While the country generally attributes the downturn of the city to the auto companies themselves, Detroit's decline involved something deeper. In a city designed around cars and the huge profits that came with their large-scale production, infrastructural failures began to arise as this model became outdated. Structural issues within the population of the city, and not just its design, were an integral part of the decline, but it is undeniable that a lack (or possible disregard) of foresight in the creation of the city's built environment contributed to its decline when production alone wasn't enough to prop it up.
Over the course of the past half-century, these weaknesses have grown stronger and stronger and threatened to tear the city apart. But in Detroit, there is a unique opportunity to turn weakness into strength. The city spans a huge area, over 140 square miles, and large amounts of this are vacant buildings and empty lots, and some neighborhoods that used to be fully occupied now only have a few remaining residents at the end of the block. It can certainly be hard to imagine how these holes in the city -- both in its social fabric and literally in its property layout -- could hold the possibility of anything positive.
But while some cities are fully saturated, both in people and ideas, in Detroit there is room to grow. Empty lots create the opportunity for urban farming. Wide streets, once full of cars streaming into the Motor City, allow room for sidewalk extensions, bike lanes, and more complete streets. The complexes of GM, Ford, and Chrysler could play home to the self-driving and electric vehicle revolutions of the coming decades.
During our time exploring the city, I was surprised to see differences between its different areas. Downtown, largely thanks to the development efforts of Dan Gilbert and Quicken Loans, is bustling. Moving out into some of the neighborhoods, things can change quickly. These are the areas featured in pictures of Detroit's "ruins," warehouses and homes crumbling where they stand. It may seem like residents of these areas are eager to get out and either move downtown or leave the area altogether, but at a community barbecue in Corktown I was happy to see the immense pride that they have for their neighborhoods. To say that you are from Detroit doesn't necessitate connection with decay, or with the shiny buildings of GM or Quicken. It is a large city, and each one of its residents have their own place within it.
In my time this summer, I hope to work with the CEDC to help transform Corktown's public spaces so that they attract citizens, and not just tolerate them. Increasing walkability and social + retail activity in these spaces is only a start. Considering the immense history of the district, Corktown embodies the hard-working spirit of the rest of the city and has the capacity not only to strengthen itself but also to serve as a model for what a 21st century street can look like. Detroit has certainly been down, but if the movement to rethink how we live and interact with our cities and implement human-oriented design can happen in Detroit, it can happen anywhere.