Planning Talks: Maurice Cox's vision for Detroit neighborhoods

For the next few months, Model D will sit down with Maurice Cox, the city of Detroit's Planning Director, to talk about the work of his department. This month, we spoke about the neighborhood planning process: how those plans are developed, why they matter to Detroiters, and some of the complexities that arise. 

Maurice Cox understands the complexity of his job. As director of the city's Planning and Development Department, he has to juggle a variety of skill sets, situations, and responsibilities: both in-person engagement and high-level design oversight, concerns from residents about his work and the imperative to make neighborhoods more livable, demonstrating concrete progress but not moving so fast that residents worry they're not part of the process. 

"What we're trying to do here is not easy," Cox says. "I think of this as neighborhood revitalization without easy answers. And sometimes that complexity is hard to get people to grasp. You really have to create an environment where people can learn new things, breaking it down and pacing work at a rate where people can understand it." 

Cox has two decades of academic and teaching experience at various universities, most recently as the director of the Tulane City Center, a university-affiliated design studio. If anything, he's excited about the opportunity to engage thoughtfully with Detroiters on challenging subjects. 

"I come to this work with the belief that very complex ideas can be understood by almost anyone," he says, "so long as you take the time to really listen and respond and engage in a deep manner. Even if the public process sometimes doesn't lend itself to that."

That willingness to engage is especially important for Cox right now. Over the last year plus, his office has been developing plans, guided by resident input, for 10 Detroit neighborhoods. It's part of his citywide strategy to create "20-minute neighborhoods" — communities anchored by smaller commercial strips that are accessible by pedestrians and cyclists. 

Design is everywhere even if it's difficult to notice. With downtown skyscrapers, the signs are clear, but Cox is trying to prove that design matters a great deal in neighborhoods. 

"It's about streets, it's about parks, it's about historic preservation, it's about greenways, it's about development that has character," he says. "You'll feel it walking down a street in a healthy commercial corridor with shaded trees and people hanging out, frequenting shops. That's what it might look like."

To get to that point, his department is putting together neighborhood action plans — a series of projects that will guide future neighborhood growth — which, according to Cox, "we are co-authoring with residents."

The initial design and engagement phase, which can take up to a year, involves hosting community meetings in the respective neighborhoods. Each neighborhood has its own planner who attends block club meetings and other community gatherings. Surveys are distributed at these various events. And the team draws on prior master plans made by the city and neighborhoods. 

The goal of this engagement is to collect as many impressions as possible about what people want for their community to inform the final plan. 

Cox says his department has been trying to ensure that even people who didn't show up to meetings — because they were unavailable or didn't hear about them — still have the opportunity to provide input. 

"We're always trying to find new ways to meet people where they are — not everyone wants to come to a meeting," he says. "There's no excuse on our part for anyone living in an area not to know something is happening in their community." 

Once that's completed, the department unveils a set of specific recommendations across a variety of categories, like the one released in May for southwest Detroit that called for both a shared street space and plans to draft an ordinance about truck traffic, among numerous other proposals. 

"And everything will be funded," Cox says. "And then we'll implement it."

While this recap may make it seem like the engagement process is simple and straightforward, that's not usually the case. "Residents" are not a monolithic group who have the same vision or priorities for their neighborhoods. Many are skeptical of the planning process, feeling that outsiders won't truly implement their wishes. Some are worried that developments will increase rental rates, making their neighborhood unaffordable. 

Cox says he's sensitive to these concerns. To allay skeptics, his department conducts popups, gradual installation of bike lanes, and temporary pedestrian-only plazas. That way, people can experience the change, and either be swayed or express their concerns.

The plans also try to create mixed-income communities by tying affordable housing minimums to any request for proposals. And hopefully, better neighborhoods mean homeowners will see their property values increase. 

"People are really trying to recapture the value that was lost during housing crisis," Cox says. "In the black community, your house is your wealth creation — that's the primary investment for many families in Detroit. Most people just want to be made whole again."

Cox knows that his legacy as the city's planner will be how he handles neighborhood development. Despite the complexity, he's clearly excited by the challenge.

"There's something humbling and organic and not flashy about neighborhood revitalization," he says. "It's hard work; very granular. But if that could be Detroit's contribution to a national conversation about recovery and revitalization, that's incredibly important. 

"It's going to take time. But I'm in this for the long haul."

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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