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Community Development | Lessons Learned From Detroit

Avatar photo by Casey Woods, Executive Director | June 24, 2015
When the National Main Street center invited Main Street communities from around the nation attend a National Conference in Detroit, you could almost feel an audible grown.  Excitement to attend learning sessions in a city described by the media as dangerous, dilapidated and defunct isn’t something most Main Street staff and volunteers look forward to.  We love community cores, and we don’t like watching them die.
I won’t retread the story that most of you already know.  But, Detroit has lost more than half its population from its heyday.  The Motor City, as the name would suggest, was built for cars.  Still today, wide multi-lane streets permeate every portion of the city and many outlying suburbs. Houses outside the core looked, in areas, like a war zone.  Burnt out residential shells exist next to chronically vacant buildings in an area so sprawled that you can fit the cities of Boston, San Francisco, Manhattan Island within Detroit’s city limits with hundreds of acres left over.  Vast infrastructure has proven so costly and unsustainable that vast targeted demolitions are the norm.  Disconnected pockets of Detroit remnants remain virtually disconnected.  On the Saturday we arrived, as we walked downtown, Emporia, Kansas seemed MUCH busier than downtown Detroit (car traffic, pedestrian traffic and bike traffic).

That’s the bad part…  How did Detroit get there?  Well, that is a more complex story.  After talking with individuals from, and working in the area, the answer to “how did things fall so far” is multifaceted.  First, the city was built for the car, and that design completely insulates residents.  For most downtown buildings, you can drive into a parking garage attached to the building you want to enter, go to work, eat and drive out without every having to expose yourself to anything outside.  That type of insulation erodes communities.  Each winter (this one was particularly bad in Detroit) streets are heavily salted.  The salt takes a toll on streets and sidewalks, and because the streets are so prevalent in Detroit, they are tremendously expensive to maintain.  Streets, when coupled with other types of infrastructure that has sprawled out creates a tremendous burden for tax payers.  The extreme vacancy rate makes it difficult to buy properties, renovate them and create a profit producing property for renters.  The extended land surface area of Detroit makes it impractical for police, fire or other emergency services to respond in a reasonable length of time, leading to more devastating fires, increased crime and decreased public safety.  Their dependence on an industrial concept left them susceptible to leadership which designed a community around a philosophy (cars/machines) instead of people, and that philosophy still exists today.  Instead of trying to intersect with proven community and design strategies, Detroit held on to the glory days of their past as Rome burned around them.  Essentially, a self sustaining cycle of blight was created.
I think it is obvious that we shouldn’t do any of the things we listed above, and that is one of the lessons learned.  But, I also learned that state leaders in Michigan, the communities surrounding Detroit and people tasked with bringing Detroit back are some hard working, creative types that are willing to make investments in their communities.  Some of the trial and error in Detroit and its surrounding smaller cities has actually helped formulate sound strategies for the rest of the nation.
-For example, we learned that, although all of Detroit lost population in the last census, historic district areas within Detroit are losing population much slower than the rest of the city.  In other cities, like Philadelphia, historic districts are gaining population while the rest of the city looses population.

-Place-making trends that are popping up throughout the nation cut their teeth in Detroit.  People found that to make a community stick, it needed unique businesses.  Areas with local restaurants, retail and other locally owned businesses grew, while the big boxes bailed.  Communities that reduced the size of their roads, added bike amenities, created walk-able areas, established mixed use developments and created public spaces easily accessible by foot, bike or car have improved tremendously.  Ferndale, for example, utilized the tenets of place-making and reduced their vacancy rate from 45% to 5% in a decade.
-Tactical Urbanism is a philosophy that has enhanced neighborhoods throughout the Detroit area. Essentially, the strategy is to create artificial density by incubating an area through development and redevelopment of commercial, housing and mixed use properties.  The resulting pressurization manifests itself in private developments adjacent to the target area as part of a larger unified plan.

– The successful role in government (and some not so successful private ventures) indicates that communities need to produce public private partnerships for long term sustainable growth.  Detroit shows pretty clearly that businesses don’t always have the best interest of a community in mind when they develop.  And, although government isn’t perfect, the two sides need to strike a balance.
– You need boots on the ground, “Swiss Army Knife” style professionals to hope for success.  Michigan really shoved their Main Street programs front and center in dealing with the redevelopment crisis.  Many other states have done the same thing.  The public/private nature of Main Street organizations is part of the reason for the surge in prominence, but the other basic reason is that Main Streets take a more holistic role in the revitalization process.
– Success isn’t cheap.  Communities must have a development plan and an investment strategy when working with redevelopment to make it work.  Otherwise, you can just go ahead and replace the word “plan” with the word “dream”.
– It’s okay to say “no”.  Part of the planning process is sticking to a vision that combines market data and community input.  The “we’ll take anything” mindset usually ends badly.
– Be wary of those that won’t get their hands dirty.  Remember that “disconnect” that we talked about in the self contained parking garage buildings?  Well, neighborhoods and communities are typically being revitalized by people out on the street pulling weeds, picking up trash, fixing buildings, starting businesses AND doing economic development work.  Insulation and cognitive disconnects lead to bad decision making.

– Car centric development gets people into the car, and once they are there it’s easy to keep driving.  The Motor City loves cars, but that love affair came at a tremendous cost.  Once people decided they would rather drive out of the city, they lost the populace.
– Prepare for downturns by diversifying your economy.  When the auto industry started lagging, Detroit’s overdependence on a single industry meant they were highly susceptible to market fluctuations.  Bunches of small firms (1-10 people) are stabilizing markets and creating unique businesses with expansion capabilities.  The resulting intellectual capital formed through proximity to diverse entrepreneurs is helping communities take advantage of emerging trends and solve pervasive problems.
– For goodness sakes- ITS ABOUT THE PEOPLE!!!  I can’t really emphasize this enough.  When we talk about economic and community development success, the results should manifest themselves in community wide sorts of measurements.  Population growth, median household income growth, a happier populace.  For years, Detroit measured success by looking at the stock prices of a few companies.  Once they started actually focusing on their people, the bleeding slowed.  Because, at the end of the day, any community is simply a collection of people.

Was Detroit as bad as everyone made it out to be?  No.  Was it a city in great shape?  No.  Will it ever be what it once was?  Probably not, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Jobs, technology, business and times have changed.  Smart cities recognize that and adapt.  Not-so-smart cities resist change with extreme consequences.
We learned a lot more in Detroit that we will write about in future e-newsletters, but it’s rare that the host city of a conference can, in itself, be a teaching tool.  The negative side of learning about the decline of Detroit is that we can see some local parallels (sprawl, measurements, leadership, resistance to change, etc.), but we are hoping that lessons learned can not only prevent those negative impacts, but can take advantage of the positive opportunities we learned about as well.
See this article and MUCH more in this week’s Emporia Main Street E-newsletter!

About the Author

Casey Woods, Executive Director

Before accepting the director position in March of 2009, Casey worked in both retail and agricultural jobs in the family businesses. A lifelong resident of the Emporia Area, Casey was a ten year volunteer for Emporia Main Street prior to his appointment as director. During that time he served as the board president and chair of the Economic Vitality Committee.

Casey also serves as a partner in PlaceMakers, LLC, a consulting firm that routinely works with both large and small communities, and their businesses, to promote sustainable economic growth through community and economic development practices. Casey consults with businesses, organizations and communities to understand their market capacity and fill vacant spaces. He has been involved in two projects that included crowdfunding as a part of their overall business funding strategies, Radius Brewing and Twin Rivers Winery & Gourmet Shoppe.