Can Detroit Become the Turin of the U.S.?

After touring Detroit last week, Valentino Castellani said he saw reflections of his own hometown 15 years ago.

Detroit today reminds the ex-mayor of Turin of his city during the '90s. The northern Italian town of about 900,000, much like Detroit, was a one-industry town. It was FIAT's automobiles that kept the city going and put it on the map. But, like steel in Youngstown, Ohio, the mines in the Ruhr Valley of Germany and cars right here in Detroit, FIAT started to flounder. Production dwindled, jobs disappeared and money was tight.

And then, under Castellani's leadership, the city changed. How'd he do it?

"You can't teach change. You can only tell your story and let people pick up what is important for them, for their city," he said last week to a room full of leaders, doers, thinkers and curious residents from Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, all places trying to turn around much the way Turin has.

The seminar, held Friday in a conference room at the headquarters of NextEnergy in TechTown, was entitled "Lessons from Europe" and was sponsored by the German Marshall Fund. There was a lot of "how we did it" and "how we hope to do it" back and forth between Europeans and Americans, and a lot of realism, too.

The Europeans readily acknowledged that their programs, policies and ideas may not translate perfectly. The EU and governmental resources and support that Glasgow, Turin and the Ruhr Valley have are often far greater than what is available here; yet the ideas, the sentiment and the stories could be repeated from Cass Corridor to the corridors of City Hall.

You may not be able to teach change, like Castellani said, but Detroit can certainly learn from it.

Turning around Turin

Castellani led Turin for two terms, from 1993 to 2001. In that time he brought the car town out of the its multi-layered crisis.  He said there was no magic bullet, change took people, passion, vision and luck. "Everything seems easier now, but the difficult task is the change. The big achievements required patience and small steps compounded one after another," he said.

Turin faced an economic crisis. But its problems weren't just unemployment and abandonment of urban areas; the local government was in turmoil, too. It was corrupt. Four people held the mayor's seat in a span of just five years. The people of Turin were tired, untrusting of government.

People, he said, believed the city's destiny was decline. This was the Turin Castellani inherited. Sound familiar?

Yet Turin didn't decline. The city that has been called the Detroit of Europe rose up, even hosting the 2006 Winter Olympics.

"I have great sympathy for Detroit," he said. "I can perceive how difficult it will be. I know how difficult it was for me and in (Turin) and it wasn't so dramatic. It will be much more difficult for Detroit. But transition is possible. Reinvention is possible. But you have to find your own path and tools, they are out there."

How to reinvent the city

Reinvention lies in both the success and the failures, and it's never just one thing, Castellani says. People, however, are key. "Human capital, the people, are your best asset," he says. "You can have the best projects, the best ideas, but if the people aren't moved, aren't passionate, you'll never reach your target."

The first step was election reform, which allowed constituents to vote directly for their mayor -- that wasn't the case in Italy before Castellani won in '93. This, the former mayor says, renewed the deal with the public and opened up the discussion.

"We started asking 'What are we doing here?' 'What are we doing for the kids and the future?' The change was to start talking about change in Turin," Castellani said. "We wanted to change the mood, which would then change the course."

The vision was seemingly simple. Change from a one-industry, one-company town to a full on European city with a wider mission. Castellani says it was a lot of small steps piled on the idea of a larger goal, and each step important and each success given symbolic value for the public.

Like this simple gathering: Two years into Castellani's first term his crew was able to get a European Union meeting to take place in his city. The spot he chose was an abandoned former FIAT production plant called Lingotto. He says resources were acquired to renovate the enormous plant beforehand. The meeting took place and the media took pictures. "It was just one day, one meeting, it was almost nothing but the people were seeing their city on the front page all across Europe," he says. "The site was symbolic, it had an effect on everybody, and people started to think, 'OK, Torino can change.'"

Lobbying to have this "almost nothing" meeting here was a small step in Castellani's bigger vision.

"A city's vision needs to be shared with the people. They have to know it's worthwhile, worthwhile for their kids to grow up here. The fuel of the engine of change is the involvement of the people," Castellani says. "You can't have structural change without changing the mindset. That's the prerequisite of change."

How to reinvent a region

In Northern Germany, in a place called the Ruhr Valley, another reinvention has taken place. For the last 50 years this one-industry, coal-mining region, which consists of 11 big cities, four boroughs, and about 5.3 million people, has been shrinking. Again, like Detroit, the Ruhr lost jobs and population and was long considered the "dirty area" of Germany.

Michael Schwarze-Rodrian, the regional moderator for two projects that aim to bring sustainability to this industrial region, explains that the valley has been aware of its decline for 50 years.

At first leaders did nothing but try to help and support the coal industry. Economic change wasn't a part of the plan. The Ruhr Valley kept the status quo up until the '80s when they started thinking smarter. "We started asking 'Are we doing right, spending the money right? What is the result?'" said Schwarze-Rodrian. "We started focusing on the quality of life in the Ruhr. It was considered a dirty area, if we stayed with that image we'd never have a chance to get up again."

They're taking industrial factories and their polluted river and giving them new life. The Emscher River had been a wastewater canal for 100 years and synonymous with the word ugly. It is being reworked and is on a 30-year plan to clean up not only the river itself but its tributaries and the surrounding land.

And they are banking on their history. Instead of tearing down factories, the region made them accessible to the people, turning them into tourist spots, arts and culture attractions, parks, theaters, music halls, etc. And, right now, these spots are widely visited by Germans looking to discover what makes the Ruhr Valley, the Ruhr Valley.

And they've brought pride back to the region, so much so that soccer fans from teams across the area chant its colloquial name -- "Ruhrpott! Ruhrpott!" -- before games. It'd be like chanting "Southeast Michigan! Southeast Michigan!" before a Red Wings game.

What makes Detroit Detroit

What makes Detroit, Detroit isn't all that different than what makes the Ruhr, Ruhr, or Turin, Turin. The model of a once dominating but now declining industry links all three. The difference, right now, however, is that two are pulling themselves up. Can Detroit? Turin was called the Detroit of Europe for its car production; will Detroit become the Turin of the U.S. for its revitalization?

"Detroit is an industrial city," Schwarze-Rodrian said. "You have industrial heritage. This is your identity, your history. Just like the Ruhr. It's time to put cream on your fingers and care for your things. The city needs a strategy for the future. It will not be one strategy, it might be one headline, but not one strategy."

"This financial crisis is an opportunity to grow a vision for the next 20 years," Castellani said. "2011 is tomorrow morning. You've got to think to think further."

Terry Parris Jr. writes for Model D and lives in Southwest Detroit. Send feedback here.

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Headquarters of Next Energy in Techtown

German Marshall Fund seminar held at Next Energy in Techtown

Valentino Castellani, ex-mayor of Turin, Italy speaks to curious residents and leaders at Techtown.

Seminar attendee

Valentino Castellani

" Lessons from Europe " booklet

Jens Martin Gurr - speaker and Director of Urban Systems at the University of Duisburg-Essen

All photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.
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