Detroit is set to witness its first population growth since the 1950s. This is how the city used urbanism to press restart.
The last few years have seen startling urban turnarounds. Starting in Detroit, we look at how five cities have reversed their fortunes in the face of financial collapse, natural disaster or entrenched image problems. Urban renewal can begin with a new public building that acts as a beacon for curious investors, or a mayor who can turn a city’s edgy reputation to its advantage. At a moment when Houston is waterlogged and London overlooked by a towering monument to economic divide, the life and death of great cities is more important than ever.
“Well thank you, Detroit!” says mayor Mike Duggan, beaming and ruddy-faced. “I saw the numbers when I came in – it’s overwhelming.” It’s just after 22.00 on election night for the mayoral primaries and Duggan, who has led Detroit city hall since 2013, has addressed supporters and campaign staffers at his victory party. Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed Delivered (I’m Yours)” is now blasting out of the speakers. With 69 per cent of votes, it’s a convincing win in this first stage of the mayor’s bid for a second term.
The mayoral election on 7 November marks a milestone in this Michigan city’s troubled history. It’s the first vote for mayor since Detroit’s bankruptcy – the largest in US history – was declared over in December 2014, and it’s happening in a city that’s not only undergoing unprecedented change but has a population set to grow for the first time since the 1950s.
“An election is always important but so many things are changing in Detroit right now,” says Alvin Gay, after casting his ballot at a school in a residential complex designed by Mies van der Rohe in 1956, the city’s golden era. Gay sold his advertising agency in New York after 30 years to set up shop back home, just one of many returning to Detroit. “I came back to be part of the renaissance.”
Detroit’s fortunes were once ruled by an industry that gave it its nickname: Motor City. In 1950, US carmaker General Motors (GM) was at its height, as was the city’s population, then peaking at 1.8 million. But, by the time of GM’s near-collapse in 2009, that was down to 700,000. Race riots in 1967 marked the start of a prolonged exodus of the middle-classes, exacerbated by mass mortgage defaults between 2005 and 2013 that left one in three city buildings abandoned. By the time bankruptcy was filed in July 2013, Detroit had become one of the country’s emptiest cities.
That year Duggan, fresh in office, had a near-impossible task ahead of him. First the basics had to be dealt with: getting the streetlights back on, demolishing abandoned homes (12,000 have been torn down during his term) reinstating weekly rubbish collections and reforming the police department. Next Duggan hired well-regarded figureheads to run city departments: Maurice Cox, a noted architect, was poached from a New Orleans university to lead Detroit’s planning department; and Beth Niblock, now the city’s CIO, was hired to overhaul the outdated IT systems, allowing residents to report service problems directly to city hall through a mobile app.
Detroit’s revival has not only seen an economic uptick – unemployment has halved in four years – but was also founded on an energetic brand of urbanism, led by local government, private enterprise and the non-profit sector. And the test bed for this has been downtown Detroit.
Beacon Park opened in the city’s core in July and on a typical weekday lunchtime in summer, it’s bustling. Picnickers from nearby office blocks are eating at colourful seating areas while a band plays. Two young women park at a docking station for Detroit’s new bikeshare scheme, MoGo. There’s a convoy of food trucks making good money and a badminton court watched over by glass-fronted high-rises. Beacon Park epitomises Duggan’s approach to revival: restore a rundown public space, attract people to it with new things to see and do and then before long, businesses will move in to capitalise on the footfall. Eventually residents will follow suit and help drive up land value.
“Five years ago, downtown was a ghost town,” says Andrew Androff, whose removals firm is expanding to meet the demand of companies and individuals moving into the revitalised centre. Downtown Detroit today boasts the fastest-growing number of technology job vacancies in the country. A healthy roster of medium-sized businesses have also been founded in the city over the past few years, such as the Shinola leather goods and watchmaking company, while Detroit Bikes and Detroit Denim are also putting the city’s name firmly back into the marketplace.
The steady ascent of Midtown – and, more recently, Corktown – supports the idea that capitalising on public spaces will benefit the surrounding parts of the city. Districts such as Sherwood Forest and Indian Village’s leafy boulevards and neoclassical mansions are now following suit. But the idea that the city’s revival is more a tale of two Detroits – of areas enjoying renewal while others have yet to receive it – has become a potent and divisive one in this mayoral race.
“I’m not bashing what’s going on downtown, it’s a good thing,” says state senator Coleman A Young II, Duggan’s challenger for mayor. “We just want that development to go throughout the neighbourhoods.” Despite gleaming investments in the city’s centre, the concentration of poverty is still higher in Detroit than any other major US urban area, according to a 2016 Brookings report. The number of schools in the city, many closed during the decline, is also an ongoing cause for concern. “There is no systematic, thought-out plan right now for people who are struggling in this city.”
Driving along Chene Street, Gary Wozniak raises his voice to be heard above the loud whirr of his yellow open-top buggy. The street was once one of Detroit’s busiest commercial thoroughfares, he says, and the shops here achieved more sales than those of New York’s Fifth Avenue in their 1960s heyday. Now it is a strip of boarded-up buildings and empty plots of land.
Over the past decade Wozniak has been turning this derelict neighbourhood into Recovery Park, an urban farming initiative that employs Detroiters whose homelessness, past drug addictions or criminal records have been barriers to getting a job. The farm, which received $4m (€3.3m) in city hall and private funding earlier this year, has four urban greenhouses and grows vegetables all year. Its lettuces and golden radishes are on select menus across the city, including the celebrated Gold Cash Gold restaurant in a former pawn shop in Corktown. The project employs 13 staff but Wozniak’s plan is to turn 22 city blocks into farmland and employ 300 workers.
Many urban interventions such as Recovery Park were citizen-led, especially during the bankruptcy. Business has also had a long history of private patronage in Detroit’s infrastructure – for example, the Henry Ford Hospital System remains one of its largest – and the city’s new streetcar network, the QLine, was paid for by Detroit-based mortgage company Quicken Loans. A series of public clocks was funded by Shinola, each designed to resemble an oversized version of the brand’s timepieces.
“City government can’t do this alone” has been the unofficial motto of Duggan’s administration during its first term. Yet the input of business raises questions over what influence those with deep pockets might have over the city’s future. A controversy earlier this year underscored those tensions: a downtown poster campaign by real-estate firm Bedrock featured mostly white residents with the slogan, “See Detroit Like We Do”. It compounded assumptions for many longtime residents – 82 per cent of whom are black – that Detroit’s renewal was being skewed to white newcomers. (Dan Gilbert, owner of Bedrock and the founder and chairman of Quicken Loans, apologised, removed the images and conceded that his firm had “screwed up”.)
“That kind of presence in North American middle cities is not unusual,” says Brian Kelcey, a Toronto-based commentator on urbanism, pointing to Atlanta’s relationship with Coca-Cola and its founder Asa Griggs Candler, a patron of major infrastructure projects who even took the mayoral seat himself in 1916. “But there’s no question that a lot of people can be uncomfortable with it. It starts to go sideways when you create the public impression of a culture of deal-making in which these investments look one-sided.”
At the core of these anxieties is the question of how much say Detroiters have in the future of their city. There are positive signs: a consultation by think-tank Detroit Future City (dfc) of 100,000 residents on the changes they wanted has informed much of the planning work today. “We are finding that any new civic concept or planning application includes plans for open space and productive land use,” says Anika Goss-Foster, dfc’s executive director. “Private development too is now thinking about open space and that never really happened before.”
Creating effective public space can bridge the gap between the regeneration of downtown and Detroit’s outlying neighbourhoods. The Platform, a property developer that was set up in early 2016, is working on Fitzgerald, an overlooked residential area 14km north of downtown, which will be overhauled without the construction of a single new building. The empty lots will become community gardens, children’s parks and green public spaces, including walkways that will, eventually, link Fitzgerald to other parts of the city.
Detroit’s model has little precedent in the history of modern US cities and, despite the criticisms, the renewal so far has given real hope to the city. At a nameless plot of land in Detroit’s East Side, known locally as Revival Park, voters discuss how to increase turnout, which is historically low in Detroit, ahead of the mayoral election. “Detroit is like a treasure chest,” says one. “It just hasn’t been opened yet.”
How would you contrast the city you inherited four years ago with the city today?
We spent the past four years getting the streetlights back on, the buses running and the grass cut. Now we’re going to build a Detroit where there are opportunities for everyone. When the city was developed in the 1920s and 1930s, it wasn’t done in a thoughtful way. Now, we’re really thinking through how to make this a great city for decades to come.
What is the main challenge in the city’s renewal?
A lot of Detroit’s unemployed don’t have the skills for the jobs that are coming here. So the real challenge is to make the training available. And that’s going to be my focus. I know that we can recruit companies to come here – now we’ve got to make sure that Detroiters get those jobs.
What can other cities learn from Detroit?
I don’t tell anybody else how to run their city. I’m just trying to do the best I can right here. When you start patting yourself on the back, that’s when you trip and start to fall.
If Houston is known for one thing by US history buffs it is that the Texas city is not so keen on rules. Since its start in the early 1800s, it has grown into the country’s fourth-most populated city – without a single zoning law. With land plentiful and little bureaucratic oversight, the city’s fast growth and dislike for rules have happily fed into the cowboy mentality of the Lone Star state.
However, though architectural lawlessness may have helped Houston’s boisterous growth, it has also produced a formless mess of a city with weak ties between neighbourhoods and no vernacular of note. Then when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in August, the lack of regulation proved catastrophic. Zoning some city areas for less construction would have helped maintain the porous prairie grasses – capable of draining and soaking up water – rather than the impermeable tarmac in its place. Laws that prevent residents from living within flood-control districts would have given city leaders the option to release excess water from rising reservoirs and not worry about submerging houses.
With Houston (as well as other US states) now picking up the pieces, the recovery and rebuilding effort may echo that for Hurricane Sandy, the 2012 storm that hit New York and New Jersey. During that time Shaun Donovan, then US housing and urban development secretary, spoke to Monocle. “The federal government’s role is not to lead response or recovery, it is to support state and local government. Obviously the larger the storm, the lower the capacity of the state and locals, the more the government has to lean in.”
If cities don’t enforce their own zoning codes, federal government help can be counterproductive. When it comes to disaster relief, initiatives from Washington are structured to offer emergency money for rebuilding what existed before a disaster but not always what ought to have been there in the first place. Instead Houston yearns for an intervention; before the federal government hands over cash, it needs to demand limits.
From its origins in 600bc, Marseille was always a haven for seafarers, fugitives and immigrants. Today’s Mediterranean metropolis is regarded as the civic bad boy of France. Its notorious banlieues – chiefly the infamous Quartier Nord suburb – are often touted as no-go zones.
Yet in the past five years the French government has ploughed billions into the city with its Euroméditerranée renewal project and created a new business district. It has also redeveloped its seafront with buildings by Jean Nouvel, Norman Foster and Rudy Ricciotti. Tracts of underground tunnels were dug to re-route ugly urban motorways and swathes of housing were torn down or refurbished. Even the former hospice, the palatial Hotel Dieu, is now a five-star Intercontinental hotel.
The result is a cleaner, shinier and safer city. Tourist revenue is booming (five million people visited in 2014 as opposed to two million in 2013). This summer, even president Emmanuel Macron chose to eschew his official holiday residence at Fort Bregançon to take a villa in Marseille and jog down the city’s Prado Beach in an Olympique de Marseille football shirt.
Constitución, a picturesque small town of just under 50,000 people on Chile’s Pacific coastline, was for a long time the summer coastal resort for many holidaying Chileans. But in 2010 the historic seaside town’s status as a tourist destination and forestry centre was destroyed by an earthquake and subsequent tsunami that levelled much of the historic centre. In the aftermath local forestry giant Arauco financed a reconstruction plan while Elemental, the Chilean architecture firm led by Alejandro Aravena, was tasked with designing the new city.
The architects set to work on a new waterside development that incorporates vast green space, as well as the celebrated Villa Verde housing development via a new theatre and cultural centre. A new public library – designed by architect Sebastian Irarrázaval as a light-filled building set around three wooden chambers – is another standout project. “Little by little they’re returning Constitución to the splendour it enjoyed at the start of the 20th century,” says Claudio Aravena of Fundación La Fuente, a non-profit foundation that helped oversee the construction of the library.
Hobart’s remoteness on the southern coast of Tasmania, Australia’s island state, made it the butt of mainlanders’ jokes. But that changed in 2011 when billionaire gambler David Walsh, a Hobart native, opened the boundary-pushing Museum of Old and New Art (Mona). “The opening of Mona was the catalyst for Hobart’s evolution into a contemporary, confident and vibrant small city,” says Luke Martin, ceo of the Tourism Industry Council Tasmania. “Having one of the world’s best contemporary-art museums open in your city does wonders to debunk longstanding cultural cringe.”
Mona has attracted tourists in droves, which in turn has sparked investment across the creative industries while new restaurants such as Aloft, and Peacock and Jones serve a wealth of great seafood dishes. A new hotel, Macq01, opened earlier this year and vacant offices spaces downtown are being snapped up. Meanwhile, soaring house prices in Sydney and Melbourne are encouraging waves of young professionals to move to Hobart. As the cost of living starts to bite for urban Australians, the tucked-away Tassie capital is beginning to look like a hip haven.
Rangoon in its heyday was celebrated as a bustling yet elegant entrepôt. But after Myanmar gained independence in 1948, the splendour of the city – renamed Yangon – gave way under nearly five decades of harsh military rule. By 2011, when a reformist government came to power, Yangon was in a grim state. The former capital has since undergone a transformation with the focus on the restoration of its tattered but graceful heritage buildings and an overhaul of its public-transport systems. A multibillion-dollar scheme funded by foreign aid donors is upgrading the sewage, electricity, rail and roads systems.
The greatest symbol of the city’s resurgence is the ambitious renovation of the Secretariat building, former seat of British administrative rule. Yangon’s chief minister Phyo Min Thein has overseen the city’s urban development and public-transport reforms. The Yangon Heritage Trust, founded by historian Thant Myint U, obtained government orders to ban the demolition of old buildings. The city has also benefited from private largesse and Serge Pun, a real-estate mogul, is funding the restoration of the Victorian-era Burma Railways building.