After restructuring period, Detroit Future City emerges potent and engaged

Mose Primus is pretty excited about what's been happening in his neighborhood. In Yorkshire Woods, on the east side just north of I-94, a small but meaningful beautification project has been underway thanks to efforts from residents and the Yorkshire Woods Community Organization, of which Primus is president. 

The group bought several lots on Kensington Street and in 2016 turned them into a produce garden and stage. This year, they're in the process of building and planting a rain garden, Yorkshire in Bloom, complete with maple trees, roses, and a gazebo made out of reused doors. 

"The colors, the aroma, the atmosphere will just be phenomenal," says Primus. "We called it Yorkshire in Bloom because once this is done, it will be like Yorkshire Woods is blooming. It'll be an open invitation for everyone to come to a place that's beautiful and peaceful."

Yorkshire in Bloom was made possible thanks to a $6,500 grant and lot design from the planning organization Detroit Future City (DFC). The program, A Field Guide to Working with Lots, and the $95,000 in mini-grants it awarded this year are some of the ways DFC interfaces with Detroit residents. It's also what sets it apart—DFC wants to do the robust research and policy advocacy of a traditional planning organization, alongside direct technical and financial support for grassroots projects. 

After making a splash in early 2013 with its release of the 50 Year Strategic Framework, a massive 300-plus page resource for the city and its residents, Detroit Future City had a lengthy period of seeming dormancy. But in the last year, the organization has been its most outward-facing in years and has its sights set on fulfilling many of the proposals in its long-term vision for Detroit.

A new future

Before it was Detroit Future City, it was Detroit Works. Started in 2010 by Mayor Dave Bing and the Kresge Foundation, the group spent two years surveying, researching, and holding community gatherings to create its findings and recommendations for the 50-year plan. 

Around that time, it rebranded as Detroit Future City and became part of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation with the mandate of implementing the framework. But the plan's release didn't quite have its expected effect, with controversy over the facilitation of community meetings and charges that the framework advocated strategic disinvestment. Since then, the city's administration has changed hands and Detroit went through municipal bankruptcy before undergoing more development than anyone could have predicted. 

In 2016, DFC itself restructured, becoming an independent nonprofit. It also hired a new executive director, Anika Goss-Foster, and underwent significant staff turnover.
Edward Lynch
Given all this change in four short years, is the 50-year framework already obsolete? Hardly. 

"It's probably even more important now," says Edward Lynch, a planner with DFC. "It's often been incorrectly framed as plan for a shrinking or declining Detroit, but there's lots of ideas about open space and about how to grow, renew, and stabilize neighborhoods."

While there is a recommendation about incentivizing people who want to leave low-density neighborhoods, many more words are given to ways to rejuvenate these parts of the city through creative uses of vacant land and commercial strips, and how to grow minority business ownership. 

It's not as if the organization was actually dormant in the framework's post-publication years. DFC staff say big changes in the city, like bankruptcy, concealed some of its work. Additionally, it was attached to another agency and doing more supportive work. 

But becoming an independent nonprofit has allowed the organization to set its own course. 
Anika Goss-Foster
"We needed to be able to establish an institution that could last for 50 years," says Goss-Foster. "And that wasn't really loyal to any administration but was in a position to partner, to reflect, to support whoever is on the 11th floor of the Mayor's Office or at the DEGC.

"But," she adds, "Detroit Future City's real accountability is to Detroiters."

Staying relevant

Detroit Future City currently has three major prongs to its work: land use and sustainability, community and economic development, and, according to Goss-Foster, "What we describe as keeping the framework fresh and relevant—primarily communications, publication, and research."

Land use has always been an important part of DFC's mission. The framework discussed at length the value of "open space," or the intentional use of vacant land. Today, while all the materials for the Field Guide are publicly accessible, its implementation still requires a lot of hands-on guidance.

DFC's Land Use office works directly with grantees over an eight month period, especially since some have no experience with landscaping.

"We talk about the great things Detroiters do around vacant land, but at end of day no one wants to support its maintenance," says Victoria Olivier, DFC's director of land use and sustainability. "High performing parks have conservancies. But for residents taking care of the land, if we want to do something different than mowing a lot, we really have to value the work they're doing and the effort it takes."

Victoria Olivier

Because of this, DFC formed the Land + Water WORKS Coalition which, through a series of forums and its ambassador program, seeks to create stewardship of the city's natural resources from Detroiters. The ambassadors are a group of 45 neighborhood leaders who receive training in green stormwater infrastructure and other sustainability projects over the course of five months. 

"11 of us at Detroit Future City cannot personally work with 680,000 residents," says Olivier. "So we foster place-based expertise, about not only the execution of vacant land projects, but also about how to maintain the land and stem neighborhood blight through land transformation."

Of course, DFC is still actively doing the high-level work of a planning organization. Goss-Foster says its their goal to publish at least one major research paper a year. 

So far, it's exceeded that benchmark. In the past year, DFC provided support to a study on the single-family rental market, and published its own on uses for the city's ample vacant industrial properties and a data-based snapshot of Detroit

There's much more in the works as well, including a report on the state of transit, as well as a housing compact it's developing in partnership with the Urban Institute to strengthen the single family housing market which makes up 70 percent of the city's units. 

DFC developed a 50 year framework, and through its restructuring, plans on being relevant for the next 50 years and beyond. 

All photos courtesy of Detroit Future City. 

Read more articles by Aaron Mondry.

Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.
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