Detroit is a city moving in reverse, on a 10x rewind, like a video returning to its starting point. Grand houses slowly decay from the effects of nature or are subject to the bulldozer, their pieces lying on the ground only this time not in neat orderly palettes as on the day of their creation. Teaming avenues and dense places have become fields with a sprinkling of houses, the urban fabric now a tarnished cloth with a too many holes to patch. These fields slowly take that which is man and unmake it; small trees on top of buildings, nature busting out windows, slowly pulling roofs down, water invading the once sacred hearth, or fire consuming, back to ashes.

While cities typically are experiencing an increase in population during this decade, Detroit is subject to a mass exodus brought about by the declining auto industry and the subsequent loss of employment opportunities, termed as “industrial flight.” To understand the magnitude of this reversal, Professor Eric Dueweke describes the challenge facing utilities in this city; “Gas lines are using their useful life. Being in Detroit is like being in a rural area.” A city, being described as “rural.” Of 386,000 lots, over a hundred thousand are vacant or abandoned. Faced with such a grave switch in fortune, we as the designers of the built environment need to ask these questions:

First, how should a city be built? See, Detroit revolved around the automobile; the car was like the red blood cells traveling through all the arteries of the city, giving life, mobility, vitality, but then the body stopped making them. Less cars; Less life. Because of the car and the American psychological predisposition to spread out on the land, the city of Detroit is a 139 square miles of low density development, primarily one and two story houses. It can fit Manhattan, Boston, and San Francisco in its square area. Thus, as the city contracts, the commercial spaces vanish and these “spread out” houses, remain cut off from the blood stream, with nothing to sustain their life. As we develop cities, we must be mindful of density and its contributions to the quality of life. Maybe the city wants to be more like a star shaped, with its development occurring around particular lines, possibly interstates, where life and economic opportunities can be greater, with density becoming less as it grows out from the downtown core.
Second, what should be done with these now existent “urban prairies?” There are many different proposals for transforming this into another land-use, with one of the most promising being urban farming. Now, it is ideal as it works in conjunction with the nature’s tendency to take back; instead of rejecting nature, it essentially acknowledges and speeds up this process, only transforming decay into a positive, hopefully economically viable solution; vegetables for the market. One example already apparent is Earthworks Garden, which operates on a number of scattered plots over a few miles square. As a land use, urban farming takes advantage of residential land, unfettered by the pollution damage tolled on industrial sites, making it ideal for farming. An interesting aspect Professor Eric Dueweke mentioned about food is that “Eastern Market attracts all segments of society, all colors, and all people.” So as we thoughtfully consider approaches to this opportunity, we must be conscious of society through it all and be mindful of both culture and race and how these can contribute to the success of this revitalization.

Third, how does preservation address the building stock existent in Detroit? As I understand, the concept of historic preservation only really exists in America. Europe takes on much more of an adaptive re-use approach to its historic structures. The dilemma facing citizens of the city is that the building stock is of such a high quality, at least initially, that tearing it down is like destroying sculptures in a Roman Villa; it breaks your heart to do so. Conversely, however, there simply is not enough capital to upkeep and not enough people to revive these places back to life. Rather than trying to save it all, one approach could be to save certain zones, lets call them “urban villages,” where the people from a particular district lets say would be encouraged to move, preferably enticed by economic opportunities rather than eminent domain. These villages would become centers for agriculture, and provide a degree of density and community amidst the urban wilderness.

As the city rewinds itself and returns to the starting point, we designers of the built environment must come up with thoughtful solutions to get this VCR on play again, to save important places, and create new life and a story about triumph and victory, and not destitution and despair. The lead actors are the city’s people.

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