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July 22, 2013

Detroit is officially bankrupt… but is this news?


Once the industrial mecca of the world.  Once considered the wealthiest American city in the 1950s.  The City of Detroit is now bankrupt.  However, people who have any knowledge of Detroit in the past few decades might not really view this as news.  Starting with the post-war era and then race riots, the city has been in constant decline.  As the corruption and complications of the Detroit City government are being righted over the past decade, the scars and desperation have grown more visible.  Many people didn’t want to admit it, but Detroit has been at rock bottom for several years.  It is a good thing that the city has finally come to terms with this and now has the State of Michigan and federal government backing a new transformation.  There are plenty of skeptics about how the situation is being handled, myself included.  But how can anyone really know how to handle the largest municipality to have ever declared bankruptcy?  Nobody really knows what will happen yet but we all hope for a positive change.  Things can’t get worse at this point.  Or can it?  Some very horrific rumors are being passed around including the idea of selling off artwork from the Detroit Institute of Arts in order to pay for portions of debt.  I just hope this dire situation doesn’t produce an irrational form of urban renewal and government policies that will come to haunt the city in its unforeseeable future.  Regardless of what happens, there is evidence of positive change throughout several areas of the city.  Survival and persistence are core qualities of native Detroiters and those who choose to live their lives in the city.  This short editorial echoes positive thoughts for the City of Detroit in the wake of bankruptcy.

Vacant land is one of the issues that few are addressing across Detroit.  The City of Detroit is fortunate to have people and organizations such as LEAP that are already taking the initiative to jump-start revitalization projects.  LEAP and the other grassroots organizations are not the first to transform vacant land into productive parcels.  While talking to a colleague recently, I learned about an urban farming government initiative that took place in Detroit in 1894.  The plan which was dubbed the ‘Potato Patch Plan’ was created by four term Mayor Hazen S. Pingree [Detroit mayor from 1889-1897].  It’s goal was to grow food for Detroiters in the wake of the Panic of 1893.  This blog about Detroit architecture provides a more detailed descriptions of the ‘Potato Patch Plan’.  Mayor Pingree’s plan was so successful that it garnered national appreciation and helped fuel his campaign for governor of Michigan.  Pingree was elected governor of Michigan and served from 1897-1901.

The current situation is no doubt far more drastic than that in 1894.  The politics of the city are so complex today, that it is not likely Mayor Dave Bing or his successors will be the ones to initiate the drastic change.  Bing’s administration did create a plan that exists as an overarching framework for a 50 year plan to revitalize Detroit.  The plan, referred to as the Detroit Future City framework, is a great start.  Other organizations, including LEAP and DNPE, have helped further develop pieces of the framework that plug into the Detroit Future City plan.

One of the most intriguing and pressing aspects of this planning process is the transformation of land typologies within the city.  In order for any revitalization or renewal to take place, it is necessary for the City of Detroit to redefine the land use patterns throughout much of the city limits.  The Community Development Advocates of Detroit [CDAD] have developed a comprehensive guide to the evolving typologies of land use within the city.  The CDAD land use typologies have been acknowledged and adopted by LEAP and other community planning initiatives within Detroit.  The typologies are:

traditional residential _ spacious residential _ urban homestead _ naturescape _ green thoroughfare _ green venture _ industrial _ shopping hub _ village hub _ city hub

The Mack Ave Green T project falls into the categories of ‘green thoroughfare’ and ‘green venture’.  Most of the typologies are self-explanatory to anyone with a design or planning background.  There is one anomalous typology labeled ‘urban homestead’.  What is it? CDAD describes urban homestead as, “Country living in the City! A family harvests some vegetables that they intend to sell at their local farmer’s market. They enjoy their large older home, surrounded by a natural landscape comprising the huge lot/yard/small farm that comprises their property, away from the highenergy, noisy activity in other places in the city. Many city services (IE public lighting) are no longer provided, and homeowners enjoy lower taxes, in exchange for experimenting with and using alternative energy programs for heat and electricity, and where possible, well-water services. However, they are still close enough to the rest of the city where they can easily sell produce at Eastern Market, enjoy a ball game downtown, and take advantage of the city’s cultural amenities. Low and extremely low density. Lots can be as large as an acre or more. Low-impact agricultural activities can be allowed in the zoning. This area is adjacent to Spacious Residential Sectors, Naturescapes and Green Job Areas.”

Why can it occur here?  This photo, which I took on my lunch break today, depicts a common sight in Detroit.  Homes once stood here.

fields 180 view at the intersection of waveney and ashland streets _ 2013.7.23

fields _ 180 view at the intersection of waveney and ashland streets _ 2013.7.23

“And where I live, it was house, field, field
Field, field, house
Abandoned house, field, field”    -Danny Brown

The urban homestead is a possible condition unique to Detroit and any other post-industrial city that may be seeking to consolidate residents, services, and utilities.  I view the urban homestead as an incredibly intelligent solution [option] for much of the vacant spaces here on the Eastside and across the rest of the city.  This zoning typology helps the city and homesteaders save money, provides opportunities and a site for experimental and entrepreneurial projects, and most of all gives current residents the option to stay and avoid displacement.  If services and utilities are disconnected, it is a voluntary decision for residents to stay that avoids the use of eminent domain.  Although some incentives have been created for relocation, fortunately, Detroit’s government has been strongly opposed to implementing eminent domain as a means of relocating or consolidating residents.  If the opposition to eminent domain remains and new zoning typologies such as urban homesteads are successful, Detroit can and will become a model for other cities facing vacant land crises.

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