Detroit has become a media darling in recent years, as the story of its rapid de-industrialization and population loss has given way to a new narrative: one of entrepreneurial arts groups, neighborhood farmers markets, and corporate investment downtown by the likes of Quicken Loans and Compuware, catalyzed in part by the new public square at Campus Martius. America loves a good underdog story, and after seeing Motown emptied out, and staring at so many decadently macabre “ruin porn” photos of the city’s deteriorating train station and empty Deco office towers, Detroit is an underdog par excellence.
The green shoots of renewal have generated so much interest that we’ve heard that many Detroiters are beginning to develop a sort of “planning fatigue” as a rush of independent efforts launched to help turn their city around have left some wondering when the analyses, studies, and public input forums will produce some real results. “This is where PPS’s Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper approach comes in,” according to PPS’s Elena Madison. “There are a lot of great initiatives going in the city, but it is hard to connect them to a larger vision. The fact that farmers markets are often temporary and flexible means that they can spark immediate improvements and build local confidence today, while also informing strategies for long-term change at both the site and neighborhood levels.”
Last year, with the support of the Kresge Foundation, Madison and a team of PPS Placemakers (including Senior VP Steve Davies and Senior Director of Markets David O’Neill, both of whom previously worked on developing the plan to revamp the city’s iconic Eastern Market) traveled to Detroit to work on food markets in two very different neighborhoods. One market, sited in a church parking lot in the Grandmont-Rosedale neighborhood on the city’s northwest side, was located in a relatively stable, middle-class area. The second site was around Peaches & Greens, a non-profit produce market in Central Detroit, an area with high rates of vacancy, unemployment, and a population in greater need.
As Davies explains, “Markets often arise to address existing food deserts—in Detroit, a lot of the markets are citizen-driven: they sprang up because people were responding to a local need. But another major issue that we’re addressing is that many Detroit neighborhoods are also Place deserts. These are communities where there’s just nowhere to go; you have all of these people living near each other, you have schools, churches, and social services, but there’s little public civic life to speak of.”
In Grandmont-Rosedale, market vendors and the neighborhood association (which owns North Rosedale community park) came to realize how Triangulation could lead to a more symbiotic relationship: the park can galvanize support for its new capital campaign by incorporating site preparations for the market into its plans, while the market vendors will benefit greatly from relocating to a multi-use site with a strong sense of Place. Over in Central Detroit, meanwhile, people were more than ready for a change. “They basically said to us, ‘Anything we can do to create a stronger sense of place, we are willing to try,’” Madison recalls. The PPS team wound up organizing a Harvest Festival with local partner Central Detroit Christian CDC, which runs Peaches & Greens, in order to test out different uses and develop a strategy for how the market’s building, a once-abandoned storefront, can become the heart of a “mini Main Street” with a variety of services, parks and gardens on vacant land, and even traffic calming measures.
Today, both markets are working to implement their Placemaking visions. Peaches & Greens will soon begin cleaning up vacant sites and next year construction will start on a small addition to accommodate more programming and a commercial-grade community kitchen, where it will offer community dinners, cooking classes, and job skills training. At North Rosedale Park, plans call for moving the farmers market to its new home as early as mid-summer. Madison attributes progress being made at both sites to the fact that Placemaking is a process that produces projects that communities can really act on: “We’re not talking with people abstractly about how to ‘improve their food system.’ We’re working with them to implement very specific, concrete improvements.”
Recently, PPS began working with another group of markets in Detroit, this time in partnership with the Kellogg Foundation. The three sites involved are all part of the nascent network known as the Detroit Community Markets, with smaller markets learning from each-other and receiving support from Detroit’s spectacularly successful Eastern Market. Two of the markets are currently located on hot and unattractive parking lots, but this summer will open with new “Place Makeovers” featuring new tents, seating areas, and greenery that were planned during recent Placemaking workshops with local residents. One of Kellogg’s goals is for this new initiative to plan strategically for including markets into Detroit’s long-term planning efforts–meaning that markets could play an integral role in the city’s turnaround not only as places for commerce and healthy food for families and children, but as anchors and destinations for their surrounding neighborhoods.
In a city like Detroit, where needs far outstrip resources, public markets offer a lot of bang for the buck. Markets need people, and plenty of them–vendors, customers, volunteers–meaning that they offer plenty of easy ways for people to interact and take part in changing the way that their public space is used. “The people we worked with in Central Detroit kept saying, ‘We want more places to get together, to just be together,’” says Madison, echoing Davies’ observation about the importance of addressing Place deserts. “They’ve been really responsive and productive; what’s happening at that site is a great example of how people can help themselves.”
Through our work on markets across Detroit, we’ve also witnessed all the ways that Detroiters are working rebuild their public spaces from the bottom up–creating farms and gardens, walking and biking paths, and restoring community parks. And since the only cure for planning fatigue is action, that’s the best news we’ve heard about the city yet.
Big thanks to all of our partners in Detroit, who are making amazing things happen on the ground every day: The Kresge Foundation, CDCCDC, Grandmont-Rosedale Development Corp, North Rosedale Park Civic Association, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Eastern Market Corp, Warren/Conner Development Coalition, CHASS, Joy-Southfield Development Corp, and. last but not least, the Detroit Community Markets.