Meet the New Detroit

Detroit and Boston Are Headed in the Same Direction (And That's a Good Thing)

November 14, 2013

Principal, NBBJ

So you’ve heard that Detroit is broke and the city is falling into ruin? This is partially true, but look again.

Much as the French Quarter in post-Katrina New Orleans appeared relatively unscathed compared to outlying districts, Downtown Detroit has never looked better in the last 20 years that it does today. Buildings are spruced up and sidewalks are clean, and if you arrive on the weekend when one of three major league sports teams are playing and there is a major concert on the Riverfront (which happens frequently in the summer), Downtown Detroit appears as a bustling urban playground for suburban families and urban hipsters alike. Frolic along the renewed waterfront and fabulously clean river, or explore the architectural heritage of neatly repaired (although frequently vacant) Art Deco and mid-century architectural icons of unimaginable variety, set in a fantastically baroque street grid that emphasizes views corridors like a Hollywood stage set.

Thanks to millions of dollars of funding and investment from the likes of the Kresge Foundation, General Motors, and Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, Downtown Detroit is a playground for the fun-seeking, the adventurous and the hip. Financial incentives have led to the creation of 1,500 new housing units in midtown and downtown in the last decade. Downtown residents, students at Wayne State and the Detroit Medical Center now enjoy a new Whole Foods of their own, and the Eastern Market is bustling with food offerings from local farms and artisanal breads, coffee, beer, cheese and meats.

Venture from the core, however, and experience the vast open spaces of a depopulated city that has lost over half of its population since its peak in the last century. Here, the residents that remain have lost schools, fire and police protection and street lights. The challenge of Detroit today is the challenge of many US cities tomorrow: what to do with tens of square miles of low-density suburbs that are expensive to maintain and no longer suitable to today’s urban immigrants. In this void of abandonment, entrepreneurs are experimenting with the conversion of vacant house lots — thousands of them — into gardens and farms, even forests. If the land can be purchased for the price of comparable crop land outside the city — and much of it is publicly owned due to foreclosure — then profits can be made with hydroponics, greenhouses and fruit trees. For Detroit, this is putting land that may never see homes again back into productive use and paying taxes, albeit reduced to support agricultural uses.

This new shape of Detroit is strangely familiar. The term “convergent evolution” refers to common features that evolved from different ancestors in response to a common necessity: for example, bird and insect wings, which evolved separately. Similarly, compare a largely depopulated Detroit of vast proportions (the city covers 142 square miles) to a stable New England metropolis such as Boston (48 square miles) with roughly the same population (636,000 in Boston vs. 701,000 in Detroit). While Detroit sprawled to 8 Mile Road (roughly eight miles from downtown), Boston grew slowly and much more densely in the core neighborhoods supported by transit. As the population grew, smaller outlying towns resisted incorporation and, later, became resistant to densification, by enacting laws to restrict density, buying up conservation land and establishing conservation easements that have become active rural farms.

For many urbanites such as myself, a weekend trip to the near countryside is about picking (or picking up) fresh produce, meats or cheeses from the various farms, as much as taking a hike in a conservation area or state park. Many of the remaining family farms outside Boston are involved in various direct-to-consumer co-ops or simple roadside markets that feature heirloom tomatoes, rare greens and organic meat and fowl. Farmers markets are featured in nearly every neighborhood of the city during the growing season.

So while I am picking fresh beets in Concord (13 miles from downtown Boston), Detroit’s new urban farmers are creating a similar experience within the extensive, and emptied, city limits of Detroit, recreating a ring of close-in “truck farms” for urban consumers who want to connect to their biome in a meaningful and healthy way. And these farms are creating opportunities for local entrepreneurs to create jobs and businesses.

So the shape of Detroit is converging on an image surprisingly similar to the one that Boston has taken centuries to create, through a completely different evolution. Meet the New Detroit: it looks more familiar than you might imagine.

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