Commentary: Saving Detroit--a blueprint

Jan 10, 2013

Two inspiring things happened yesterday in a place where the word “hope” is too often preceded by the words “little” or “no.” Mayor Dave Bing’s Detroit Works Project finally released its “future city” report on how to build a Detroit that works.

That might not have meant much in itself. There have been all sorts of bright and brilliant visionary plans that today are gathering dust on some library shelf.

But the release of the book-length Detroit Future City Plan was accompanied by the announcement that the Kresge Foundation was pledging a $150 million to help it stay on track to reality. While that sounds like a lot, it is, of course, a drop in the bucket, an amount that by itself might not even cover the soaring current budget deficit. But it is a sign of belief in the future.

The plan, called the Detroit Strategic Framework, envisions a Detroit 17 years from now that seems more like some idealized version of Seattle or Vancouver.

By then, the planners see the population has having stabilized at between six and eight hundred thousand people, a city transformed by federal, state, local and just good old sweat equity efforts into a variety of green spaces and mixed-use neighborhoods.

While today the city provides only one job for every four residents, the planners really believe that by 2030, the city can gave two or three jobs for EVERY person living in the city.

They envision seven employment districts; all sorts of varieties of housing, and “live and make neighborhoods” where people would produce things as traditional artisans do where they live. They see this all connected by “a multi-modal greenway for pedestrians, bicycles, automobiles and transit.”

This all sounds wonderful. And yet the challenge of making it reality, especially in that time frame, sounds overwhelming. As the report’s executive summary notes, Detroiters suffer from overwhelming disadvantages.

Thirty-six percent live in poverty. Two-thirds of Detroiters are obese. A third of all Detroit children suffer from asthma, three times the national average. Employment and education levels are below what they need to be. Yet the last thing the city or the state needs is more naysayers.

It is always easy to say something can’t possibly work and can’t possibly happen, and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I myself suffer and benefit from having been around for a long time, and a sense that I’ve seen this movie before. I can tell you all sorts of reasons why this plan can’t possibly work, especially by 2030.  But people like me were once even more convinced that we couldn’t send a man to the moon in a decade. But we did.

There are a few reasons to be more optimistic about this effort. This plan wasn’t cooked up by a bunch of ivory tower academics, but by people who spent time in neighborhoods.

And as the plan notes, everybody knows business as usual is no longer an option. Making this happen, the planners note, “will require a steel-spined ability to stand tall while embracing the worst of the city’s daily realities while also embracing its possibilities.”

Detroit will never be permanently “fixed,” they note; no city ever is. But given the alternative, what choice have we, except to try?

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.