Walkability, historic preservation, and equity priorities for Detroit's new planning director

Last Friday I attended my first community lunch at the Green Garage in Midtown. Though I've long known about these weekly events in which guest speakers present on interesting topics and representatives of the Green Garage give tours of their beautiful facility, this was the first time I'd ventured over on a Friday. Shame on me!
The event was an absolute pleasure, from the personal introductions by everyone in attendance – a diverse group of Detroit entrepreneurs, artists, professors, writers, city officials, nonprofit leaders, and more – to the networking and informal conversation following the talk. (To learn more about upcoming community lunches, visit the Green Garage's Wiki page.)
But the highlight of Friday's event was hearing Maurice Cox, Detroit's new planning director, speak about the future of development in the city. Cox came to Detroit via New Orleans just three months ago, but in that short time he's been busy forming a vision for the city while familiarizing himself with the unique context of Detroit's neighborhoods and commercial districts.

Here are a few highlights from Cox's talk:
Stressing the importance of transforming Detroit into a place that allows residents and visitors to get around more easily on foot, Cox reminded the audience that the city isn't starting from square one. "Detroit was blessed to be built when walking was still in fashion. It's all still here," said Cox of Detroit's pedestrian infrastructure.

He also mentioned the opportunity to expand upon that infrastructure throughout the city. "I think every neighborhood should be afforded a beautiful greenway," he said.
Bikeability and complete streets
An avid cyclist, Cox told the audience that he chose his Detroit residence so he could easily bike to work. He also stressed the opportunity Detroit has to transform its roads into complete streets that cater to all users, not just motorists.
"Our roads are so damn wide that there's room for everybody," said Cox.
Green space
Often framed as a liability, Cox referred to Detroit's vacant land several times as one of the city's greatest assets.
"Detroit's fortunate to have an abundance of open green space," he said. "It's an incredible opportunity that no other American city has."
Historic preservation
Cox sees Detroit's historic buildings as playing an important role in driving revitalization efforts throughout the city.
"I'm trying to hone in on school buildings, old banks, and all of these incredible assets that are awaiting reuse," he said. "There are over 50 vacant schools in Detroit, and it is hard for individuals to do something with them. But clusters of people and enterprises can."
That's why Cox is exploring options for enabling entrepreneurs and community groups to lead the adaptive reuse of vacant schools.
Equitable development
When Cox accepted his new position, he was given a primary directive by his new boss. "Mayor Duggan charged me with being a champion of neighborhoods," he said.
Cox made it clear that he is not interested in planning for certain neighborhoods at the expense of others, though he did emphasize the need for a targeted approach to the investment of the city's limited resources.
"We're going to make the stable neighborhoods stronger, then expand outward," he said, pointing to Detroit's quiet perimeter neighborhoods as good starting points.
"Issues of equity are underlying all of this," said Cox of all planning efforts in Detroit. "I plan for the folks that are here and I plan so they can stay."
Matthew Lewis is Model D's managing editor. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjlew.

Read more articles by Matthew Lewis.

Matthew Lewis is a writer and former managing editor of Model D. He's currently the communications officer for the New Economy Initiative.