Sustainable Development in Detroit

Professor Thomas Sugrue from NYU is an artful historian. He paints the picture of Detroit’s past and blends it with its current landscape. Unlike what some media outlets and political figures have said about the city when it filed bankruptcy, he opined, its economic decline was not simply the result of policies in the 60s and 70s or the Uprising in ’67, but could be traced back to federal policy on homeownership and the impact of the decentralization of production within the auto industry. Because of redlining which segregated neighborhoods that failed to allow African Americans to build capital, and discrimination within the work force that also cost many African Americans their jobs with the shift in technology, the black community in metropolitan Detroit bore the brunt of the economic downturn in the city. This narrative depicts how systemic oppression cornered many African Americans within Detroit, and how it will take more than developing downtown or bringing in “hipsters” and wealth into the city to re-write the narrative. Shaping a new narrative that strives to right injustices and respects the most afflicted is not only a better way forward for metropolitan Detroit, but also other cities in the United States.

Gamble and Weil offer a case study of better, more sustainable city development through Curitiba, Brazil. Instead of simply using “modern” solutions to fix environmental conflicts, the city worked to catalyze on its natural environment while also keeping the needs of marginalized groups (such as children, elderly, the poor) at the forefront of development. It almost seems like the authors were describing a utopia for justice-minded people. The secret to their success is not a top-down, centralized approach but rather many, many locally grown initiatives that focus on valuing people- “It flourished by treating all of its citizens- most of all its children- not as its burden but as its most precious resource, creators of its future” (Hawkins et. al 1999). It seems that a compelling vision for the city unifies many different stakeholders- businesspeople, local citizens, ethnic minority groups, educators, public officials- to work together to the best of their ability to planfully design and build Curitiba.

The conversation presented by both the reading and Sugrue’s talk reminded me of a symposium that I attended last semester called Urban Futures: Detroit. Two primary people spoke, the Director of Housing Development in Detroit Arthur Jemison and the Director of the Grand Rapids planning department Suzanne Shultz. It was fascinating to compare the vision and planning process of the two cities and how both are working to maximize their natural resources for a more thriving city- that also respects its citizens. Both of the cities have done extensive work on their riverfronts, and continue to do so. In Detroit, the former VP of DTE Energy Faye Nelson is a key player in the Detroit Riverfront initiative and is even currently teaching a class through the Urban Planning School at University of Michigan regarding her work. The fact that Jemison and Nelson are both African American and Shultz is a woman are positive indications to me that people involved in the process are not simply represented by traditional white male authority figures, regardless if that’s truly representative of their perspectives or not.

Jemison highlighted many of the historical events that Sugrue mentioned in his talk, including the specific the FHA Insurance Policy of 1939 that more or less birthed the term “redlining, Mayor Cobo, and the ’67 Rebellion. He also talked about current development plans and the city vision “One City. For All of Us.” The redevelopment vision is based on eight principles which he expounded upon in his talk:

  1. Everyone is welcome in our city.
  2. Detroit won’t support development if it displaces current Detroit residents.
  3. The city will fight economic segregation by pushing jobs into all neighborhoods.
  4. Blight removal is critical.
  5. Detroit will create walkable neighborhoods.
  6. Those who stayed will have a voice.
  7. Jobs and opportunities are available first to Detroiters.
  8. The riverfront is for everyone.

(see this article “Mayor Duggan Lays Out Eight Principles for Detroit’s Redevelopment”)

Is this vision compelling enough to create nonpartisan unity throughout metropolitan Detroit? Is the work enough? Jemison noted many ways in which the current city administration is working to reach out to communities and “talk to everybody.” It does frankly get me excited for Detroit. Perhaps as Sugrue alluded to, Detroit can be something that is needed within this nation- “a city for all of us.” A compelling vision does give something for people to strive for and fight for. So now we must continue to fight.


3 thoughts on “Sustainable Development in Detroit

  1. Outstanding blog post! You certainly have a talent here. Thank you for presenting such a clear and concise history that weaves in solutions to the problem. I think these principles are a great first step. Can we assure that they will be enforced once big dollars come into play? Where does truth of past wrongdoings come in? I feel like Detroit needs its own truth and reconciliation conference so that these truths can become common knowledge and a place from which to start the work. The question is, can we face our oppressive history and admit how we have benefitted from this.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gabby,

    I really enjoyed your synopsis of Jemison’s plan for the city of Detroit. I have been asking myself how we can encourage development while also discouraging gentrification and the displacement of Detroit residents, and this helps to answer it! I too am excited for Detroit and hope that the work I am doing, and will continue to do, can contribute to the “city for all of us.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Gabby, great blog post! I particularly liked you mentioning the case study from Curitiba, Brazil especially since I am curious to learn more about sustainable development models overseas. While I was in Ecuador, the UN held a conference in Quito on sustainable development and reading reminded me of how important it is to include various stakeholders in community-based solutions. Thanks for the in-depth analysis!

    Liked by 1 person

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