Framing Detroit Future City: Let's get started

When Detroit Future City was released to the public, a friend of mine put out a call on Facebook asking for the Cliff Notes version of the Motor City's new planning framework. The first response, from Recycle Here's Matthew Naimi, summed it up the best way I have heard yet:

"Close your eyes. Think of the perfect city. Done."

Detroit Future City has something for every Detroiter. Community activists looking to fight blight in their neighborhood? There is a section for that. Aspiring entrepreneur dreaming of launching an innovative new business? There is a section for that, too. Urban farmer with ambitions of turning blocks of abandoned property into tracts of land focused on sustainability? Yes to that, too. You get the idea.

Here are some of my takeaways from the first review of the Detroit Future City framework:

Fighting blight: Stopping the blight cycle of properties that fall into disrepair, vacancy, abandonment and scrapped-out shells is one of Detroit's most vexing problems. Detroit Future City advocates a multi-pronged approach that calls for obvious fixes like better code enforcement, measured responses like creating incentives to help prevent problem owners from abandoning buildings while increasing the cost of holding vacant property. The framework also calls for working with local land banks and the Wayne County Tax Foreclosure Auction to prevent property speculation and to create larger tracts of land for future redevelopment.

What to do with public land: Thousands upon thousands of vacant lots, most of which are blighted, are owned by public agencies, such as the State Land Bank or City Planning & Development Dept. The problem is getting all of these various agencies on the same page. Detroit Future City develops a comprehensive formula for selling/reusing that land that tackles blight and stabilizes communities. The challenge is getting the numerous public stakeholders to buy-in and figure out who pays to maintain the parcels public agencies hold onto.

Blue infrastructure: A relatively new term in Detroit-planning jargon. It refers to creating opportunities to limit storm water run-off and overtaxing the city's sewerage system. Among the more traditional, easy-to-implement proposals to create blue infrastructure are building rain gardens and small rain retention ponds. Some of the more out-of-the-box proposals include a "stormwater boulevard" (a street median built to absorb stormwater runoff) and "wet buffers" (ditch-like retention ponds for stormwater runoff) near expressways. (Editor's note: there will be a more comprehensive look at blue infrastructure planning in Model D later this month.)   

Promoting entrepreneurship: Detroit Future City says African-Americans in the Motor City are 15 percent more likely than their national counterparts to be formally self-employed. The framework calls for capitalizing on that trend to help promote the creation of more minority businesses. One of the proposed solutions is to promote the creation of low-cost shared spaces (think incubators and collaborative offices) that encourage clusters of workers with high percentages of self-employment. It also calls for aligning public, private and philanthropic investments with these employment districts.

Employment stats: The Detroit Future City report came with a number of interesting statistics. Some of the most eye-catching stats deal with employment in Detroit:
  • 61 percent of employed Detroiters work outside the city
  • 30 percent of Detroit jobs are held by Detroiters
  • 70,700 Detroiters live and work within Detroit
  • Downtown Detroit has 7,158 businesses with 40,000 employees
  • Corktown has 2,500 jobs in a mix of logistics, creative enterprises and retail companies
Mobility: Detroit Future City notes that 21.5 percent of Detroiters don't have access to a private vehicle but only 9 percent utilize public transit, and buses run at 75 percent capacity during peak hours. The framework calls streamlining the city's mobility with an emphasis on non-personal automotive transportation. Among the recommendations are plans for denser, more walkable neighborhoods; making downtown the hub for the regional transportation system; prioritizing the completion of the M-1 Rail streetcar project; maximize transit connections with the commuter rail station at New Center; and improving bus service throughout the city, such as dependable crosstown bus service along the McNichols corridor.

Not for the faint of heart: Detroit Future City is the product of hundreds of meetings, 30,000 conversations, and more than 70,000 survey responses and comments from participants. Taking all that into account means that Detroit Future City is not only a strategic framework but a voluminous tome that measures in at a hefty 347 pages. Although its authors went to great lengths to make it accessible to the non-urban-planning crowd it's still a challenge to digest. This isn't light weekend reading. It's like eating urban-garden greens for Detroiters.

Jon Zemke is Startup News editor for Model D. Look for followup Detroit Future City reports from a team of writers in the weeks and months ahead.

Read more articles by Jon Zemke.

Jon Zemke is a news editor with Model D and its sister publications, Metromode and Concentrate. He's also a small-scale real-estate developer and landlord in the greater downtown Detroit area.