What is Detroit’s long term future?

Citizen ideas for neighborhoods in Detroit

Should Detroit be measured against the likes of New York City or Chicago … or is a more appropriate comparison Portland, Atlanta or Denver?

That’s one of the things being discussed at Detroit Long Term, which is part of the Detroit Works Project. It’s building a framework for the future of the city based on meshing technical expertise and citizen involvement. The framework will be built off input from grassroots organizations in neighborhoods … from community farms to business initiatives. The idea is every neighborhood in Detroit is valuable, and each one has a role to play in the mosaic that is Detroit.

“This is the first plan of its kind done anywhere in the country,” says Dan Pitera, executive director of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, who leads the community engagement team in the Detroit Long Term project. “No city government has the capacity to do this kind of work. So we’re proposing a new organization that is comprised of residents from the city, business leaders, non-profits, and, yes, city government as well to the steward of this platform. They are the ones who would be the watchdog.”

The team reached out to around 40,000 people so far, which resulted in 9,000 “meaningful” one-on-one or one-on-small-group conversations concerning the city’s future and the future of its neighborhoods. It’s not done yet … and they would like hear from you. So what ideas do you have about the following long-term strategies under discussion?

Economic development – Create opportunities for economic growth and jobs for Detroiters of all skill-levels beyond the borders of traditional employment centers like Downtown and Midtown.

Neighborhoods – Empower Detroiters to be change-agents within their own communities.

City systems – Develop efficient ways to realign city systems to make them more cost effective and less of a burden on residents and the environment while continuing to support Detroit’s economic growth and new emerging patterns of life and business

Land use – Create a framework for Detroiters to guide decisions about land use and urban form strategies, promote more sustainable land use patterns and introduce new and innovative land uses, including productive landscapes.

Public land — Facilitate a shared vision and more coordinated alignment among the seven public land agencies and guide the use of public land toward targeted opportunities for economic growth and neighborhood stabilization.

There are 14 different quality of life categories that are being measured as benchmarks of success for Detroit Long Term.

Safety: The goal is crime-free neighborhoods
Health: Longer, healthier lives for all Detroiters
Education: Access to high-quality education at all age, income and ability levels
Prosperity and income: Access to employment for all people of all levels of education and job skills
Community & Identity: A well organized and engaged network of citizens dedicated to the improvement of quality of life for all residents
Physical condition: Clean, safe neighborhoods
Housing: Neighborhoods of 100% occupied, well kept homes
Public Service: Reliable delivery of core city services
Mobility: Convenient access to inexpensive, convenient public transportation
Environment: Clean air, water, and soil locally and regionally
Recreation: Convenient access to high quality parks and public spaces
Culture: Access to high quality cultural assets and amenities in the city
Retail services and amenities: Convenient access to high-quality goods and services for all people of incomes within one’s own economy

In each area Detroit will be compared with other cities and suburbs in the country. The goal is to develop and implement strategies that are not just “good for a Detroit neighborhood” but that are also “comparable to anywhere in the U.S.” It’s a welcome change to start holding our city accountable like others as opposed to treating it as a special case.

So what cities should we look at? Yes, New York City and Chicago have some good benchmarks we can learn from but I’m not sure it’s the most useful comparison to use a New York City or a Chicago. While talking to people there, the idea was posited that Atlanta, Portland and Denver are comparable in population and size so some of the things they have done may be more applicable.

Detroit has about 707,000 people and is 139 square miles. Atlanta has about 420,000 people and is 132 square miles. Portland is 145 square miles and about 594,000 people. Denver is just under 155 square miles and has a population of about 620,000.

All three have functional mass transit systems and also light rail. That definitely flies in the face of critics who say a city the size of Detroit can’t support it.  Atlanta even has a subway system, which as part of a greater metro system that carries more than the population of the city proper every single day. That’s 482,500 people, according to the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority.

As far as public safety goes, we have a lot to do. If you put the totals of Atlanta, Denver and Portland together, those cities had 137 murders in 2010. The city of Detroit alone had 310.

Going forward the Detroit Long Term team and the project have faced challenges.

“Frankly, living down the misstatements that were said (about the project is a challenge),” Pitera says. “We hear that this project is about relocation. Frankly, if you’ve done the numbers, relocation is not an option.”

This project is about tapping in to the knowledge of neighborhoods and the people of Detroit. Derek Blackmon is a volunteer for the Detroit Long Term process. As someone who is very active on the east side of Detroit with Detroit Black Family, he is putting his time in because “it’s a movement. The city of Detroit is a movement and people are attracted to movements. It’s time not to move, but to improve,” he says.

Beyond the continuance of the “roaming tables” throughout the city and online feedback, there are four community conversations coming up in September as the Detroit Long Term process wraps up by the end of the year that citizens can still have their input. They are:

Yes, Detroit is rising, but it’s rising through the will of its people … and Detroit Long Term is listening. The Detroit Long Term team would like to talk to you and get your ideas. If you’re interested Please call 313-259-4407 or e-mail

Stay tuned to Detroit Unspun for future updates and deeper dives into more of what was shared, including how public safety plays a role in this framework.


Photo credit: Ashley Hennen

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2 comments on “What is Detroit’s long term future?

  1. For every one dollar spent on mass-transit, four dollars is generated in economic revenue long-term. Insurance rates decrease because more people are walking to mass-transit stop locations. Not to mention reducing the carbon footprint. Wouldn't be something for the motor city to research and develop high speed trains in our vacant factories.

  2. Just wanted to plug the high school student from the AIGA Detroit Shout program – They did the mapping as process work for the 'ACTIVATE OPEN SPACES' Illuminated letters project. As always the Shout students put great thought and consideration into their communication solutions – good work everyone!

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