I recently finished up the draft text that summarized the land use and open space portions of the Detroit Sustainable Design Assessment Team (AIA SDAT) that I participated in a few months back. It gave me a chance to revisit some of the thinking around my initial thoughts and reactions – with some distance and further reading that has illuminated both the potential of what we proposed, as well as how much we could’ve/should’ve done to provide an actual ‘vison’ for the community.
There has been some more recent coverage of Detroit, mostly focused around the
blatant ridiculous giveaway, bailout for the car companies in Detroit – (save the big 3, save the world, right?) One such article, via Bloomberg, mentions the connection between industrial dissipation and the large amount of vacant lands. “GM’s Bust Turns Detroit Into Urban Prairie of Vacant-Lot Farms” discusses vacancy, land banking, and urban farming, to name a few items. These photos come from the local group and their vacant farmland Urban Farming.
Some of the highlights of the article align with the common thinking we came up with in the SDAT. A diversified economy, urban agriculture, land banking, reclaiming vacant lands, concentration of resources, and streamlining parks operations. Overall, there is the paradigm shift – the hard thinking that comes from the acknowledgement of a Shrinking City and how to realistically approach change. “Now, business coalitions such as Detroit Renaissance are moving forward with plans to identify neighborhoods where resources should be concentrated and help the area diversify away from cars. The organizations want to use local research hospitals to attract health-care and biotech startups, according to Doug Rothwell, president of Detroit Renaissance, as well as foster a creative community around the city’s legacy of advertising agencies. “
One aspect we discussed was how to spend some money that had been allocated for renewal… not enough to solve problems but to make a real statement. There was definitely a strong desire to make right some of the woes that come with the distributed leftovers of wide-spread vacancy: “On Nov. 25, the City Council passed a Neighborhood Stabilization Plan that seeks $47 million from the federal government to address the city’s problem of vacant buildings and empty land. An estimated 55,000 lots are considered unproductive because they bring in no taxes and cost money to maintain. … The grant would pay for knocking down 2,350 of Detroit’s tens of thousands of abandoned homes and clear the sites for development. If no buyers materialize, planners would consider adding the space to public parks or land reserved for recreation or environmental preservation.”
We were definitely on the right track, but did we really tell Detroit something they already didn’t know. Maybe, maybe not… but it was definitely reinforcing some of the strong trends already in place, for instance the strong push to move urban agriculture from a small scale to a larger scale operation. From Bloomberg: “With enough abandoned lots to fill the city of San Francisco, Motown is 138 square miles divided between expanses of decay and emptiness and tracts of still-functioning communities and commercial areas. Close to six barren acres of an estimated 17,000 have already been turned into 500 “mini- farms,” demonstrating the lengths to which planners will go to make land productive. …Harvests are sold in markets or donated to soup kitchens. This year’s produce was picked “quickly because people need food so badly,” said Sevelle. …The farms may also raise home values. In many neighborhoods, nearby gardens could add as much as $5,000 to selling prices, said real estate broker Russ Ravary, who works in the city and surrounding suburbs. The average price of a home dropped 55 percent to $18,578 in the first nine months of the year, according to the Detroit Board of Realtors.”
Another article from this month in the Detroit Free Press follows a similar theme, ‘Acres of barren blocks offer chance to reinvent Detroit’ provides some of the same thinking, and specifically relates some of the recommendations of our SDAT. “Earlier this fall, some out-of-town planners recruited by the American Institute of Architects visited Detroit for a brainstorming session. The leader, Alan Mallach, research director of the National Housing Institute in Maplewood, N.J., concluded that Detroit needs no more than about 50 square miles of its land for its current population. The remaining 89 square miles could be used entirely for other purposes, he said. …Mallach’s group liked the suggestion of large-scale commercial farming, both as a way to put the space to good use and to generate new income and jobs for the cash-starved city.”
The article paints a similar picture as well: “Detroit, where the population peaked at 2 million in the early 1950s, is home to about 900,000 today and is still losing people. The depopulation and demolition of abandoned properties has left the city dotted with thousands of vacant parcels, ranging from single home lots to open fields of many acres.”
And comes up with some similar thinking: “This abundance of vacant land has people talking about new uses, such as urban farming, reforesting the city, and large-scale recreational areas. Urban farming is getting the most buzz. Michigan State University’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources is among the groups touting urban farms as a solution for Detroit’s vacant land. … Given the amount of open land, I think there’s a real opportunity for Detroit to provide a significant amount of its fruits and vegetables for its population and the surrounding area,” said Mike Hamm, the C.S. Mott Chair of Sustainable Agriculture at MSU.”
There is also the inevitable discussion of the politics of Detroit – which from our experience there, if one of the major sticking points. A quote from some past leadership leaves it open: “If it comes to pass that there is a development that would be in the best interest of the city, then it could always be redeveloped,” former Mayor Dennis Archer said last week. “But in the meantime you could have great pocket parks, you could have children understanding how to raise a garden, harvest a fruit, vegetables. Those are invaluable things. I think it has a lot of merit.”
An interesting comment was from a group that seemed like a perfect ally to the idea. The group Greening of Detroit was a major informative group in our SDAT process, but the following quote leaves me a bit perplexed: “Ashley Atkinson, director of project development in urban agriculture at the nonprofit Greening of Detroit, supports small family and neighborhood plots of no larger than 3 acres. But she says that commercial farming would exploit Detroiters and their land. Instead, she supports widespread use of open spaces for recreation, hobby gardens and other uses.”
It’s curious – although I don’t want to neglect this viewpoint – the idea that commercial farming would exploit Detroiters and their land is just plain silly. The way to make the endeavor viable and profitable is not 3 acre plots… period. These work for self-sufficent homestead gardens, but not agriculture – and would dissipate the productivity of the land in ways that minimize the overall impact. We’re not talking agribusiness, but cooperative and hands-on farming on a scale of 1000+ acres that provides an economy of scale to make it viable economically and provide resilience – without exploitation. It’s also clear that residents don’t want hobby gardens, recreation, and other uses – because there isn’t the economics to maintain them to be safe and workable… I agree that the entire 80 sq.miles is not going to be farmed – the key is a It’s a new model, and my only thought is that it would perhaps take away some of the great work that Greening of Detroit is doing – which is flatly not the case. They, and other successful groups in Detroit, are the pioneers that can take the reins and lead the way in making the urban agriculture/productive landscape approach work.
Another part of the article that I was really interested in, was the juxtaposed map of land areas of Boston (49 sq.mi.), Manhattan (23 sq.mi.), and San Francisco (47 sq.mi.) laid neatly within the 139 square mile footprint of the City of Detroit. Prepared by Dan Pitera, a professor of architecture at University of Detroit Mercy and one of the more involved local participants, this really shows an indication of the immensity of the problem.
Looking at the graphic is staggering. It’s one of those simple ways to show a relationship that would make Edward Tufte proud – simple, concise, and totally provocative. It got me thinking about Portland, for instance… and I was literally floored with the information I found that the City of Portland occupied 134 square miles (almost equal to Detroit) and had even less population and density. I was dumbfounded – as you could probably to a same graphic for Portland (and believe me, I will!) – it will blow people away…
The article ends with the big question, and one that means that Detroit may be able to shift from being the poster boy for shrinking urbanism to the one that figured it out. “Whatever happens, clearly Detroit is evolving early in the 21st Century as a sort of blank slate. Instead of looking at shrinkage as a problem, many planners see it as an opportunity. Detroit has a chance to invent an entirely new urban model, they say. Whether it’s farming or greenways or a network of thriving urban villages connected by transit lines, the solution could be uniquely Detroit’s. And the likelihood is that the rest of the world, already fascinated by Detroit’s urban drama, would take notice.”
And finally, an amazing resource that I’ve been trying to track down that has been an amazing find (gotta love Interlibrary Loan…) – ‘Stalking Detroit’ by Jason Young (editor), Georgia Daskalakis (editor), and Charles Waldheim (editor) is chock full of prescient Landscape Urbanism theory and writings – as well as much more applied thinking that we did in our four days in Detroit.
From the Univ. of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning site, a quick synopsis: “Published in late 2001, the book subtly blends sixteen stand-alone features with over one hundred color photographs and duotones to bring the reader right to the center of Detroit itself. The energy of its design and in its words articulates the former power of Detroit and questions the myriad revitalization efforts to date.”
And from the books introduction (p.10): “Detroit is the most thoroughly modern city in the world. Modern, not of course for its great works of architecture or its progressive social advancements, but modern in the sense that this city has exemplified the assumptions of enlightened modernity like no other. Among those assumptions was a tacit belief that technological advances stemming from empirical knowledge of the world could necessarily lead to social progress. From our perspective at the turn of the century, Detroit, rather than corroborating modernity’s faith in progress through technology, affords an extraordinarily legible example of post-Fordist urbanism and its attendant forms of human subjectivity as shaped by the city’s continuously and rapidly transforming economic, social, and operational conditions.”
With writings from James Corner, Charles Waldheim, Georgia Daskalakis, Patrik Schumacher and Christian Rogner – amonst others – this tome is worthy of a further exploration once I have a chance to get through it. Now if only I had access to that before heading to Detroit.