MEREDITH Strategy + Design

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Shaping a strategy for Detroit

Aaron Renn does a great job at Urbanophile and in periodic articles at Newgeography addressing the conditions and issues that are unique to the Midwest. He is thoughtful and generous, and I’m always appreciative of his perspective. Aaron is currently addressing “The Detroit Project,” a set of proposals for Detroit by the Brookings Institute and published in The New Republic as “a plan for solving America’s greatest urban disaster.” He offers a critique of the Brookings plan and suggests one of his own. Some of what he addresses provoked some questions and considerations of my own.

Aaron, I am not yet ready to offer an “M=Shaped Strategy” for the city, but I like that you cause reflection. If you don’t mind, I’ll borrow your framework as a way of structuring a conversation.

You open by outlining some of the city and region’s key issues like race and business culture, point to the need for courageous leadership, and adding Detroit innovation to best practices from solutions to similar problems n other places. You then offer eight key strategies.

1. Improve race relations

I don’t think I can address race here without being superficial. With that caveat, I’d offer a sense that the city-suburb divide is no longer simply “a matter of black and white.” When conditions are such that, for example, the students in the city’s schools rank at the absolute bottom in national testing, flight from the city to the suburbs is increasingly by anybody who has the resources to do it.

There is no question that we must repair race relations, and I think that this may be supported by making a different frame for the discussion. Could a broad and rich definition of “sustainability” as a core regional value can be part of this, engaging social considerations in balance with economic and environmental concerns?

2 Active shrinkage

Aaron, I can’t accept your notion that “a lot more people need to leave Detroit.”

I believe, instead, that whatever leadership is here or that may emerge here needs to see the necessity of right-sizing as an obligation to repopulate. This seems almost a moral imperative, a sense that the extraordinary resources that are here – both people and infrastructure – are “wasted” by further depopulation.

Imagination, vision, determination, grit, innovation and more have got to be invested to assure that what has been built will not be thrown away. Pardon me for this, but I imagine scenes from “The Road” when I read your words promoting relocation programs and what might be called migratory unsustainability.

3. Improve the business climate

I really like Umair Haque and his periodic “manifestos.” He sees a great future for business, industry and society, but not from the way they’ve performed in the past.

Today’s article was “The Builder’s Manifesto” in which he suggests that “20th century leadership is stopping 21st century prosperity.” The new talents and ethics that are required now are what he calls “buildership.” Builders, he says, “forge better building blocks to construct economies, polities, and societies.”

But closer to our context here, I like his “Smart Growth Manifesto.” Smart growth, he says, “isn't powered by capital dully seeking the lowest-cost labour – but by giving labour the power to seek the capital with which they can create, invent, and innovate the most.”

I think what I am trying to get to here is a skepticism about the continued elimination of regulation (we’re living with that disaster) and passing the obligation of taxation to others. This is not an argument for bureaucracy or burden, but instead a search for what really matters and a desire that those businesses who may be here or who may locate here will see their obligation as “builders” and their roles as contributing to growth. Won't this take shapers – a regulatory framework – and resources?

4. Change the culture

I agree that the business, management, labor, and social infrastructure of the city has to reconcile with its current size and condition. And I certainly agree that business in the 21st century is agile, virtual and collaborative. But I do not want to agree with your concept that  this cultural change has to be done from the inside, that “no one can just tell Detroit how to do it.” Detroit has generations of business, governing and social institutions with embedded cultures and ways of doing things.

I believe that Detroit needs intervention, perhaps with a spirit of mentorship, and certainly with the tough love of urgency, care, and straightforwardness. I like our currently active intervenors. Robert Bobb seems to be doing good things with the schools, and I might grow to like Whitacre  and what he’s doing for GM. Neither, I expect, are just telling them how to do it, nor are they leaving them alone. Perhaps the “feed a man a fish/teach a man to fish” cliche is applicable here?

5. Renew Brand Detroit

I agree that the city needs an “aspirational narrative that is authentically Detroit.” A key issue for us right now, however, is that this narrative and this brand are being defined by others.

Much of the press both locally and nationally has Detroit on a death watch. People have a morbid fascination that attracts them to the story, but everybody also wants to keep their distance for fear of catching the disease. I have colleagues who have even begun to take their addresses off their business cards. This is ostensibly a recognition of the mobile and digitally connected world we are in where place doesn’t matter as much, but really is because they fear that their talents and their voice will be diminished once their place of origin is known.

I think the best brands, the “authentic” brands, are recognized for what they are, not for what advertising labels them. If there is to be a new or renewed Brand Detroit, it will achieve its authenticity when everybody in the region begins to hear, understand, accept and repeat the story themselves.

It seems that a leader’s voice is essential to begin to shape the new story of Detroit. That narrative has to be one that is new – a different way of seeing the city – but also authentic – something that people “get” as an insightful interpretation of an underlying but newly uncovered truth.

I like the hopeful sense of your “new American frontier” and the “blank canvas” of opportunity, here. But while there may be a lot of physical emptiness, I wonder if the reality isn’t that there is an awful lot of baggage here that cannot be overlooked. I wonder, in other words, if the new narrative of Detroit has to be transformational rather than original.

6. Pursue targeted industry clusters

I like very much the idea of clusters, especially in the context of their formation around talents and competencies. In that aspect, I liked the Brookings idea that “industry may fade, but expertise does not."

It seems that effective wooing of new or different industries may be most effective if it follows a reprofiling of Detroit’s talents (and its environment, as I note elsewhere). I expect this is similar to the authenticity of brand.

We must expect that many from other places will look at this city now as the home of gross incompetency in management. There is also the historic perception of the city as home of “labor” with all of its connotations. Together they can be seen as the key factors that drove an industry born and globalized from there to its death.

Detroit is however (hopefully for a while longer) home of generations of people who know how to design, engineer, fabricate, customize, integrate and market stuff. Attracting other industries to “cluster” here may require disassociating capabilities from their connections to automobiles, and changing perceptions of just who the people of the city and region are and the talents, expertise and energies they have.

7. Rationalize regional governance and infrastructure investment

I am not sure I yet accept your argument against infrastructure. I certainly agree, in the sense of “expansion,” but isn’t renewal essential here? Whether we think of infrastructure as potential (awaiting repopulation) or as requiring an essential right-sizing to the smaller population that is and will be, it seems that a grand transformation plan is necessary.

In his annual review of the state of architecture today, Nicolai Ouroussoff made an observation about the direction of architectural talent in a time of little opportunity. He writes that “perhaps the greatest shift of all this year has been a renewed interest in infrastructure. Encouraged by the debates that surrounded the unveiling of President Obama’s stimulus package, American architects, curators and students have thrown themselves into the task of rethinking the networks — train lines, freeways, bridges, levees, ports and waterfronts — that bind our communities together.”

As Detroit shrinks, and fragments as a consequence, shouldn’t the stuff that binds our communities together be close to the top of the agenda?

8. Secure irreplaceable assets

Aaron, you make a very good plea for the preservation of Detroit’s remaining architectural heritage. Recognizing that there is present neither demand nor resource, your argument for a maintainable mothballing is a good one.

If I sustain a value stream around sustainability, I of course cannot argue against the notion of preserving the city’s historic assets. I am concerned, however, that the subject of historic preservation and rehabilitation is not well understood, appears to many to be superficial, is something that is abundant in times of abundance but is a luxury in times of spareness, and ultimately is about particles more than systems.

The city and the region must bravely assert that the sustainability of the region is dependent on attracting the best companies and the best talent and, for them, the quality and design of the urban environment is a key factor in making a location choice. Every time a company uses a practice that derives its facilities with price as a primary evaluator is practicing urbanicide (and, as we’ve seen, corporate suicide), and violating core principles of sustainability.

So, when thinking about the physical environment, we must consider what we do in a broader and interconnected context. Historic resources are part of this but are a weak driver of accomplishment. Every move to build, whether new or rehabilitation, should take place through an informed organization considering environmental, social, economic, cultural and physical systems, and with a goal not to restrict but to assure that the highest quality and benefit can be achieved with the available and integratable resources.

There is some great work being done in the area’s architecture schools, fostered by a faculty made more robust by the practitioners who have little else to do. Ouroussoff article today concludes, “As architectural work dries up and graduate students begin to contemplate what could be a much darker future, the question is: Who if anyone will tap into this wealth of talent and ideas?”

This is, in other words, a great time for this city to take advantage of an abundance of talent and ideas to help shape the city and the infrastructure that connects us and develop what Brookings suggested is “a different kind of city, one that challenges our idea of what a city is supposed to look like, and what happens within its borders.”