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Beyond Detroit Works

By Shea Howell
Special to the Michigan Citizen

Detroit Works recently released its framework for the redevelopment of the city. The project began two years ago amid a contentious series of town meetings following Mayor Dave Bing’s pronouncement that he intended to “shrink the city” and relocate people. The mounting public criticism of the effort forced a major rethinking of the approach. Highly paid consultants were quietly shifted into the background and Dan Pitera of the University of Detroit-Mercy School of Architecture was given a larger role in guiding the process.

He and his team have produced a remarkable document that reflects Pitera’s long-standing commitment to the city, his experience in imaginative, asset-based development, and willingness to listen to the community.

In 2001, Pitera was part of the team that created the Adamah Project. Adamah projected a 3,000 acre urban agricultural community on the city’s east side. It grew out of organic relationships with University of Detroit architects, community activists and organizations that had been turning vacant lots into gardens, creating public art, exploring new ideas of education, health and public safety. Adamah garnered international attention and played a central role in the formation of Kyoung Park’s International Institute for Urban Ecology (ICUE), bringing people from around the world to learn from the grassroots redevelopment of Detroit. Adamah helped move urban agriculture from a utopian idea to a viable strategy for urban redevelopment.

Pitera was also a central figure in the Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD). Just prior to the launch of Detroit Works, CDAD produced a strategic framework for redevelopment, emphasizing community-based planning. The framework was especially important because of its typology of neighborhoods, ranging from the restoration of wilderness areas to densely populated urban hubs.

The strengths of Adamah and CDAD echo throughout the newly released Detroit Future City framework. This is the first plan to acknowledge that a declining population can be an asset, opening up new possibilities for greener, more ecologically sound ways of urban living.

It provides a framework for thinking about our communities beginning with their strengths rather than emphasizing our problems. It gives a varied texture to the kinds of neighborhood life we can and are creating. It is filled with hard data to pinpoint areas that require new, careful rethinking.

The plan provides much for all of us to build upon. It reflects a tremendous amount of work, talent and vision for which we should be grateful.

At the same time, there are critical questions raised by this plan that we as a city must address.

All of the charts, maps, data, drawings and images do not address the central question: For whom will the city be transformed? Whose interests will be given priority in the inevitable conflicts inherent in this or any plan for redevelopment?

The recent betrayal of the people by the mayor and five members of the City Council over the Hantz Farms/Woodlands controversy does not bode well for the implementation of this plan. There, as in so many other cases, individual gain was given precedent over public good.

The failure to create a public, open process of community deliberation will haunt us. While the Future City Framework had thousands of individual contacts and small group meetings, it was not a process that engaged citizens with one another. As a result, the debate over whose interests are to be protected and fostered will work itself out in a piecemeal fashion, diminishing the possibility of creating a strong consensus for the overall plan.

The framework builds on the concrete dimensions of the moment, but lacks the historical sense that Detroit is in the forefront of a movement from the old, industrial paradigm to new ways of sustainable living. This new paradigm is emerging every day as those first cast off by industrial society are reimaging how to live. This transformation requires a vibrant civic conversation about principles and values that the corporate-government-foundation complex continues to evade.

Contact Shea Howell at


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