Archive for November, 2012


The people of Detroit have suffered through several generations of abuse, neglect and hostile urban renewal. Destructive labor and management relations instilled a norm of dependency and mistrust on all sides; decades of extreme government corruption, racism, oppression and violence made things much worse.

High profile urban renewal projects such as the original fortress-like design for the Renaissance Center failed to contribute to diversity and street life.

Despite these pathological realities, Detroit’s enduring core assets are the basis for a powerful new role in the U.S. economy and beyond. The city has a deeply rooted, resourceful “maker culture” which is now coming to life and attracting creative entrepreneurs from far and wide. This asset, combined with a low cost of living, have created a magnet for budding talent. Detroit is set to be a rising star of urban vitality.

Two major concerns could throw this exciting revival tragically off track. One would be the failure to engage all local citizens—people living in poverty as well as in trendy lofts—in creating their own future.

The other pitfall is the danger of tolerating souless urban design renewal. The city must find a way to avoid bland, placeless, spirit-crushing, energy-draining new construction.

Detroit has a rich history of humanistic design. My wish for my birthplace is that decision-makers will not blow this one chance (as Eminem might say) to use an asset-based planning and design approachRather than simply focus on gaps that must be filled with anonymous new construction, the asset-based design process identifies vital, health-causing qualities to be reflected in the design. These qualities include character, roots, human relationships, local identity and design aesthetic.

Looking ahead, Detroit must avoid faux-anything and define its own style.

Since Detroit is a music-oriented city, I wrote a poem (video here) that highlights the city’s best qualities.

Songs and poems can have more impact through power of suggestion than any blog post. Will “Makin’ it in Detroit” become the first urban design pop song? And will this popularity lead to human-centric design?

– Sharon VanderKaay (Detroit native)

photo sources: photo of Robert Graham’s 1986 “Memorial to Joe Louis” by hannerola on Flickr. Photo of Marshall Fredericks’ 1958 “Spirit of Detroit” by buckshot.jones on Flickr.

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