Sustainable Cities™

Detroit: from Motorcity to an unexpected urban laboratory

After years of decline, transforming Detroit into a resilient city might appear as an insurmountable challenge. Hesitating between despair and enthusiasm, Detroiters try to build a better future. Shrinking the city and developing urban farming have received significant media attention, but there are many more solutions being tried out in order to reflate the city’s battered economy.


Philanthropists come to the rescue
Detroit, once one of the most productive industrial cities, put not only the US, but the majority of the world on wheels. But the post industrial era and decline of the auto industry, followed by the exodus of the middle-class to the suburbs, has left a dilapidated center and a sprawling urban area of de-industrialized fabric and junk spaces.
What chances does Detroit have of becoming a resilient and sustainable city in the future?

The city can rely on strong philanthropic foundations, dating back from its flourishing past. Business leaders have taken the helm and got involved in regeneration projects, including sustainable infrastructure. For instance, the Detroit-based Kresge Foundation is investing in a light rail system, and in the Greening of Detroit project. Its much-awarded green headquarters show the way to a greener urban fabric.

Promoting neighborhood driven initiatives
Complementing private projects, citizen initiatives are literally popping up all over the metropolitan area. The "Detroit Mower Gang" is a group of residents leading parkland restorations. According to their website, they "refuse to allow bureaucracy and tightened city budgets get in the way of children playing". Their urban interventions are planned and promoted via social media like Twitter and Facebook. Last month, their fund-raising campaign via Kickstarter allowed them to replace swings in Detroit playgrounds.

Some neighborhoods, however, have irreparably gone downhill, and city officials are now considering "shrinking" the city by demolishing houses and turning them into agricultural land. Redensification and urban farming are some of the cutting-edge solutions Detroit is now embracing. Farming provides fresh and healthy food to the local population, and creates new "green" jobs in a region hit by unemployment. A recent study from the Michigan State University found that the creation of urban farms and gardens within the Detroit's boundaries could supply local residents with more than 75 percent of their vegetables needs and more than 40 percent of their fruits needs.

urban farming2

A potential for green growth
Besides urban agriculture, Detroit is exploring further potential sources of green growth. Developing new technologies is one of the retained solutions for closing Detroit's "green gap". The North American International auto show now puts a great emphasis on hybrid and electric cars, and once again, non-profit organizations such as Warm Training Detroit try their best to promote clean technologies.
A denser and greener Motorcity exemplifying America's city of tomorrow: such a scenario seemed impossible a few years ago, but Detroiters are now taking up the challenge.

Facing Detroit's decline

Detroit's population plunged by 25% over the last decade.
Now, empty boulevards and deserted neighborhoods have become emblematic of the city. Faced with a $300 million budget deficit, the municipality can't afford public services in degraded suburbs anymore. Bus service to some neighborhoods has been restricted or halted, leaving residents without public transportation.
"The harsh reality is that some areas are no longer viable neighborhoods, with the population loss and financial situation our city faces," says Detroit Mayor Dave Bing. "But instead of looking at our land as a liability, we need to begin to think creatively about how it can be a resource as we rebuild."

Private contributions to Detroit's regeneration process

Taking stock of the situation is the precondition for efficient improvements. The lack of accurate data and indicators forced some private foundations to fund Data Driven Detroit, a database on Detroit metropolitan area, providing reliable information for efficient decision-making.
Concrete transformations are also taking shape. The Congress approved a 125 millions dollars donation from private investors for the construction of the Woodward Light Rail. The 5,5km first section is maybe more a call for optimism than a real mass transit system. "Business leaders have come to the table and are ready to act on this. It's going to be as much of a psychological benefit as anything." says Sarah Hubbard, senior vice president of government relations for the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce.
These private, but non-profit initiatives are also supporting grassroots initiatives: John Hantz, a financial consultant, is devoting $30 million to create Hantz Farms, an urban agriculture organization meant to be owned, operated and staffed by Detroit locals.
Meeting Detroit's critical needs, they might have a dramatic influence on the city's future.

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Last updated Tuesday, January 21, 2014