Redesigning Detroit: Mayor Mike Duggan’s blueprint unveiled

August 18, 2015

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is a disciplined speaker whose message rarely varies from the nitty-gritty ways he and his administration are repairing the wounded city they inherited: Improving emergency response times, auctioning vacant homes, turning on street lights, demolishing abandoned property and trying to lower auto insurance rates.

The mayor does not appear to consider himself a master builder, and virtually never talks about what grand vision he might have for Detroit beyond a community that works like most large American cities.

Yet inside Duggan’s administration, his top officials are working on groundbreaking plans that could transform large swaths of Detroit. If the plans come to fruition, they could turn the city into a global showplace for how struggling cities can capitalize on shrinking populations.

Led by the newly hired director of planning, Maurice Cox, a nationally known urban designer who last worked in New Orleans, the administration is quietly formulating a strategy to reimagine Detroit’s neighborhoods to take advantage of what has long been considered one of the city’s biggest problems: vacant land. It’s a “greening” strategy built on a blueprint laid out by Detroit Future City in 2013, but with a twist:

Cox and his aides are drawing maps that throw out traditional neighborhood boundaries and combine largely vacant areas of the city areas with more stable neighborhoods nearby. The purpose of the new districts is to take existing empty green space, refashion it, and use it to benefit both the distressed and stable neighborhoods.

“This is a very different way of thinking of neighborhood development,” Cox told Bridge recently in a bare office at city hall that had several maps of Detroit neighborhoods on the floor.

“It’s thinking about the vacancy (in troubled areas) in conjunction with stable neighborhoods which are right next door, and it’s all a part of one unit,” he said.
Cox, reaching for a map, pointed to Rosedale Park, Grandmont and Brightmoor, three neighborhoods in northwest Detroit. Rosedale and Grandmont are stable areas mostly filled with gracious brick homes and landscaped lawns. Brightmoor has long been one of Detroit poorest areas, with extensive blight and vacant land.

“Whenever we map the city, we never map Brightmoor without mapping Brightmoor, Grandmont, Rosedale,” Cox said.

Future open-space networks in Detroit could include both large and small green areas, and they could exist inside and outside of neighborhoods, according to the Detroit Future City framework. The open spaces could contain such features as lakes, retention ponds, parks, swales, recreation areas and green buffers. Credit: Detroit Future City

And the reason for that, he said, is that Brightmoor’s vacant land can be turned into productive acreage that works for both its remaining residents and those in nearby Rosedale and Grandmont.

What constitutes “productive” land? Cox said empty lots in Brightmoor will be remade for recreation, nature, agriculture or so-called green and blue infrastructure, with engineered plots of land with plants and trees to dispose of stormwater or alleviate air pollution. Along with its blight, Brightmoor already has some of the most extensively developed agriculture in the city. Cox said Brightmoor residents eventually will benefit by living near carefully landscaped property, including parkland and wooded areas, rather than amid the wild and trash-filled parcels that mark many parts of the landscape now.

“We will have a strategy of how to steward that land, that vacant land within the city, and make it contribute to why someone would actually want to live in Grandmont-Rosedale,” Cox said.

He was less specific when asked about funding for the plans, or when residents might start to see construction. On August 7, officials announced $8.9 million in federal funds will be spent for storm management in three Detroit neighborhoods, including for green infrastructure in Brightmoor.

Building on Detroit Future City

The idea of using Detroit’s vacant land for innovative purposes beyond agriculture has been percolating among experts and various community groups for several years, but such discussions have been largely theoretical beyond the city’s numerous vegetable gardens and such projects as the “green corridor” of trees that the Greening of Detroit organization quarterbacked last year along the Southfield Freeway to reduce storm-water runoff, pollution and noise while providing shade and a non-motorized greenway around the city. Repurposing the city’s vacant land was one of the foremost proposals of the Detroit Future City recommendations unveiled in 2013, and significant green infrastructure plans have been hatched even before the Aug. 7 announcement.

Redesigning Detroit: Mayor Mike Duggan’s blueprint unveiled
Bill McGraw, August 18, 2015, MLive