to help improve the physical, social and economic landscape of our city”. Largely funded by the foundation community, notably the Kresge Foundation of Troy, Michigan, the initial project was led by a NYC architect, Ms. Toni Griffin, whose task was, with a local firm of architects and designers (led by Dan Kinkead of Hamilton Anderson Associates), to manage a multi-national team of planning and design consultants, including world-renown Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. In July of 2011 Mayor Dave Bing introduced the Short Term Actions strategy of the Detroit Works Project and announced the separation of the project into two tracks—Short Term Actions and Long Term Planning. This Long Term Planning project eventually morphed into Detroit Future City, published at the beginning of 2013.
But first, some largely forgotten planning history.
In 1970, the third volume of the 1965-1970 Detroit Plan was released with the sub-heading: “A Concept for Future Development”. This study/plan, embracing 23,000 square miles of southeastern Michigan, with Detroit as its central city, became the road map for the region and for a generation. “Build-out” across the suburbs, with new community development spreading from Toledo to the Thumb of Michigan, from Windsor in Canada all the way to Jackson and beyond, became the de facto development pattern for the region. This grand plan for Detroit’s metropolitan region never achieved its lofty goals or ambitious targets but it did drive sprawl across the burgeoning suburban landscape. And despite some fine ideas in the plan, it did precious little to stem the loss of business, jobs and people from Detroit. In contrast, I contend that the Detroit Plan played a critical role in the hollowing out of the city.
As if you need reminding, the population in the city of Detroit in 1970 was measured at 1,670,114; by 2010 the Census recorded 713,777 residents in the city, a loss of 58 percent over 40 years.
Forty-three years after the conclusion of the Detroit Plan, Detroit Future City brought to the public, to business and community leaders, and to government planners a wholly different trajectory for Detroit. Using its full and more useful title: Detroit Future City – Detroit Strategic Framework Plan this is, in my opinion, the most comprehensive, most engaged and most relevant plan I have seen in the past quarter century in any city in America’s troubled heartland. It embraces the structural economic shocks that have and continue to disrupt whole communities once predicated on making things. It lays bare the reality of spatial segregation – by class, color and community. It doesn’t hide from the community impact of poverty, of joblessness, of abandonment, of emptiness across too much of Detroit.
Then it turns to find possibility in this the most devastated of the rust-belt cities. To draw from the Plan’s Executive Summary, this possibility can be found not merely in terms of location on the Detroit River, or available land or its institutional bones but in the “resiliency, creativity, and ingenuity of its people and organizations–the city’s human and social capital”.
The content of the Plan is similarly broad-based and impressive. The survey, analysis and prescription that are found in the Plan’s Five Elements are interconnected, sophisticated, nuanced and perhaps most importantly, useful. The Plan skillfully incorporates recommendations that are grounded in the possibilities of the city and its residents but also reflective and inclusive of some of the most advanced ideas in land use planning and redesign. And it doesn’t end with simply a catalogue of transformative ideas. It looks deep in the weeds of ownership, of management and of coordination. It forces the reader to address the imperatives for public action and the impact that action can have on the city and its future.
And finally, this Plan began with a commitment to civic engagement, to genuine and authentic participation from all peoples and parts of Detroit. Despite some huge challenges and an often-toxic political and fiscal environment, the people that made Detroit Future City stayed the course, developing the plan and its recommendations in the full glare of public scrutiny and with almost endless community involvement.
The challenge, now, is moving forward with implementation and real change. The Kresge Foundation and others have committed to this process, with Dan Kinkead and Heidi Alcock (shifting recently from Community Legal Resources) leading a new nonprofit agency with just this charge. But they face a Herculean task, made all the difficult by the fragility of the region’s economy, the depth of underinvestment-private and public-in the city and the dark clouds of insolvency hanging over the city, its workers, residents and investors.