Detroit and its Five Futures
Defining Detroit for the remaining century
The most famous urban failure is reestablishing what it means to be a city. Like it has in the past, Detroit is at the vanguard of epochal change.Contemplated here are five modes of social and economic growth to establish a just and resilient future for Detroit.
Detroit and Its Five Futures
I didn't grow up in Detroit, but I've spent my whole life visiting. It's where my grandparents and aunts were, and it's the city that got me hooked on architecture and urbanism when I was a kid. My great-aunt spent her whole life there and worked in the Detroit public schools. When she died, my dad gave me one of her books, an exhaustive history of Detroit's architecture published in the 1960s by W. Hawkins Ferry called The Buildings of Detroit. For a middle school kid it's pretty nerdy, but this book is really, really good, and offers a firsthand account of how Detroit architects imagined its postward future—a period that would prove, in short time, the most critical inflection point in the city's story. As a child, my dad spent summers in Detroit, as Ferry described it, with his aunt and recalled them fondly. And when I was a kid, together he and I explored the city, with Ferry's book as a guide, to see what was different, and to understand what was lost.

The day that Amazon announced its intention to build "HQ2" I was back in Detroit for a few days to see what's new and catch up with friends. During the afternoon commute it was pouring rain across the city, and I was driving along parkway that follows the River Rouge through a vast park preserve to avoid heavy traffic on the freeway. Alongside the road was a path where people were biking and running despite the rain. In late summer, the landscape still glowed with a lush green, and the prairie meadows of the park were only beginning to yellow and fallow for autumn.

If you were new to Detroit, you'd be forgiven to mistake this park scene for one of the city's neighborhoods. Detroit's "urban prairies" are the stuff of lore, and throughout media are images both famous and humdrum of vast swaths of former neighborhoods given over to trees and shrubs, grasslands and heaps. If you were new to Detroit, you might read this as a problem-as the problem you'd always heard of: insurmountable as tragedy, pathetic as vogue, meek as opportunity. For most people, this is the story of Detroit. A post-industrial ruin, once the crown jewel of the American Dream, eviscerated and poisoned, a scar if not a disease. If you were new to Detroit, you would be forgiven for feeling that way.

Driving along I was enveloped in a belt of green, as rain fell to replenish the rivers and lakes of the world's greatest freshwater region. From the Rouge it would flow into the Detroit River, where the water of Lakes Michigan, Huron, and Superior pass the city on the way to Erie, Niagara Falls, Ontario, and the St. Lawrence. Even next to steel mills, the water smells sweet. On the other side of the park, engineers at Ford's vast research complex were developing the technology for mass produced autonomous vehicles and new ways to build them. For a moment, I looked around and realized that I was occupying a moment from the future, when much could be different. A lush city of parks and parkways and flourishing rivers, doing the work to save us from our intractable challenges, full of people doing things. I looked around and saw Detroit stronger, truer, prouder; thriving against the doubters and cynics it left behind, receding in the side mirror of a Detroit-forged electric or autonomous vehicle.

Snap. Now back. Rain against the windshield. Runners, cars, birds, planes, flowers. Nothing outside the imagination had changed. I looked around and saw the same city. In that coordinate of space and time, Detroit in the present looked a lot like Detroit in the future. Trees, water, people doing things. I had traveled in time and I had been to the future. I've seen the future and it's Detroit.

. . .

Many observers find it ridiculous that Amazon would open its "HQ2" in Detroit, the capital of the Rust Belt. By most conventional measures, they're not wrong. But Detroit isn't a conventional place. There is a different agency to imagine, do, craft, and manifest more here than there is in other cities. It's not just the talent pool, the design legacy, or the sweet, edenic summers. It's the fist of the city that makes Detroit different; its complicated fist of tenacity and imagination that has contributed so much.

The Rust Belt is an easy stereotype, and whoever cannot see beyond can keep it. The future of the Rust Belt isn't rust but reclamation. Detroit can't pretend to be something it clearly isn't; it must start deep within its own story, not try to mimic another city’s. How we do economic development will determine how we restore the brokenness and amplify the audacity of a city eager to burnish. How we collectively situate tomorrow in the context of today will define how we educate our children, build our homes, remediate the land, deepen community, and sustain Detroit's selfhood, it's driving mythologies.

To help paint that picture, I offer five futures of Detroit's Rust Belt mantle that demonstrate why Detroit is the first American city of the 21st Century. With or without Amazon, Detroit and its Five Futures are inevitable if its people can coalesce its resources and harness its potential to build, once again, the most innovative city in the world.
A Colloquial History
The Fist of the City
The Rust Belt is an unmistakable moniker that immediately encompasses a hundred years of innovation and collapse. Today, we wear this badge with pride; sweat carried rust into the ground as Detroit labored in the blast furnace of the American economy. We built a society that made things possible, the least of which was accessibility to the middle class. Detroit bore the American idea on its brow. But it wasn't just brawn. Detroit expressed the deepest beauty of the American century as the capital of American modernism. Our institutions forged artisans and creators as much as it forged steel and bearings. They dreamed of cities in the forest, midnight by the moon on the rivers of the north, cities built for peace and prosperity, and they built a legacy of design that touches every part of American life: not just cars, but textiles, fashion, music, furniture, and the daily handicraft of a prosperous nation.

It was a brooding nation. In the process of becoming, Detroit built a society that unveiled the worst of American confidence. Just as it was a bellwether and foregrounder of industrial capitalism, of the middle class imagination and the abundant ingenuity of the new world, Detroit thrived to the systemic exclusion of others. It appropriated the extirpated tribes to sell its cars, redlined housing, brutalized black communities not just in the letter of the law but in the practice of it. Detroit's now-famous dichotomy of race and class was in the city's very first seeds and at the tip of its roots, and has siphoned progress like a throbbing tumor through decades of ambivalence and bitterness. While we're facing this original sin today in ways that are unprecedented, there is arduous and painful work ahead. In this way, perhaps Detroit will once again be the bellwether, and lead America in hearing all this violence in the echoes of its foundational myths, to break down the structural impediments that remain in the bones of our institutions.

This legacy and the myopia of industrial might also made us a bellwether for the impact of globalism on American cities. With other rust belt cities, we were among the first to fall, but no city in recent centuries hit the depths that we have outside of war. Detroit's stunning loss of population between peak and valley is one of the first things people talk about when they talk about Detroit. That a city built for 2 million people could lose all but 600,000 conjures explanations of war and mass migration across geography. Here, they just moved to the suburbs. The neighborhoods slowly bled, provoking a positive feedback loop of instability, economic insecurity, enmity, civic breakdown, and the aggregate effects of these things on everyday residents in all aspects of their lives. It's not just crime and hollowed out property values, but the sense of indifference and subtle despair that roots into a slowly emptying city, regardless of the pride of its people. Detroit didn't just lose jobs and residents, it lost its trees to Dutch elm disease, its music to LA, its street life and entire neighborhoods to freeways, factories, or massive urban redevelopment protocols laced, not so subtly, with racist motivations. All of these forces continue to define the city and its own look inward.

Some cities experience disaster over a few days, but Detroit's disaster has happened over decades at a sort of urban geological time scale. Those who think that there was a singular event or moment in which Detroit was alright and then not - the riots, maybe, or the election of Coleman Young - show a misunderstanding of history, of the dynamics of urban systems, but also of the nature of Detroit itself. The corrosions that our city has experienced come from a pathology of contradiction in our DNA. A common saying is that Detroit never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. These decades have been a struggle to reckon with and face down a death wish instilled early in the city that desires erasure, the trait Detroit is most commonly known for as the city famously appears to have disappeared. 

Sometimes erasure comes as ambition to start anew and rebuild, sometimes in the rush to destroy artifacts and remainders that stand in the way. When the Super Bowl came to Detroit the old headquarters of Motown Records was deemed an eyesore and demolished as a sacrificial platitude to the image-makers of the city, and to provide a parking lot. The site became an empty lot in a landscape of emptiness, and as it was broken, ambiguous remnants of the heyday of the Detroit sound floated into the cold, gray sky of January. Even this is a positive spin on the matter; the truth is far more insidious. Too many know Detroit only aesthetically - as an anemic landscape, scarcely populated by a disenfranchised people brutalized by the fallout of parallel erasing forces: racism, white flight, or recursive poverty.

Yet long before we learned to enunciate this violence, and long before the Super Bowl, the City Plan Commission routinely concocted detailed visions for the widespread urban destruction that once marked progress. Despite a complex animosity to the suburban metropolis that flourished after things turned markedly bleaker in the 70s, Detroit City has sought legitimacy, or perhaps equivalency, by passing suburban forms in its old urban heart. Even in 1947, Detroit envisioned the total erasure of its cityscape in favor of urban forms that would, forty years later, characterize its most fringe suburban landscapes in places like Macomb County. And to land the 1968 Olympics, Detroit visioned its own body almost completely absent of neighborhoods, - a pure, undiluted realization of Corbusier's towers in the park. Towers, freeways, and the nebulous intermediate ground that, on paper, is just a wash of gray.

Detroit, America's Zelig. But instead of mimicking the success of other cities in a time of crisis, Detroit for too long simply reflected despair back upon itself. So often Detroit has faced the uncanny valley of its own gaze, the pitfall of being victim of the things it helped create. The abandoned assembly line factory or the foreclosure crisis - in them the weirdness of facing your own role in larger system of global currents that unraveled. While many cities experienced crises in the neoliberal era, and continue to, Detroit saw the first wave of many urban conflicts because of its unique role in creating those crises. Being the first horse out of the gate is perhaps Detroit's greatest innovation, and this legacy resounds as global and American urbanism alike encounter radical evolutions. And because of that, for all these reasons, perhaps no other city is in a better position for the task of defining a 21st century urbanism. Detroit wonders how, this time, to turn its uncanny being into something that premises a new kind of city, to reinvent itself again, and probe a resilient future that recalibrates what it means to be urban in a post-Fordist world, threatened immediately by credit scores, and imminently with the rising seas.

The prospect has brought to Detroit a wave of hipsters and exiles, farmers and real estate developers to feel out a way forward while exploiting its aesthetic magnitude. The city is an exposition, smeared with prairie lands and brownfields, and a sense of that Old English wyrd that underlies even the most beautiful of the city's ruins and ecological reclamations. Countless questions beg answers. What do we do with all that stuff - all the guts; the immense anthropo-mass of a city that is physically crumbling just as it is slowly unfounded by an explosion of biomass? Just as it was a century ago, these are questions of production; they are conundrums of innovation and market forces. Water, resistance, information: these are the new ingredients. Detroit commands fascination because it speaks to the ontological narratives of American place which underlie recent economic and social confrontations within our ongoing self-actualization.

Which brings us to today. Detroit: moribund, emboldened. Detroit, still wrestling to cohere the intractable forces of modernity with an insatiable pride and survival instinct ignited within its people. Detroit: placid and bare, pulsing with the song-like urgency of Whitman. An image-other, laid open, hiding. Nihilistic, imaginary. Maybe a dark horse, maybe the first American city of the 21st Century. Maybe the best idea that nobody owns. Will Detroit save our democracy again? Will it remap the world again? Will Detroit Detroit again?

The five futures which follow, as I describe them, aren't exhaustive. Detroit is a knot, and one person can't do full justice to the gordian complexity of how these five futures fully implicate and impact different groups of people, places, and institutions, both abstract and tangible. Like anybody, we have to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.
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The Blue Belt
After World War II, economic and urban growth slowly shifted from northern and eastern cities to southern and western states. Wartime innovations changed the dynamic of manufacturing economies and opened up space for new sectors to grow. Fueled by air conditioning, cars, the interstates, and the first modern generation of retirees, the Sun Belt prospered with booms in the oil, logistics, and defense industries. Today, the story has changed. As the southwest struggles to recognize its tenuous future at the mercy of water scarcity, the idea of going home, as it were - back to the north - does not seem that retrogressive. 

The Great Lakes cradle Michigan with a fifth of the world's surface fresh water. Detroit is blessed with a position at the crossroads of this geography. As the global community reconciles modernity with diminishing resources and growing environmental vulnerability, water will likely be the most volatile driver of conflict in upcoming decades. Needless to say, to many facing long-term drought the Great Lakes look like a cooling, sparkling pool on a hot summer day, and there are endless golf courses, industrial agriscapes, and endlessly sprawling suburbs who would love to partake. Consequently, the chief structural threat to the Great Lakes region's limitless supply of available water is the diversion of water to areas of the country that have relentlessly and recklessly pushed for unfettered development in the name of short-term growth without addressing the long-term consequences of water scarcity.

For now, water rights in the Midwest are protected and collectively guaranteed through an international compact between the Great Lakes states and provinces that has been codified in state, provincial, and federal law by the United States and Canada. Not even municipalities within a hundred feed of the Great Lakes watershed boundary can access lake water without the unanimous consent of all treaty states and provinces. And rather than the absurdist, anachronistic first-come-first-served, hereditary water rights laws of the western states, the Great Lakes have established its water resources as a collective asset, grounded in universal rights to access within a distinct watershed. As the possibility of expansive legal and, perhaps someday, military conflicts over water usage looms larger, the societal values that underlie the legal status of Great Lakes water couldn't be more important - or valuable.

Even though Michigan is the heart and soul of the Great Lakes, like other states it has suffered the exodus of its people to other regions and emerging metropolises with different economic opportunities and pleasant climes. But parched cities, desolate, desperate landscapes, and the prospect of unending drought makes Michigan strategically attractive but also practical. And compared to other economic centers, Michigan and its Midwestern neighbors is affordable due to an abundance of available land and more-or-less stable communities that otherwise been dismissed as lacking any viable, or even interesting, future. An influx of new residents - let's call them water refugees - from the Sun Belt back into the Midwest is not outlandish. If paired with robust, progressive conservation, land use planning that works with water, and other environmental sustainability initiatives, the Blue Belt will look more and more like the only option. In this scenario, Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Milwaukee are the cities that will lead this century, not the neoliberal boom towns that got rich quick worshipping the speculation-fueled, spatio-temporal fixes and construction bonanzas of the 80s, 90s, and Oughts. The global picture of scarcity and resource use grows ever darker but as it does, the radiant azure of Michigan's lush waterscapes grow ever brighter.
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The Green Belt
As a metropolis in the heart of the Blue Belt, Detroit is also a massive R&D lab for sustainable and green tech, landscape urbanism, and resiliency planning. While emerging firms in this space and implementation in planning practice are both still nascent, design frameworks such as Detroit Future City are built around green urbanism as a catalyst for both physical revitalization of the city and economic development. Nationwide, new market sectors in renewable energy are coming close to eclipsing conventional incumbents, and in some cases already have, such as in job volume. To scale, these technologies are reliant on advanced manufacturing and engineering and here too, Detroit is a growing leader. Due to the abandonment and natural reclamation that Detroit has experienced, perhaps no other city in the country is in a better position to prove (in a way, without much effort) the value of sustainable urbanism and green infrastructure for the future of American cities. A meaningful reimagining of Detroit's cityscape in the short term, and of its viability on a global scale in the long term, must embrace these potentials.

For the Motor City, green belt urbanism will require a titanic shift in mindset. An existing initiative to expand I-94 through the heart of Detroit would cost $3 billion through 2036 and would result only in repaired bridges and new lanes, while removing the green buffer along the right of way. Already, it's an awkward sell. Many consider the project necessary only on dubious terms, and it's almost embarrassing to defend such an immense investment for outmoded infrastructure that will be almost certainly obsolete before it's even completed. In the same way that Detroit prototyped the first urban freeway, it should be trailblazing alternatives for a post-freeway future. Why not allow the green embankments grow into parkways, lined with remediating trees and native landscapes?

Quick detour- The Michigan DOT spent tens of millions of dollars along I-94 on a superfluous bridge they claimed would be a beautiful landmark and gateway into the city for travelers on their way downtown from Metro Airport. Instead, it's an embarrassingly simple-minded piece of junk, the main feature of which is steel bracing in the shape of a football because, you know, the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, from the car window travelers are still welcomed by bleak landscapes of heavy industry, strip malls, and a wide swath of underwhelming freeway median that does nothing much beyond collecting trash. For a fraction of the cost, the state could have lined the freeway with flowering trees to create an entire welcoming parkway concealing the wastelands of the I-94-the Detroit Industrial Freeway- which, even today, would be unlike anything found in other cities.

Cities around the world have embarked on projects to remove urban freeways and replace them them with multimodal and flexible green infrastructure. In the United States, removal projects have gained traction in cities as liberal and progressive as Seattle and as road-obsessed and outsized as Dallas. While removal projects that simply clear space for more lucrative development, as projects in these two cities proposes, come with many benefits and opportunities, they don't necessarily disrupt the larger economic dependencies of infrastructure development. Dollar for dollar, infrastructure is a high-returns investment because it stimulates new investment. Municipal and state governments are typically eager to spend on infrastructure for this reason, and because of the rules of federal disbursements to the states, often have a statutory mandate to do so. We are addicted to infrastructure, in fact, and go out of the way to build rationale for new projects that glean political support and comes off as growth, even as our existing infrastructure languishes.

But in the future, our current mode of infrastructure is likely to be a liability as environmental resources essential to persistent growth become scarcer, and the pressure to repair what we've built becomes unavoidable. While Seattle and Dallas have a glut of condo towers and tech offices to build on their new-found land, Detroit is free from the burden of building and maintaining new infrastructure and is once again positioned to be the testing ground for a new kind of infrastructure.

Detroit can be the first metropolis to disrupt the instrumentalist idea that infrastructure is most effective at absorbing capital, and approach it as something that generates value and promotes resiliency. Freeway corridors don't have to be dreary expanses of a larger transport network; they are already other things of great value-water corridors, foliage corridors, and park corridors that are grounded in a distinctive sense of place. The future of the interstate isn't more lanes to alleviate commuter auto traffic, it's high speed rail, flood control, park-front real estate, and wellness corridors. Extending this view into the city, vacant lots are future productive landscapes that ought to be replete with "wild" vegetables and fruit trees. Even planting evergreens throughout the boulevards and streetscapes of the city would bring a relief of color to the gray-sodden winters of Michigan.

With the right political and design leadership, Detroit could emerge as the world's first 21st-century garden city, a striking position for a 20th-century industrial powerhouse. While transformation at the scale of its vast cityscape will play out over many years, there are opportunities today to demonstrate a progressive outlook on green urbanism and serve as a pilot for other cities. Detroit's community garden and food sovereignty movement is one of the world's most robust, encompassing over 1,400 gardens, an activist farmer's market organization, and evolving "agrihoods" throughout the city. Detroit even has an active timber-harvest forest that is distributed over 2,000 parcels in one neighborhood. Because forested lots are maintained for public use and community interaction, they serve as a collection of micro-parks that embody ideas of urban land use both forensic and anticipatory. Detroit's green urbanism momentum is enabled by a lack of conventional market resistances such as real estate but also, importantly, because it is rooted in the social, cultural, and physical status of the land itself, as it is now; it is landscape as intrinsic rather than instrumental in value.

Paired with Michigan's still-young but steady clean energy sector and the evolving focus of the auto industry on mobility, Detroit has begun a metamorphosis, outgrowing the industrial blinders that helped shape the vortex of the city's recent decades. According to policy group E2, clean energy jobs grew in 2016 at three times the rate of overall job growth, and leads the Midwest in advanced transportation jobs. With its global influence in transportation and manufacturing, Detroit is setting the standard for how multinational corporations can embrace sustainability to redefine the value proposition of their business and enter whitespace for growth. For too long government and industrial leaders redoubled the logics of late capitalism that directly and indirectly devalued the commons and, in consequence, constrained the growth of communities unburdened by sprawl, environmental demise, dispossession, and opportunity. The chicken has come home to roost. Detroit helped create the Rust Belt, and Detroit is also planting the seeds of its green regeneration.
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The Mobility Belt
As with Detroit the city, what happened to "Detroit," a metonym for the automobile industry on which it depends, is complicated. After decades of misguidance and willful obstinance, the auto industry faced a crucible in 2009. Bankruptcy was the reward for years of design and business decisions which, driven by cheap oil and a dysfunctional relationship with unions resistant to change, reinforced a pathological culture of mediocrity and glossed over opportunities to innovate in the mobility space. When explosive demand in emerging economies and the complex geopolitics of the fossil fuel industry helped drive a spike in the cost of gasoline, the large, low-efficiency vehicles that the Big Three deliberately depended on for profitability became a financial liability for its customers. During the subprime mortgage crisis sales of these vehicles dissolved, and the veil was drawn, exposing the incredible structural vulnerabilities of industrial titans enrapt with the conventional wisdom of American manufacturing.

Ultimately the American people saved Detroit. The infusion of public cash to revive Chrysler and GM, two lions of American industrial prowess, carried symbolic weight that was impossible to miss. It was a meta-Keynesian bail-out, a repudiation of industrial exceptionalism, a flat tire in the American Dream and the values of personal labor, advancement, and security in old age that underpin it. The Obama administration made the American public owners, and it was too much for many people to handle. In some ways, it presaged our current predicament, in which a large portion of the industrial working class is struggling to understand how the economic chess board has evolved, and to find a place in a different world. 

Across the supply chain and in every C-Suite, Detroit had to face the facts too. Things change; the times change. With nothing to lose and a new mandate from its majority shareholder, Detroit cleaned house, killing brands, shifting imprints, retooling, and leveraging bankruptcy to shed debt and long-term obligations. Most importantly, they changed the way they work and the culture of leadership. In the time since, the Big Three have been consistently and remarkably profitable. That's amazing news for a monolithic industry that found itself on the threshold of oblivion, and a necessary reinforcement of Detroit's economic foundation. 

And yet, things change, the times change. Since 2009 the mobility sector has exploded with speculative capital and comparatively lean, ground-up enterprises like Tesla, Waymo, and Uber obliterate the Detroit Three in valuation despite the specter of long-term unprofitability. In that time, the game has changed. It's no longer to win emerging markets-such as "BRIC" (Brazil, Russia, India, China) which neoliberal positivists looked to as a capital outlet that could rinse and repeat the last half of the 20th century albeit with a fresh new look-the game is to build a new market entirely. For the auto industry, the space-time continuum is warping in weird ways. As an incumbent who, above all, knows how to build cars for drivers, how do you simultaneously sustain dominance in a market where people still need conventional product while investing to flourish in whitespace, and do it faster than new entrants claiming the beachheads?

This tension is the nucleus of Detroit's future. Every city needs a bedrock industry, and every organization needs to imagine its own disruptor. Ironically, if Detroit wants to win the future of mobility, it has to keep building cars. While the auto industry, by its nature, will always show a certain volatility in the production of legacy inventory, traced in adjustments to capacity and production (demand for vehicles can shift quickly and is rife with contingencies), the Big Three have invested heavily in enterprise transformation focused on mobility. A chunk of that investment is geared toward mainstreaming EV and autonomous vehicles. By some metrics Chevrolet is beating Tesla in the EV market, and both companies have spent billions acquiring startups in the smart car space. Detroit is betting that this binary, seemingly oppositional showdown between tech and spec will ultimately converge: Waymo and others will, at some point, have to build actual manufactured vehicles at scale. At the same time, to prepare for the future and claim a piece of the pie, Ford and GM are taking stakes in businesses that are likely to be keystones to the viability of connected, autonomous, shared, and electric cars. The message? The future of cars is tech, but it's also cars, but not like cars cars. Car cars will be the ones that don't make sense for something like EVs or AVs-pickups, big family cars with muscle torques, and some variation on the semi-jingoistic gas-guzzlers of the Pax W years. 

Whichever way you slice it, for the first time in decades there is something like missional purpose at the Big Three (well, …at least at GM and Ford) that feels timely and relevant. It's the best possible scenario for three industrial stalwarts with essentially no viable alternative. A world with fewer cars was heresy in Detroit even ten years ago, but today it's a fundamental truth that the industry has embraced, and is guiding management across all segments of the business. In the end, mobility will define the future of Detroit. The way in which that happens is ordering intense debate between investors, analysts, factory workers, buyers, and starry-eyed unicorn hunters. Maybe Amazon will buy Chrysler. Maybe it will become for the mobility space the disruptor of disruptors it so often is. Maybe, on the other hand, Detroit will pride its long-term security in being the builder, and leave the dreaming to others. An old adage in Detroit is that it never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. 

Here again, Detroit can connect the dots in a way other cities can't. Mobility is ultimately about energy, and energy is ultimately about infrastructure. Yes, the Rust Belt is an immersive memorial to the dinosaurs of infrastructure. Whereas some choose to read it as a catacombs, some see it as tabula rasa. Detroit suffocated its civic energy with freeways to connect factories and steel plants to new communities of worker cottages in the suburbs. It helped define and incubate the logic and landscapes of sprawl that retain a vice grip on American mobility today. But in the underutilized express lanes of I-96 is a net-zero commuter rail right of way. In the right of way of the Lodge is an autonomous commuter bus parkway. In the famously abandoned, terrifically fallow train station is a bustling intermodal waypoint and embarkation terminal. Perhaps in the brownfield of a long-lost supply chain feeder factory is a landing place for hybrid personal flying vehicles. There again: erasure. This time, as the capital of the mobility belt, the erasure is of the anachronistic social religiosity of one person:one car and the outlandishly monolithic built environment that supports it.
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The Innovation Belt
Henry Ford stated that "our modern industrialism, changed to motives of public service, will provide means to remove every injustice that gives soil for prejudice." That's rich coming from a racist anti-Semite, but if we take the absolute value of the statement and re-contextualize industrialism, it remains today a salient notion. The realization of toxic political values from the right have counteracted the belief that government can be a guardian of justice and a source of moral good. In the hands of a threatened majority defending their power with a scorched-earth mindset, the power vested into government by the people has disempowered the people from voting rights to clean water. But the American mindset that we always eventually do what is right - a collective moral range, if not defined beliefs - persists everywhere and lives on in other institutions. In the vacuum, corporations are inheriting the mantle of fairness and the common good that was once given to government. This shift is most apparent in the debate around many contemporary social issues. It is corporations and athletic leagues who have power to wedge retrograde rightist governments in states like Texas and North Carolina to accept gay and trans rights, for example. Such indirect moral agency is expropriated from the very representatives elected to execute the standard of the law and defend the rights of citizens now targeted by their own government. 

For this and many other reasons, Ford wouldn't recognize "modern industrialism" in today's terms. Sustainability, green technology, material science, social innovation, and triple bottom line are all drivers for companies evolving their industrial practices to respond to immense global pressures, many of which Ford himself spawned. Even our recent legal interpretation that corporations have personhood and existential values and beliefs would probably be impossible to grasp. Today, the most innovative companies lean on implicit motives for public service as a fundamental aspect of their value propositions. In perhaps the most symbolic expression of this fact, Tesla has built its Gigafactory 2 on the site of a steel mill brownfield in Buffalo. There, it is manufacturing roofing shingles that act as solar panels, to the complete disruption of the roofing industry but also America's fossilized power grid. Undoubtedly, if he could see it today, even Ford would comprehend the irony of the situation - the Fordist rationale of material and consumption both subverted and apotheosized; the production of self-reliance; the production of an energy and power system to serve as the lynchpin for manifold societal behaviors. As argued above, access to water and mobility are constituent parts of the same reality: some now speak of things as rights, and long-standing forces of production and consumption - the same that built and broke Detroit - are exposed to innovation. Stasis is not an option.

In this state, Detroit is an open laboratory. The bankruptcy of 2013 and its subsequent emergence (Detroit's settlement itself was remarkably and audaciously innovative) laid bare the failures of institutions long inert. The power embedded in these institutions - schools, city services, industry, creditors - broke down or dissolved entirely both on the balance sheet and in physical reality, opening space to reimagine how they work, and an imperative to execute alternative solutions. In Detroit everything is on the table to be reconstructed out of its arthritic past. Importantly, however, such work cannot be done without untangling the institutional discrimination and dispossession of the poor, minorities, and unprivileged that help create that arthritic seizure in the first place. These structural biases are part of the design brief. Detroit, just like New Orleans after Katrina, is not a blank slate; to suggest that it is, which often happens even with the best intentions, is offensive. Rather, these are opportunities for civic innovation - to change the relationship between institutions and residents and solve for the entrenched, systemic misalignment of priorities.

Innovation design is by definition human-centered, meaning that it generates solutions based on a participatory understanding of user experience, and excavates the many contingencies to a user need in order to design beyond a mere "fix." This is how design is different from policy directives and process revisions; when done well, it is a catalyst for institutional transformation. For business, this means profitable offerings that contribute to the common good, and for bureaucracies this means streamlined services that are accessible to all citizens and remove barriers rather than inadvertently create them. Human-centered design synthesizes text, context, and subtext, and for that reason provides a level of rigor necessary to ensure the equitable redevelopment of civic institutions that will sustain Detroit- both public, such as schools, and private, such as hospitals.

Post-bankruptcy, restoring the functional operation of government and public bodies in Detroit is civic innovation. How Detroit does it will set the benchmarks for everybody else, especially those cities facing the same structural instabilities that Detroit faced pre-2013. If you're an educator, come innovate in Detroit. We need to reimagine what the neighborhood school looks like and how it anchors its community, its pedagogy, and its social prerogative. 

If you're a programmer, come innovate in Detroit. We need to build on the incredible work of groups like Loveland and create channels for data-driven citizen engagement.

If you're a medical professional, come innovate in Detroit. We need to rethink public health services, how clinics operate and treat root causes rather than symptoms.

If you're a builder, come innovate in Detroit. We have all this latent anthropo-mass that has to either get thrown into the landfill or recycled into the future of architectural materials.

If you're in energy, come innovate in Detroit. We need to normalize self-sustaining houses that can't fully function off the grid not just to reduce costs for residents, but to help our public services infrastructure become more efficient.

If you're a biologist or chemist, come innovate in Detroit. We need to remediate the landscape from its industrial legacy, and create new markets for environmental technology.

If you're in finance, come innovate in Detroit. We need a way to finance the stuff of life in a city afflicted with credit scarcity.

If you're in public safety, come innovate in Detroit. We need to heal the relationship between residents and police forces to keep the public realm open and just.

If you're a grocer, come innovate in Detroit. We need to design a food delivery system that is affordable, sustainable, healthy, and accessible to people who are food insecure.

Detroit is prototyping a different approach to American urbanism that inverts the sprawling, speculative, wasteful explosion of Sun Belt urbanism that drove the past half-century. Cities throughout the country will confront, in their own way, the challenges that Detroit has. For some, it's a ticking bomb, and others are already in the thick of it. But as Detroit innovates, so will the country. No other city is fighting for its live like Detroit is, because no other city has seen such catastrophe. Denver isn't ushering in the future of American urbanism, Detroit is. Keep sprawling, Dallas. Try your absolute best to stay weird, Austin, but it's too late. In a more prosperous era, it was common to hear that "if GM sneezes, the country catches a cold." Those days are long over. But in some really important ways, it's true today that what Detroit seeds, the country will harvest.
5 /
The Design Belt
Detroit's fifth future rests in its enduring connection with Michigan as a design capital. Few states have nourished the hivemind of American design like Michigan has. It is the alma mater of American modernism: Steelcase. Herman Miller. Knoll. Ruth Adler Schnee. Eames. Mies. Eliel, Eero. Bertoia. The echoes of their work resound in the catalogues of product companies from furniture and wallpaper to color palettes and materiality. Michigan's core design institutions at Cranbrook and the University of Michigan were home turf to Florence Knoll, Gunnar Birkerts, Minoru Yamasaki, Albert Khan, Ralph Rapson, Monica Ponce de Leon, Daniel Liebeskind, Alden Dow, Sharon Sutton, Fumihiko Maki, Charles Moore, Lebbeus Woods, John Dinkeloo, Bob Metcalf.

This is the foundation of Michigan's notable design legacy, but also grounds how we might think of Detroit's promise as a design capital going forward. Design has already defined Detroit to an extant and level of impact that is distinct among American cities; it is one reason why Detroit is here in the first place, and helped keep the city alive as it struggled through decades of neglect and nihilism. How Detroit embraces design fundamentally matters for defining its future.

Indeed, Detroit's most enduring attribute is its capacity to create. Detroit can make pretty much anything, from advanced materials fabricated by robots to a solid goddam-true steel bracket or something. And, as seen in other cities, Detroit has become a hub for designers building products like furniture, bikes, jeans, and other crafted goods as an alternative to industrial consumption. Hand-made goods businesses based in places like Detroit are the embers of today's growing phenomenon of mass rarity. It's cheesy to say it, but also probably true-Detroit is a disruptopia, and it's not just in big industries like cars, or new markets like sneakers, but in other worlds too, like food and fashion, which have historically been centered in LA or New York, with certain bones tossed to Miami or Chicago. But Detroit has created its own community-based art platforms focused on empowerment. Small galleries and collectives throughout the city like Playground Detroit are giving artists and designers a platform for visibility in the art world that hasn't really existed as prominently as it does now.

On a larger scale, investment in design is helping new brands like Shinola grow to international prominence. Instead of a car, Shinola - a luxury goods imprint that built a narrative of authenticity and rarity around Detroit's reputation for gritty industrial resolve and blue collar know-how, juxtaposed against its just-as-common reputation for ruin porn and decay - may be Detroit's most famous export of the past few years. Like Chrysler with its famous "Imported from Detroit" campaign, Shinola and other companies find traction with brand stories that direct Detroit's design legacy towards an optimism for the future in order to imbue their brand with exclusivity, albeit laced with a hard-scrapple knowing and fastidious resolve. These brand narratives offer badges of honor; you festoon the badge when you buy a Shinola bike or leather good. While Shinola's brand development deserves critical scrutiny for the ways it has aestheticized Detroit's condition, there's no denial that it has found incredible traction. As one critic observed, the only thing more real than "made in America" is "made in Detroit." 

Luxury goods notwithstanding, Detroit remains the nation's powerhouse of industrial and commercial design, far outweighing other metropolitan areas in terms of raw design talent-Detroit dominates its nearest competitor by a factor of two. According to CityLab, the number of designers in Detroit grew by 29% between the Great Recession and bankruptcy, positioning industrial design and its overlaps with engineering and product design as an area of economic growth coming out of the city's promising emergence from bankruptcy. Outside the factories and administrative offices and management farms of the Big Three, Detroit hosts design and technical centers for Nissan, Hyundai, Toyota, GM and Ford, and countless suppliers, not to mention luxury imprints Alfa-Romeo and Maserati. Indian car giant Mahindra has settled its entire North American business and design offices in Detroit as it prepares to enter the American market due to the abundant talent of designers, engineers, materials scientists, and manufacturing innovators. 

Ford is completely rebuilding its Dearborn campus around a culture of design that extends to business practices, not just products; and in Detroit, the city's most prominent global calling card for postindustrial ruination, Michigan Central Depot, is being renovated by Ford as the centerpiece of a new campus for its urban systems, mobility, and autonomous car research and development offices. Yet the design megaplex is nothing new in Detroit: Eero Saarinen's General Motors Technical Center just outside of Detroit, a modernist masterpiece in its own right, is easily imagined as the capitol complex in the global epicenter of automotive design. There and in studios across Detroit, designers like George Kripinksy and Harley Earl presided over the sublimation of the automobile into the American imagination. It was not just cars that they designed, it was an ecstatic idea of American prosperity, its industrial manifest destiny, the ethos and creed of the American century.

In the pull of the Fordist worldview, Detroit designers have always dreamed of platforms, not just objects. Ralph Rapson's Case Study House #4 projected the manufacturing and materials innovation of wartime production towards a typology of modernist housing that posited seamless relationships between the land, transportation, domestic technology, and even food production. Famously, an illustration in the 1945 issue of Arts & Architecture proposing the Greenbelt House shows Mother tending the garden while Father approaches in a personal helicopter. Rapson's vision remained speculative, but 72 years later Detroit wrestles with the same tensions between needs, opportunities, and experiential ideals. Any architect would salivate at the chance to create such a vision for housing in Detroit - not a one-off for a specific site, but a systemic solution that uniquely responds to the condition of the city (as capital of the Blue Belt, the Green Belt, the Mobility Belt, and the Innovation Belt, of course) reimagining the house not as a machine for living, but as a platform for life.

Just as the Greenbelt house originated in postwar surpluses of manufacturing and production, platforms are inextricably tied to logistic networks and supply chains, not to mention gender and class - compared to 1945, by an order of magnitude today that is almost grotesque. When realized, design responds to and creates conditions of scarcity. For materiality this demands a balance of desire and repeatability, or between the impression of rarity, which enhances desire, and scalable construction, which makes implementation easier. Platform components have to do more than one thing pragmatically while expressing mixed messages aesthetically. These tensions resolve through design. Platforms work, then, through the efficiencies that are built into behavioral monopolies. Facing manifold scarcities going forward, maximizing those efficiencies will be a matter of evolving methods of industrial production, advancements in material engineering, and intermodality between platforms. An incredible volume of design today is focused on these factors (think the Muji House, for instance), and as America's incumbent center of making, Detroit is a critical path for organizations pursuing enterprise transformation through design.

Since the disruptions of the Great Recession, the Detroit region has become a leader in advanced manufacturing and advanced materials design as part of its broader evolution out of 20th century industrial thinking. GE, LIFT, and IACMI have major materials research centers in southeast Michigan. Aside from Silicon Valley, no other metropolitan area has more engineers. Advanced industrial design has contributed to an astonishing recovery and in some cases expansion of manufacturing capacity since 2009. Moreover, that regrowth is attached to core industries that are leaner, smarter, liquid, and forward-thinking in contrast to Detroit's historically languid nostalgia for a Fordist economy. As these capacities seed new markets, design will push innovation in Detroit's industrial sectors even more, building greater resiliency for the region's core economic dependency.

Beyond products and making, the Design Belt also encompasses the full richness of Detroit's cultural capital. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of Detroit outside of industrial prowess is music. It was in Detroit that the influences of soul, jazz, rock & roll, and funk synthesized to create the Motown sound. Decades later, in the trough of abandonment and the close of the Cold War, Detroit translated the mood of the city - desolate, enduring- into electronic music that swept Europe, helped to reinvigorate Berlin, and established an international aura for Detroit that is still growing. Detroit can still learn to embrace these wellsprings of creativity so critical to cultural resiliency and recovery. Other cities have demonstrated that leveraging cultural capital goes beyond trite support for the arts, providing instead systemic, transformative economic value that generates opportunity. Detroit should share the crown with Berlin as the world's techno capital, seated at the center of a $6.5 billion global electronic music industry. And through public schools and community engagement, Detroit can actively nurture the next generation of musicians, artists, dancers, and other creators, interweaving these traditions into the experience of the city as in places like New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro.

In essence, when life gives you abandoned factories, make dance venues. Detroit's cache as a brand is largely powered by the prevalence of its design culture and the fascination it commands across demographics. When Eminem battles in the abandoned Michigan Theater in "8 Mile," and when a party occupies an empty warehouse, that's culture implicit to urban form. Detroit can weave its infinite creative energies into the substantive fabric of urban experience in a way that other cities cannot.

Great cities leave legacies. Detroit's was written in chrome and Dutch elms until it suddenly yielded to rust and rot. A city like this needs to parse its roots and figure out which are dead, which are poisoned, and which still nurture the life force of a great city. Those are the roots Detroit needs to build on. Abundant water and resilient landscapes, new economies and models for what it means to be a city, and unrelenting creativity conjure a panoramic idea of the city against all the best laid plans of the last century. What would it look like for these influences to saturate the city, touching every new work of architecture, the full spectrum of its institutions and public spaces, and the rootedness of its residents; transposing the collective idea of Detroit as a people, as a place. Even Detroit as a myth.