Andre Brumfield: Right-sizing Detroit brings opportunities for a slimmer, trimmer, healthier city

This week, Model D launches a monthly guest editorial column. Up first is Andre Brumfield, a principal and planner with the Design + Planning practice at AECOM. He is a Milwaukee native and current Chicago resident, and has worked all over the world. He is leading the Northend neighborhood master plan.

From its beginning, Detroit has harnessed bold innovation to prosper. In 1701, Detroit was founded as a French settlement and offered free land to attract families. Within 60 years it had grown to be the largest city between Montreal and New Orleans. In 1805 the city was completely destroyed by fire, but an ambitious new street plan laid the groundwork for the explosive growth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1914, Henry Ford introduced the $5-a-day wage, which drew legions of new workers to Detroit and established a new global standard of living for the working class.

The past 50 years have been characterized by a lack of that signature Detroit innovation when it has come to addressing challenges. Now the city finds itself in a period of crisis with a shrinking population, tax revenues that cannot cover city expenses, enormous amounts of vacant land, and a diminished traditional industrial base. The possibility of Detroit going into bankruptcy is real, and now innovation is needed more than ever.

Sustainability Age

Historically Detroit was known as the most successful city at harnessing new technology. Today, sustainability is the single biggest economic opportunity, so a smart plan for Detroit will find ways to mine this new vein of economic opportunity to put the city at the center of the Sustainability Age, just as it was at the center of the Automobile Age. Detroit's greatest assets -- water, abundant land, a history and spirit of reinvention, and potential for entrepreneurial investment --must be applied to establish a new vision for the city. With a little imagination, it is not hard to see how Detroit has the potential to become a leader in sustainability.

"Abundant land resources" is a nice way to describe the large amount of vacant land in the city. The high cost of maintaining the infrastructure to serve those areas is a key issue for Detroit. "Right-sizing" has become a popular phrase for allowing the city to focus redevelopment efforts in certain parts of the city and allowing other parts revert to green space and is a first step in re-imagining Detroit.

Right-sizing efforts raise many questions: Where is there a concentrated population base? Where are the centers of employment? What environmental systems are in play? Where are the treasured social and historic cores? Where will new public transportation nodes be located? How can living be made more sustainable? How can right-sizing attract investment and benefit the people of Detroit?

Smarter density

Right-sizing often leads to a discussion about adopting a smarter density, which in turn creates a more sustainable way of living. Density provides cost benefits by increasing the efficiency with which energy is used and services are delivered. It reduces the distance you need to travel to get to jobs or recreation, and it creates advantages for commercial and retail growth. It also can foster healthier and safer communities.

For an example of a district that could be transformed to a higher-density, mixed use area, we can look at the Northend neighborhood. This area, bounded by Highland Park to the north, Grand Boulevard to the south, Woodward to the west and I-75 to the east, is currently one of the city's more distressed areas. I'm leading a team to create a new Neighborhood Master Plan that would develop an area to absorb residents from "decommissioned" areas and to maximize the benefits of the Northend's many strengths.

The new neighborhood plan calls for high-density, mixed-use development oriented around the three transit stations that will run through the neighborhood when the new Woodward light-rail system is constructed. The types of housing include townhomes, which are more energy efficient than single-family homes, and three-story walk-up units, which allow for retail on the ground floor. The area will also include new community parks, space for high-tech or light industrial businesses, and some land for urban agriculture. It's a big transformation for an area that was historically dominated by the single-family home.

The flip side of the coin, of course, is planning the areas to be returned to green space. These could include areas where infrastructure is beyond repair or too costly to upgrade, and where population has severely declined. The process must be undertaken in strong collaboration with City Government, and given the City's complicated history with eminent domain, must be done carefully and fairly. This cannot be viewed as large-scale urban renewal for the 21st century.

Reduce, reuse

Finding ways to productively re-use the large amount of vacant land -- 40 square miles, or nearly a third of the city by most estimates -- is one of our great challenges and opportunities.

Urban farming is a romantic solution that has received an enormous amount of media coverage. Small community farms have shown great success as tools for neighborhood development, and larger-scale commercial agriculture has also been proposed. In talking about agriculture as a solution, we do need be realistic. The average commercial farm is less than one square mile in size -- to occupy any significant portion of the available land Detroit will need a lot of farming. However the urban agriculture movement develops - and perhaps it will be a great opportunity for Detroit -- it will only be one tool in a wide array of solutions.

Creating greenways linking neighborhoods and existing greenway efforts is a possibility that makes the city bike-friendly and improves quality of life. Letting portions of the city go "back to nature" is another solution. Reforestation, planting fields of native wildflowers, and allowing areas to revert to wetlands will help restore the ecological balance of the region and bring natural beauty inside the city limits.

This land could even be put to an economic advantage. AECOM's winning entry to the History Channel's "City of the Future" competition was an Atlanta-based plan proposing restoration of the forest and wetlands in the drought-challenged city, allowing them to perform as a natural filtration system for stormwater. By restoring 20% of the city's area to a natural state the burden on the stormwater/wastewater treatment system is relieved, saving billions of dollars. "Empty land" does not have to mean useless land.

Firing up the engine

Of course a crucial factor in a re-imagined Detroit is the growth of jobs. How can the city fire up the economic engine? How can we encourage entrepreneurial investment?

Toby Barlow recently wrote a piece for the Huffington Post, "How a Billionaire Can Make a Billion Dollars." In it, he proposed that someone actually purchase the city of Detroit. "It was tongue-in-cheek, but I wrote it when I read that Warren Buffett bought a railroad."

Buffett considered the $34 billion purchase a wager on the economic future of the United States. Is it completely unreasonable to expect that another wealthy risk-taker couldn't take a similar approach to Detroit? There are people with incredible assets out there, and as Toby says, "Detroit seems to be the equivalent of buying Ford stock a year ago. I made a lot of money on that."

Both entrepreneurs and the government are looking to Green Technology to transform the economy, and Detroit should be a key player. Detroit has the technical minds to create a new industry here, and enormous amounts of federal money are becoming available to encourage it. The global oil crisis is only going to increase the demand for new technologies, and Detroit needs a new growth industry. It's a logical match-up.

But we have to be ready. We must have a plan that guides where businesses and industries can invest and cluster and be efficient, where new people live and visitors can enjoy a unique culture, and how nature can thrive and land can be assembled for quick development. We need to plan how people and goods get from place to place, and how to best access and harness Detroit's ample natural resources. We've reached a point where land is available, now we have to look at how we make it easier to redevelop.

This need for vision is not a Detroit challenge alone; it is a challenge facing the entire world in the 21st century. For the first time in history more than half of the world's population is in urbanized areas, and we have grown in our understanding of how interlinked the world's economy and environment really are. Detroit's challenges can be seen as an extreme version of the challenges facing many American cities. The need for short-term success and long-term value building is something that the entire country must address, because as Detroit goes, so goes the U.S.

The flag of the City of Detroit contains an image from the fire of 1805 and has two Latin mottos: "We hope for better things" and "It will rise from the ashes." But Detroit has never just hoped for better things, it has always created them. Detroit needs a clear vision to define where it will go and strong leadership to take it there. With those requirements in place, a collection of big moves -- working in concert or building on each other -- will guide its transformation into a "right-sized" city that is not only functional and livable, but that is once again a player on the global map.

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