Erin Kelly, Associate ASLA, was giving me the side eye. We were sitting in a Salvadorean restaurant on Livernois, wolfing down hot food after a bleak circular tour of blighted neighborhoods that ring Detroit’s revitalizing downtown core. I had been talking about DesignInquiry, the group of designers I’d come to town with to check out the city and try to understand what design’s role might be here. Kelly thinks she’s seen quite enough of our type in the short time she’s been working in Detroit: parachuting in from thriving cities, Instagramming ruin-porn pictures shot from the safety of rental cars, and hopping back on the plane after a few days.
There has been a lot of urban gawking in Detroit, and it doesn’t help, really. And Erin Kelly needs help. There’s so much to do. When we first talked, Kelly was wrapping up a partial deconstruction (as opposed to straight demolition) pilot project managed by NextEnergy, where she was a Detroit Revitalization Fellow before moving to her current position at Detroit Future City. The project has had her working with deconstruction and demolition contractors, community development groups, geologists, and academic researchers, to take apart and dispose of materials for 10 houses in the vibrant Springwells neighborhood. The goal was to try to understand what the economic and environmental impacts will be for taking down some of Detroit’s 80,000 vacant properties—labor, hauling, disposal, the works. The idea is that they can determine the right combination of timing, muscle, and environmental mitigation to make deconstruction a viable model, as well as a job-creation machine.
The pilot project could completely change the way demolition is done here and nationally. Environmental conditions in Detroit are already harrowing without the kind of toxic dust that demolition kicks up: The lead levels and asthma rates for children are three times the national average. And Detroiters need jobs, like the ones deconstruction can provide. Like all of the work I saw and heard about in Detroit, Kelly’s work has community engagement embedded in the process from the outset—a dialogue among people living and working in the city that is rich, clamorous, and ongoing. Translating the deconstruction metrics to the public is just as critical as analyzing them.
As I tried to comprehend why someone trained as a landscape architect at Harvard is working on deconstructing buildings, I began to appreciate the scope of the opportunity for landscape architects here. It’s colossal. To understand why, you can begin with the Detroit Future City Strategic Framework, released in early 2013 as an outline for planning Detroit out of its widely reported and over-Instagrammed slump.
The Detroit Future City framework seems to have captured some of the more interesting ideas in landscape architecture and urban planning over the past 10 years. Funded by the Kresge Foundation, a Detroit-based private philanthropy, the planning process was led by Toni L. Griffin, an urban planner then at Harvard, who brought together a team from both in and outside Detroit to rethink the city, including the local firm Hamilton Anderson Associates and Stoss Landscape Urbanism in Boston.
The framework has five elements: economic growth, land use, city systems and environment, neighborhoods, and land and building assets. The notion of landscape as infrastructure runs through all of them. The idea of the landscape as a driver of economic, environmental, and social benefits isn’t new, but the weight of responsibility for Detroit’s recovery that is put on the shoulders of landscape solutions is formidable. It’s why landscape designers like Kelly are working on deconstruction projects, which ultimately produce open space that must then be made to work for the city and its people, as well as on more traditional blue and green infrastructure projects. It’s not the first urban plan to think big and pull in the most progressive planning ideas of the day, but it may be one of the first in the United States in which landscape architecture is the biggest arrow in the quiver.
Like most urban master plans, Detroit Future City is a framework that sets priorities, provides organizing principles for land use, tags areas for various kinds of development, and prioritizes economic growth and job creation over other civic functions. And like many urban plans, there is the potential for winners and losers. Griffin is teaching at the City College of New York now, but if you watch her 2013 TED Talk, “A New Vision for Rebuilding Detroit,” she seems to take in stride what is at times a contentious process of sorting through issues of social equity in Detroit’s urban plan. But Griffin is unambiguous about what the Detroit Future City framework should spell out for Detroit: “Not what it was, but what it could be.”
The plan has been critiqued by Peter Hammer, the director of Wayne State University Law School’s Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, for an inadequate accounting of Detroit’s brutal racial history (and its activism) as a major piece of context. This is a fair point—you can’t have a future in Detroit without a reckoning of the past. But even knowing that, the plan’s evocation of possibility is contagious. Reading it produces a semimystical belief that a well-planned and well-designed city based on sound sustainable principles could solve most of Detroit’s problems. This belief may be fairly common to urban planning in general, which needs to believe a little bit in utopia in order to pick up a pen. And maybe you have to be slightly evangelical to work in Detroit these days.
Kent Anderson, ASLA, came to Detroit in 1978, and his firm, Hamilton Anderson Associates (founded with the architect Rainy Hamilton Jr.) has been working in Detroit for more than 20 years. The firm was brought in on Detroit Future City by Griffin, and one of the firm’s architects, Dan Kinkead—Anderson calls him one of the most brilliant he’s ever known—eventually left to become the director of projects for the new Detroit Future City’s implementation office. Anderson, with multiple projects in the firm’s portfolio for transit, planning, and design around Detroit, has a shrewdness that comes from having been around for a while, without the cynicism that sometimes comes along with working long-term with a challenging municipality. Anderson has solid opinions about what is going to work, and why or why not, but he’s not overly worried about bumps along the road. “We’re inventing the system as we go along to make Detroit work. There’s bound to be some toes stepped on,” he says.
Detroit Future City is an exercise in vision that runs more than 350 pages. It outlines Detroit’s possible future based on a large collection of data about Detroit’s past and present, and has shaped many of the landscape solutions. Chris Reed, ASLA, the founding principal of Stoss Landscape Urbanism, was brought in early on to look at ecological landscapes and open space, and he believes the data-based maps that came out of the process are one of the more compelling parts of the project. These maps—of vacancy, of property ownership, of open space, to name just a few—have allowed the citizens and the government to start to see new perspectives on the underlying problems that have been hobbling Detroit.
Despite the enormous amount of vacant land—some 20 square miles of occupiable land in Detroit is vacant—the patchwork of city agency ownership, along with a relentless tax auction cycle, was making it impossible to assemble enough land to offer to an interested developer, hindering any potential efforts at job creation. “There were many neighborhoods where a whole suite of public agencies owned 50 to 80 percent of the land,” Reed says. Now, he says, they’ve got a pretty good idea who owns what, and they can start to get everyone in a room to talk about a cohesive strategy for land use. Reed says that the thoroughly landscape-based Detroit Future City plan offers a prospect for “city making over the next century,” one he finds an amazing challenge. “For me, it’s a place unlike any other. In some ways, Boston, New York, and San Francisco would kill to have the opportunities that Detroit has to create new open space and new greening.”
The energy from the land use mapping continued after publication of the plan. Projects to map every house and parcel in Detroit’s blighted neighborhoods and develop accurate data on land use and ownership are now being run by the tech start-ups Loveland Technologies and Data Driven Detroit. One of the most dynamic, Motor City Mapping collects and digitizes information on Detroit properties. No doubt this is a great help to the real estate speculators looking to pick up a deal, but the project’s central aim is to put information and tools in the hands of Detroiters so they can begin to take steps toward arresting the blight that is destabilizing their communities.
The plan also produced maps showing the spatial relationship between where employment happens and where people live that revealed
the kind of structural problems that have kept many Detroiters in poverty. Of a population of just over 700,000, only 70,000 Detroiters live and work in the city, which is understandable with only one job for every four people in Detroit (by comparison, there are 2.58 jobs for every person living in Washington, D.C.). A staggering 111,400 people who live in the city must commute outside its boundaries to work, and 163,500 people who don’t live in Detroit are working there. That kind of daily migration in a city of 142.9 square miles reflects a number of complex problems, but it also suggests that it wouldn’t be enough merely to create new jobs; viable diverse transportation networks would be critical for any new jobs to be in reach of Detroiters. People without cars have to rely on endless bus commutes to get to work, which can wreak havoc on families with school-age children.
Jamison Brown, ASLA, thinks that transportation planning could be a way to make sure that the benefits of the new Detroit are equally shared. Brown, a landscape architect and founder of LivingLAB, has spent his career working in and around Detroit, and he left the engineering firm Wade Trim, where he was vice president of planning and environmental design, to found LivingLAB in part to address the social equity issues in the neighborhoods outside downtown’s now-booming core. He points out that Detroit is one of the most segregated cities in the country, and although the downtown’s walkable rebirth is good news, “they are not living the same experience as the lower-income African American city is living.”
The kind of work LivingLAB does is focused on multimodal transportation, which Brown sees as a way to tie together the new employment districts with the residential neighborhoods and build on the local initiatives to stabilize those neighborhoods against the effects of blight. Ninety percent of the office’s clients are municipalities or nonprofits, a less profitable sector than private clients, but “this work is so much more profound and fulfilling,” he says. Brown is frank about the long-standing racial, economic, and environmental injustices that have created the impoverished communities of Detroit today. “Whatever the historical debt that is owed is not coming. We do pro bono work because they deserve to have good design.”
Brown is feeling the ground move a bit these days. Projects in various stages of development include conceptual plans for the city’s first protected bike lanes, an Inner Circle Greenway plan, and design development of a new public park on a vacant city block owned by DTE Energy, the utility company. LivingLAB also recently completed a feasibility study sponsored by Wayne State University for citywide bike sharing—bike paths aren’t much use to people who don’t have or can’t afford bikes, after all—and some of the bigger projects they’ve won have started moving forward. Brown attributes this new momentum in part to the development energy happening downtown as well as an increasing recognition of nonmotorized transportation and a move away from “fortresslike” corporate development.
When you talk to landscape architects working in the city, reconnecting Detroit is a theme that comes up a lot. The oft-reported vacant land statistics don’t give you a sense of what it feels like to be on the street—how windswept and lonely even the main avenues can feel just because the scale of the city is so vast. It’s not so much that it feels postapocalyptic, as some of the more tired media tropes might have it; it’s more that it feels pre-urban. You can imagine what it might have been like to be in Chicago as the first railroads were coming in, or, well, in Detroit before the car. The sense of separation is palpable.
Large-scale transit studies such as the ones Hamilton Anderson is working on for corridors like Woodward Avenue include bus rapid transit and light rail alternatives, but they may not ultimately be profitable. Anderson says they have a bigger role than profit: city building. He calls it “part of the social suturing process” and says that ridership, though necessary, isn’t the most important thing to them.
For Detroit, with its high vacancy rate, the resulting drop in city services, and devastatingly low employment, the focus is now on consolidating resources where they can be most beneficial and building on neighborhood initiatives that are already working. Many of these, like Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, the recipients of a 2014 Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving Cooperative Agreement grant from the EPA, already have landscape-intensive projects under way.
With the thicket of issues Detroit is facing—consolidation and connectivity, neighborhood stabilization against blight, environmental degradation, and better schools and job training—it becomes easier to understand why the word “landscape” appears 315 times in the Detroit Future City plan, and why this vision of green and blue infrastructure, open space networks, and recharged urban parks is crucial to making Detroit’s vision of a future city come to pass.
Last winter, the city’s 982-acre showpiece urban park, Belle Isle, was transferred to the state, which took over the day-to-day maintenance and improvements. Despite the debate in the press over the transition, Detroit’s parks head, Tim Karl, isn’t worried about the city’s losing oversight of Belle Isle. “It lets me take my time and energy and put it into the other 308 parks in the city,” he says. “It’s a $6 million savings—now we can put that into the community.”
Karl started his job in 2001, when things were going downhill, he told me. “We had a budget, and it went to nil,” he says. His title, chief of landscape architecture, makes it sound as though he’s got a hefty staff to be chief of. He doesn’t. “Back when I was hired, there were six of us,” Karl says. Then, for a long time, it was just Karl, overseeing the city’s park system with one contractor. Now they are starting to staff up. He can see where the money for maintenance is going to come from, and with the kind of importance that the Detroit Future City plan has assigned to the parks, he mostly worries how they’re going to get it all done. “Right now is the brightest time since I started here. We hit the bottom a while ago. I just see improvements now.”
Detroit has had to be canny about how it manages those 308 parks. “We were tired of doing things poorly everywhere,” Karl says. Park resources have gone to the parks that have fairly stable neighborhoods behind them, rather than those that aren’t used. But between the Belle Isle dividend and funds coming out of Detroit’s bankruptcy process, there is more for all of the parks. Thriving neighborhood parks were selected from some of those identified in the Detroit Future City plan, and the plan’s general philosophy toward parks was adopted. Parks with strong community involvement are in a better position to attract funding, and Karl says that they are actively moving toward the model of partnering with conservancies for fund-raising and programming because “there are certain things they can do that we can’t.”
Park conservancies cause a lot of hand-wringing in some quarters, where critics charge they increase the disparity in city services that’s already exacerbated by income inequality. For Detroit, they are a necessity. Karl points to Palmer Park, in the northwest part of the city, a little south of 8 Mile Road, as an example of how the conservancy model is working in Detroit. The park, designed by Olmsted, Olmsted, and Eliot, has more going for it than most parks in the city. Though it has been mightily altered (a popular golf course came in in the 1920s), the 296-acre park still retains much of the original design character, and it is surrounded by two fine neighborhoods, Palmer Woods and the Palmer Park Apartment Building Historic District. It also has a very active neighborhood nonprofit group, People for Palmer Park (PPP), that has led the restoration and redevelopment of this park since 2010.
In 2013, when the Michigan chapter of ASLA was looking for a community service project in Detroit, Palmer Park was waiting. Along with the Congress for the New Urbanism, the chapter invited seven firms to be part of a master planning process. Bob Gibbs, ASLA, the managing principal of Gibbs Planning Group, led the master planning for the Michigan ASLA chapter, and he was impressed when all seven firms stepped up and provided full plans for the park. Gibbs’s firm is now working on a consensus plan to hand over to PPP. It emphasizes transit, the restoration of much of the original Olmsted plan except for a never-built subdivision, consolidating and upgrading the golf course, retaining the equestrian center, focusing the urban edges, and expanded programming all over the park.
If neighborhood parks are becoming more like town squares or community centers in Detroit, then they can have a powerful local impact as pro bono projects for landscape architects. Gibbs estimates that his firm probably donated more than 1,000 hours to the project, with many of his staff donating personal time on top of that. Guided by PPP, which will also be responsible for fund-raising for the improvements, Gibbs thinks there’s a good chance the work will get done, and some of the money is already coming in from various city agencies and grants.
Now, nearly two years after the Detroit Future City plan was released, it seems as if the city is embracing it. In an interview with the Detroit Free Press in February, the new mayoral administration’s chief of development, Tom Lewand Sr., called the Detroit Future City plan his “Bible.” People I spoke with told me that, though it wasn’t a requirement, projects in alignment with the plan’s objectives were more likely to tap the funding streams coming out of the philanthropies as well as from state, regional, and federal agencies.
In January 2014, the Kresge and Knight Foundations committed to funding the Detroit Future City implementation office—a 12-person hive of expertise that has begun taking the plan from the shelf to the street. Just under a year out, the office and the city seem to be getting their feet under them. Erin Kelly is now the program manager for blue and green infrastructure there, and she’s working on a spate of new projects. One, a Rapid Assessment Tool for vacant land, is an application developed with Loveland Technologies that allows people to collect and submit data on the vacant land in their neighborhood. Kelly is working on training Detroiters how to see and analyze the landscape around them, and that can help them move toward answering one of their most urgent questions. What, after pulling down the abandoned buildings and tallying up the vacant land, should this land become?
Kelly wishes there were more landscape architects around. “I see so many ways another landscape architect could contribute to the work that we do,” she says, and though things are moving it’s still a challenge to find paying professional work. She tells me candidly that working in Detroit has helped her own her expertise—what she can do that architects and planners can’t—but that Detroit’s DIY ethos sometimes undermines the value of professional design services, though not the need. Funding streams and the hurry-up-and-wait of grant-based urban work can be frustrating. But she’s not going anywhere. Kelly tells me there would have to be a pretty interesting problem to solve to get her on a plane to the next city. So for now, she’s staying in Detroit. “This is the moment—if you are a landscape architect, this is the moment and this is the place.”
Originally published in the November 2014 issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine. You can find Landscape Architecture Magazine at more than 200 bookstores, including many university stores and independents, as well as at Barnes & Noble. Or you can buy single digital issues for only $5.25 at Zinio or order single copies of the print issue from ASLA. Annual subscriptions for LAM are a thrifty $59 for print and $44.25 for digital. Our subscription page has more information on subscription options.