Detroiters Work: The Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper Regeneration of a Great American City

Nov 9, 2013
May 1, 2024
‍A young Detroiter participates in the creation of a mural at The Alley Project in Southwest Detroit. / Photo: Erik Howard/The Alley Project

It’s hard to miss what’s going on in Detroit right now. The city is still struggling, yes, with the recent bankruptcy announcement dominating headlines. But all across the city, Detroiters are seizing the opportunity that only hitting rock bottom can create: that of a total re-working, from root to leaf. Detroiters are taking action in Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper ways as a first step in reversing decades of decline. In a city that often can’t even afford to keep the lights on (literally), anyone who wants to can dig in and start making changes. As local artist-activist and The Alley Project founder Erik Howard puts it, “We’ve been afforded the opportunity that everybody’s broke.”

Detroiters aren’t taking their city’s decline lying down—and a determinedly “can-do” attitude is driving everyone from individual activists to the community development groups, private investors, and philanthropic organizations that are reshaping the city. “Detroit is the type of city where you have to jump in and roll up your sleeves and do work,” says Community Development Advocates of Detroit Director Sarida Scott-Montgomery, a lifelong resident who will proudly tell you that she and her family chose to stay. “This is not an ‘easy’ city. But that, to me, has almost become an inherent part of being a Detroiter. Detroiters work. We are resilient.”

‍Downtown office workers pack Campus Martius Park every day at lunch hour. / Photo: PPS

Restoring the Core: Downtown Establishes a Model for Rapid Change

The city’s turnaround is most visible downtown, and we at the Project for Public Spaces have been deeply involved with what’s happening in Detroit’s core. Over the past year and a half we’ve been working with the Downtown Detroit Partnership (DDP) and Rock Ventures/Opportunity Detroit, the real estate arm of visionary Placemaker Dan Gilbert’s firm Quicken Loans, to engage thousands of Detroiters around the creation of a Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper plan for downtown’s key public spaces. Since 2007, Gilbert has relocated thousands of Quicken employees from the suburbs to downtown Detroit (as of January 2013, 7,000 Quicken employees work downtown). Gilbert has also purchased dozens of downtown buildings.

At the same time, PPS has been involved in the planning and implementation of LQC initiatives (complementing the downtown initiative) to activate two of the city’s prime waterfront spaces: the re-claimed Detroit RiverFront and the thousand-acre historic island park, Belle Isle . This expansive, multi-pronged effort has been, from our perspective, an historic attempt to drive the revitalization of a whole downtown area using the Placemaking process.

Deb Dansby, a vice president at Rock Ventures, joined Gilbert’s crusade to revive downtown after years of watching communities across Michigan use Placemaking strategies to pull themselves back from the brink through her work at the Michigan Economic Development Corp. “The reason that we really focused on Placemaking in Detroit was its ability to have quick impacts,” Dansby explains. “With cities that are as large as Detroit, a revitalization is like a ship dragging an anchor on the bottom of the ocean. It takes so long to transform such a massive space. We needed things that cause an immediate influx of people; the only way to do that was a Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper strategy.”

Rock and the DDP announced the LQC plan for downtown this past April at a media event where Gilbert and PPS President Fred Kent walked the audience through a vision for a network of spaces downtown. The DDP then swung into action just a few weeks later. This summer, their robust slate of programming, from concerts to markets, turned Cadillac Square into a hub of activity that drew people from around the city and the entire metropolitan area (which, despite the central city’s decline, remains one of the nation’s largest with 5 million residents). Across the street in Campus Martius, an initiative funded in part by Southwest Airlines transformed an underutilized lawn into a sand beach modeled after the resort beaches of upstate Michigan, complete with lounge chairs.

Campus Martius Park‘s transformation into an upstate-Michigan-style beach had a huge impact on downtown this past summer. / Photo: PPS

For the first time, programming happened  throughout the downtown, including Capitol Park, Grand Circus Park, and Paradise Valley, which had rarely been programmed before. Complementing the programming in the Grand Circus Park, the DDP restored the historic fountain and opened up new access and places for movable tables and chairs.  The calendar of events lists hundreds of happenings across the core of the city.

The DDP has long served as the manager of Campus Martius, a multi-million-dollar public square carved out of a traffic artery in 2004 (a project that PPS led the visioning of starting in 1999). “Campus Martius was always envisioned as a grand central gathering place,” explains DDP Senior Vice President Bob Gregory, “but also to be a catalyst for economic development. Because the area was so devastated, with all of the empty buildings and vacant land, we needed to jump-start that core district. We wanted to create a space that wasn’t just beautiful, but had the ability to activate the area 365 days a year.”

The focus on activities and uses that draw Detroiters from all over the region has paid off. According to Gregory, more than a billion dollars in real estate investment has flowed into the area immediately surrounding Campus Martius since it opened less than a decade ago. And Gregory, who cut his teeth working in the corporate milieu of the city’s storied auto industry at General Motors before joining the DDP, is quick to point out the fact that Campus Martius Park was the result of civic-minded private investment, a gift to the city on its 300th anniversary tied directly to the construction of Compuware’s new headquarters building when the tech firm decided to move downtown.

“Compuware was forward-thinking in terms of knowing that there needed to be more than just a building, that there needed to be an environment that was great,” Gregory says. “Their chairman and founder, Peter Karmanos, was very passionate about the city, and creating more than just a building to house employees. I think Dan Gilbert is that way today, with Quicken Loans.”

Indeed, Gilbert’s investments could prove very profitable if the Placemaking model is effective in raising the whole area up. The effort to revitalize downtown Detroit is what Gilbert refers to as “doing well by doing good.” This focus on improving the city’s public realm is a remarkable shift in thinking from within corporate America, where insular suburban office parks have been the model for so long—and indeed still is, looking at what tech giants like Facebook and Google are planning in Silicon Valley.

Even with Rock Ventures’ substantial investments, collaboration has been key downtown. “The speed at which things came together [this summer] is a testament to the people who had their nose to the grindstone to make things run smoothly amid all of the administrative challenges that the city of Detroit is facing right now,” says Malik Goodwin, Vice President of Project Management at the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC), which has long served as a civic intermediary by bringing different organizations together around the common goal of improving the city. “It’s certainly not a magical thing. It took a lot of hard work for that outcome to take shape.”

‍Cadillac Square was transformed into a pop-up style market with rotating vendors this past summer. / Photo: PPS

The LQC activation has been making waves; people came in droves to public spaces in downtown and along the waterfront over the summer to check out the changes taking place, and images of the beach at Campus Martius became as de rigueur as the “ruin porn” that had long represented the city to the outside world. News outlets from 60 Minutes to PBS NewsHourincluded its sandy expanse in recent feature stories on the city. But for all of the excitement around what’s happening downtown, the “Quicker” aspect of the city’s LQC transformation has created some tension. Are there now “two Detroits,” as locals and out-of-town observers alike have started to suggest?

“We think the core has to be healthy before the rest of the city can be healthy,” Dansby says, in explaining Rock’s decision to focus so intensely on downtown. “What we did, that I think was different, was that a lot of cities will spend years master planning…it’s very specific to real estate, or traffic. But we said, ‘We need to do traffic studies and improve our buildings, yes, but the most important thing we can do is just get people into the city.’”

“You can’t get away from the fact that there are a lot of significant problems in Detroit,” says Gregory. “The bankruptcy is big; a lot of the neighborhoods still have challenges in terms of crime and blight. All of those challenges that you hear about on TV are still here. But on the other hand, there is a lot of leadership in the neighborhoods, from organizations like the DEGC and Detroit Future City, that’s working to really push the neighborhood agenda forward. There are a lot of things we’re doing downtown that can be replicated in the neighborhoods.”

No Blank Slate: LQC Spirit is Already in Detroit’s Neighborhoods

While the scale of what’s happening downtown might not be replicable across all 139 square miles of the city’s neighborhoods at once, it can still serve as a model for civic leaders who are open to engaging residents in the process of revitalizing their own communities. Indeed, it’s already happening.

“Whenever I see a story about what’s happening in Detroit, I hear people say ‘When is this coming to the neighborhoods?’” laments PPS Vice President Steve Davies, who has worked on a variety of public market projects in Detroit over the past decade, including the revitalization of the city’s legendary Eastern Market district. “But it’s already there! This energy is in the neighborhoods. It’s just off of peoples’ radar screen. Detroit is just such a vast city that one little place, even though the people in the neighborhood know about it, is not that visible.”

There is a common misconception, on the part of outsiders, the Detroit is a “blank slate.” In fact, while large areas may be vacant, nothing could be further from the truth. Detroit has a proud cultural history that continues to inspire residents across the city. The Alley Project (TAP) is one wonderful example. Located in Southwest Detroit, TAP uses a variety of arts programs to bring Detroiters together in a repurposed alley splashed brightly with street art, to meet and interact. This is especially important in an area that has seen an influx of new residents as Detroit’s reputation as a hotbed for hipsters and creative types—another  side of the “two Detroits” story—has grown.

‍At The Alley Project, a garage serves as a canvas for art, a studio space for community creativity and a forum for events. / Photo: Erik Howard/The Alley Project

“We can’t hand this metric to foundations,” says Howard, in explaining his organization’s approach, “but internally we weigh everything we do by the frequency and depth of unlikely relationships that are formed. Placemaking becomes vital through something like that. But we try not to be naive about it. When the money comes back around, we’re not going to be as popular. So we’re trying to champion the idea of social capital, and to use Placemaking now as a way to leverage a seat at the table once that happens.”

The focus on the social side of what’s happening at TAP is surely one of the reasons that it is one of the higher-profile neighborhood initiatives in Detroit. But the project has not yet been connected to any measurable economic growth. According to Howard, this is one of the main reasons that projects like his aren’t attracting the kind of attention that downtown is receiving. “A lot of the Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper stuff that’s happening in Detroit is just not that popular because it doesn’t drive the economic economy. It’s just people doing what they need to do.”

In a city where almost 20 percent of the workforce is unemployed, there is a very real need for genuine economic growth. At the same time, there is an equal need for social interaction and a better quality of life. The City recognizes this reality, and downtown’s LQC revitalization has bolstered enthusiasm for stronger, smarter partnerships between local residents and their government, on both sides of the aisle.

The Detroit Recreation Department, which manages public spaces around the city, has been proactive in working with Detroiters to make neighborhood parks into community anchors. “It’s all about stewardship and people having a sense of ownership in their neighborhood park,” explains Alicia Minter, director of the DRD. “Although government does have a responsibility for the property that we own, and to be able to provide services, the reality is that we’re very limited in what we’re able to do at this juncture. [In letting community groups take on more of a role in programming city parks] it’s not our aim to transfer responsibility onto community groups, but we recognize that we need to partner with individuals to help us achieve our overall mission to be able to provide safe, clean green spaces where families can play and grow together.”

‍Children celebrate the opening of a new splash park in the revitalized Palmer Park. / Photo: Barbara Barefield/People for Palmer Park

Rochelle Lento, one of the founding members of the citizen group People for Palmer Park (PPP), appreciates this openness from the City government. “Palmer Park is a perfect example where the City of Detroit doesn’t have the resources or the ability to do all of what they’d like to do in a given space,” she says. “I’ve found that we’ve had good-hearted, responsive people that work for the city that work with us very well. They’re willing to meet us halfway, and they bring to the table everything they can. [From there,] we do what we have to do to make things happen.”

Lento’s group has worked to transform an historic but long-neglected green space into a bustling neighborhood center. PPP, which is made up entirely of volunteers from the neighborhoods surrounding the park, has organized a variety of programs year-round, led architectural tours, refurbished recreational facilities, and cleared trails across 300 acres of parkland. “There was one instance,” Lento recalls, “where we wanted to repair a baseball field. The City told us ‘We’ve got fences, but we don’t have all of the parts.’ So they told us what they didn’t have and we spent maybe $80 to purchase some posts, and they came out and put up new fences. Then the Legends League dragged the field, put the lines down, and we did a community cleanup day and had about 25 MSU students come out to paint the fences, the bleachers—and we had a baseball field! Now Legends League has a home field, which they didn’t before; they had just traveled around the city for games. They used the field all summer. There were probably 200 people at opening day.”

Three miles away, on the corner of Hazelwood and 3rd Street, sits Peaches & Greens (P&G), another project that sprung up from within its own community. When PPS first got involvedwith the project several years ago, with the support of The Kresge Foundation, the area around the P&G site was what Davies often refers to as a place desert—a swath of cityscape without any safe, meaningful places for residents to meet and interact. “Peaches & Greens has just become a mecca within the community, because there aren’t a lot of gathering spaces or meeting places,” explains P&G’s Lisa Johanon, several years into the project, which has involved the adaptive re-use of an abandoned commercial building and adjacent gas station to create a community center that offers training programs, community events, and space for locals to just hang out.

Johanon is a vocal advocate for what LQC Placemaking can achieve. P&G’s planning and implementation has been aided immeasurably by a focus on programming over design. “There is a lot of energy and a real good feeling downtown, with all that’s happening there,” she says. “I’m just not sure that that’s trickled into the neighborhoods, yet; but I do know it’s there around where Peaches & Greens is, and it has opportunities to spread out when good things happen like that…LQC Placemaking offers a very quick and easy way to make [changes] happen in different places. You can transform places really quick, and that can make a difference in neighborhoods and change how people think and feel, absolutely.”

Central Detroit residents have transformed an abandoned gas station into a gathering place at Peaches & Greens, complete with new furniture and a pavilion structure to protect domino players from the elements. / Photo: Steve Davies / Peaches & Greens

“Acts of Placemaking bring our aspirations into focus,” Kresge Foundation president Rip Rapson said in his opening remarks at the Placemaking Leadership Council meeting in Detroitlast spring. “They enable us to create an emotional bond with our community. When we’re able to connect to a city or a neighborhood through an individual or shared experience of its public spaces, there’s a magnetic pull. You want to stay committed. You want to invest. You want to build a future. These are the preconditions for civic transformation.”

Initiatives like Peaches & Greens, The Alley Project, and the People for Palmer Park are a critical part of Detroit’s turnaround, specifically because they spring up organically from within their neighborhoods. They are manifestations of the emotional bonds that their founders feel to their communities. In turn, they increase the number and variety of opportunities for Detroiters to connect with their city, and strengthen its civic realm.

The question now is whether an LQC strategy can scale up to help create a more cohesive narrative around the city’s comeback, incorporating everything from neighborhood collaborations to an increasingly dynamic downtown.

Detroit Future City: Creating a Framework for LQC Regeneration

For its own part, the city has been hard at work on building a foundation for the city’s revitalization through the Detroit Works Project, which produced the far-reaching Detroit Future City (DFC) master plan earlier this year. DFC is a hefty, comprehensive, and innovative document, intended to serve as a guide for reshaping the city over the next 50 years. It’s also becoming the framework under which a city-wide Placemaking effort is emerging.

As the plan describes, the Detroit Works team engaged Detroiters through “hundreds of meetings, 30,000 conversations, connecting with people over 163,000 times, over 70,000 survey responses and comments from participants, and countless hours spent dissecting and examining critical data about our city.” The final document breaks down the plan for the city’s future into several key focus areas: Neighborhoods, City Systems, Land Use, Public Land, and Civic Engagement, with the aim of addressing how each of these can be adjusted to better serve residents in a city so large that, at present, resources are often stretched too thin to be effective.

‍The Detroit RiverFront was activated this summer by a series of LQC activities, like this mass yoga class, as part of a strategy developed by PPS and the RiverFront Conservancy. / Photo: PPS

Sarida Scott-Montgomery’s group, Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD), acts as an umbrella network for community development organizations across Detroit. Due to its connections with people working across the entire spectrum of community development in the city, CDAD was asked to serve as one of the advising organizations to Detroit Works on the creation of the DFC. As a result, Scott-Montgomery has a detailed understanding both of the plan and Detroiters’ response to it.

“I think it’s very hard to get people excited about a 50-year plan,” she says. “People in Detroit have waited a long time for change. But the Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper Placemaking approach is a great way for people to see some immediate results, and to further support and buy into Detroit Future City. The DFC looks and reads as a very well-thought-out, almost academic exercise; if we don’t want it to be just an academic exercise, we need to start breaking it down so that people can digest it, use it, and understand it.”

Reflecting on the DFC plan, Johanon seems more cautious. “Right now it’s a matter of: will the communities embrace what needs to happen? That remains to be seen.” But asked whether she thinks there’s a role for LQC Placemaking in helping Detroiters to begin to wrap their heads around the plan, she doesn’t hesitate. “I think it does,” she says. “Placemaking is a great concept, and its time has come here. It’s time has come.”

‍Families congregated at the southwestern tip of Belle Isle for kayaking, one of the many components of the BLISS LQC programming plan PPS developed with the conservancy that manages the island park. / Photo: PPS

“If we recognize the DFC as a framework for moving forward,” says Scott-Montgomery, “LQC is an easy way to start pulling out elements and saying ‘this is the way we’re starting to re-vision neighborhoods, and we want residents to have some say in how they want their neighborhoods to feel.’ We know we can’t make significant changes with $10,000. But you can really change the enjoyment that people have in their neighborhood with some small things. To me, it’s almost like a down payment on the promise of the DFC. It’s saying to people ‘We hear you, we know we have work to do, and we want to start with some small things that will make it better for you [right away].’”

Luckily, DFC Executive Director Dan Kinkead agrees. “I think that thoughtful Placemaking is at the heart of all good urban design and planning,” Kinkead says. “LQC initiatives provide a very accessible way for residents to see real physical improvements in their neighborhoods, and to ultimately have an improved quality of life. If you apply that to city like Detroit, you can see the enormous opportunity for large scale, transformative applications of these small scale granular interventions.”

One of the key benefits of taking an LQC approach to demonstrating elements of the DFC in neighborhoods across Detroit is that the city would be able to build support for the plan while simultaneously learning, through how people interact with local interventions, what works and what doesn’t before making any capital-intensive changes to the city’s infrastructure or layout. “Placemaking, I think, can work hand in hand to help get us to the place where we know what things will work in which areas, and where we can begin implementing things,” says Minter. “Everything is not going to work in all areas of the city.”

A LQC approach could also tap more directly into each neighborhood’s social infrastructure, developing local leadership within a larger framework of civic revitalization efforts. “The primary question [in any Placemaking effort] should be: What can you build from what you have already?” Howard says. “You have a lot more than just money. You have talent, you have interest, relationships.” In an officially bankrupt city, these “soft” forms of capital will surely be especially valuable.

“I think it’s really important for there to be a lot of time spent on foundation-building at the very beginning,” cautions DEGC’s Goodwin, in considering how Detroiters can be engaged meaningfully in the re-shaping of their communities. “If there’s not a sincerity on the part of all parties to work together collectively, and be a family around a common cause, then [a Placemaking initiative] is not going to work. We struggle in this town with treating each other like family. We struggle with race, and racism here in Detroit. We struggle with segregation. If there’s not a genuineness being brought to the table, then partnership is going to be hard.”

‍A performer entertains Detroiters enjoying a sunny afternoon in Cadillac Square. / Photo: PPS

Rapson, whose foundation has been one of the driving forces (and primary funders) behind the creation of the Detroit Works Project and the DFC, seemed to be calling for an LQC approach to the plan’s implementation, himself, during his remarks at the Leadership Council meeting. “There is a wonderful elegance to fitting Placemaking within a larger frame,” he opined. “Quicker and longer, lighter and more enduring, cheaper and more investment-intensive, all fitting hand-in-glove. [Daniel] Burnham was right about no small plans, but so too is Fred Kent about not getting stuck in the ponderous, the rigid and the pretentious. Each feeds, and is propelled by, the other.”

For decades, Detroiters have had to learn to make do with less and less as their city has declined. But necessity is the mother of all invention, and the DIY ethos that grew out of the city’s struggles has prepared it for its role as a hotbed of Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper civic innovation today. If Detroit can learn the important lessons that its downtown’s resurgence has provided, and re-build a foundation of trust with its citizens around engagement and participation, the potential is immeasurable.

Detroit may not be an “easy” city, no; but it can—and will—be a great one again.


Detroiters work!

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