Interview with Head of Urban Planning Detroit Maurice Cox by Stadt + Grün

Detroit – transformation to green village archipelagos

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Stadtplanung Landschaftsarchitektur
Die neuen Wetlands. Visualisierung: Detroit

After losing 1.1 million inhabitants, the metropolis becomes an experimental laboratory. Detroit had to deal with the decline of the auto industry, which led to a population loss of more than one million people. The consequences were wide vacancies and a sharp decline in public revenues. In 2013, Detroit had to file for bankruptcy. Now it's about rebuilding the city. Detroit's top urban planner, Maurice Fox, explains his strategies for the metropolis on the Canadian border in an interview with Stadt + Grün. Questions: Mechthild Klett and Dr. Moritz Patzer.

Klett: You want to rebuild Detroit through revitalized neighborhoods. Economic micro-enterprises are being promoted to develop a critical mass that will revive a district and attract more people without gentrification. What was the starting position?


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Stadtplanung Landschaftsarchitektur
Maurice Cox, Professor für Architektur, ist oberster Stadtplaner von Detroit und ehemaliger Bürgermeister von Charlottesville. Foto: Stadt Detroit

Cox: Over the past seven decades, we had a population loss of 1.1 million. Now we are at 680,000 inhabitants. We have not only empty houses, but also disused institutions such as schools, churches, banks, libraries. Gradually more and more houses became empty, but the city was unable to demolish them. Not until after the bankruptcy of Detroit in 2013 - after we got a new mayor, Mike Duggan, did federal aid flow. With these resources, we were able to demolish real estate in the order of an average of 100 houses per week. This removed the visual decay that had become a signature of Detroit internationally.

The neighborhoods were structured very differently at that time. On the one hand, Detroit had absolutely beautiful, tree-lined residential streets - mainly built with single-family homes, and on the other hand, there were heavily dilapidated houses that were located around these beautiful areas. As a result, we demolished about 16,000 properties within four years.
After the demolition of the decaying houses, the real estate values have risen significantly. However, this has led to new challenges. And there are many fallows left when so much is demolished.

Patzer: How can new neighborhoods be restored in such a situation?

Cox: We are talking about building land and not sightseeing spots. We also do not have the population that could populate the area. And the lost population will not return in my lifetime. So we were forced to question old ways of thinking, such as what would be common features of a regenerated city and what role the country and landscape of our city should play in the future. We have 24 square miles of empty land - an area where you could house the entire island of Manhattan. Except that it is not a coherent package. We can not open the next Central Park here. We are subject to a checkerboard pattern that lacks the fabric.

Patzer: How did you deal with it?

Cox: As the Planning Department of Detroit, we have pragmatically focused on rehabilitating existing homes. These old houses will never be rebuilt in their quality. Our idea was to structure a landscape based on neighborhoods, rather than picking up on their design. In other words, we developed a "landscape town" in which the structure and the frame of a neighborhood are influenced by the landscape and not by the design.

Our premise is to focus on the healthiest neighborhoods of Detroit. This landscape agenda stabilizes these areas by giving them an identity that is based on a landscape strategy: here the density is gently increased, we create commercial corridors in which we develop multi-family houses with mixed use. So there is a mix of single-family homes and multi-family houses, which density is slowly getting higher.

In addition, we have the strategy of designing the open country and developing various very site-specific typologies. Each typology is developed by a different landscape architect. So we get many different identities. For example, we try to weave a tree nursery into public space on 48 hectares in a quarter-kilometer pilot project. The nursery is actually a functioning trading company - an experiment. In another district, where there are a hundred empty houses, we are testing a strategy to develop the vacant houses through the adjoining properties. For example, through 200 flowering meadows, which are understood as an extension of the houses. For this project we have been able to gain a well-known Australian architect. So we have identified throughout the city ten regions in which we test these signature strategies for restoring the neighborhood through the landscape.

Klett: Do these strategies mean that you are building a network of villages – so small, densely built-up areas, surrounded by greenery?

Cox: Yes. I think what emerges clearly is this type of island, which is made up of good villages that you know are still anchored in one-family house streets. And if all these single-family streets are criss-crossed with corridors of main roads that function at a higher density in which to shop, a wider range of housing options would exist. The next challenge is to connect all these neighborhoods in different areas. So far, we're imagining a number of greenways, pedestrian and bicycle lanes that do this job. For example, on the road through protected bike paths or through bike paths embedded in sidewalks, which are common in Europe.
There are also three types of greenways aside the road network. One of them is a 26-mile loop, which is located along a former disused railway line that we redesign for bikes and pedestrians, the Joe Louis Greenway. And this greenway connects these neighboring villages off the road. And then there should be ways to connect the neighborhoods that are farther from the Greenway to the Greenway: There will be three of those: one on the eastern side of the Iron Belt Greenway going north, the Joe Louis Greenway, a circular path in the middle, and the River Rouge Greenway, which is on our west side, and these three greenways would connect all these neighborhoods together.

There is no connection to the major roads that were built throughout the city in the 50s and 60s. Because they often separated the neighborhoods from each other. So we really shifted the focus to pedestrian life. Cycling is also the counterpoint to the other means of transport, which are highly developed and still exist. Now, in the former car city of Detroit, there is a unique focus on this mode of transport.

Klett: The land on which you demolished the houses did the city buy back these plots or how did that work?

Cox: There were many different ways in which the property came into public hands. In 2008/2009, we experienced a real estate crisis in which many people were unable to pay their mortgages and moved out of their homes. These properties and properties were then assigned to an authority that acted as a Propertybank. Detroit now has 72,000 real estate packages in the probertybank, so we can dispose of them.

Stadtplanung Landschaftsarchitektur
Detroit im Niedergang, ganze Straßenzüge standen leer und wurden abgerissen. Foto: Anthony, Fotolia
Stadtplanung Landschaftsarchitektur
2016 feierten die Partner des Gartenprojekts der Michigan Universität Detroit mit dem Gemeindeleiter, Anwohnern und Studenten die Umwandlung leerstehender Grundstücke in Gärten zur Retention von Regenwasser. Foto: Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Stadtplanung Landschaftsarchitektur
Die neuen Nachbarschaften im Modell – von der Landschaft her gedachte Dörfer. Visualisierung: Detroit

There were houses that could be bought for $ 100. Detroit has sold about 10.000 of these real estate bundles. There are also development initiatives, such as the idea of 100 houses and 200 flowering meadows. Now, we are exploring options that allow residents, communities, and groups to bundle the real estate packages with a house in four to six units, which will then provide a kind of kilt-like pattern of local ownership. Suitable for this would be farms or businesses for community purposes. What we have done, then, is to find a very specific strategy in each of these areas, which always combines an investment with an economic offer. So there is not just beautification or a stewardship situation, but a place that can actually generate economic value.

We are still in a very experimental phase because we do not know which scale is right - what is too little, what is too much? So we say, because so many infrastructures are needed for this kind of restoration, we have to test ideas. So we decided to test a lot of ideas. We do not know what will happen, nor is it clear how the infrastructure can be developed hectares by hectare.
If you own a family house in a developing neighborhood, it is very difficult to manage a project with half an acre of land at the same time. But we need to build the business capacity at the same time as our landscape development. I can not emphasize enough that it is the visible manifestations that trigger further development. New ideas and concepts must be clear in order to build new structures and to revitalize empty land. This means there must be a visual order: for example, are trees planted closely or further? Planners really need to take on a pioneering role in order to make the revitalization visible to the residents.

Klett: What do the inhabitants say about this? And: What how do the different, the good and less well functioning neighborhoods, to interact with each other? You obviously have a fantastic planning challenge to handle. But we are talking about people who live there. So what reactions are there from the inhabitants?

Cox: I can not stress enough how important it is to create a learning environment so that people can understand new strategies and also to steer their own strategies. We achieve this through a very large commitment with the residents. The Planning Department has held hundreds of meetings in different parts of the city. We go there and create all sorts of concepts for new learning. It could be that an expert explains a strategy. This strategy will then be tested in a pilot within two weeks. So people can do the same, whether or how it works. In addition to the meetings, we also carry out surveys and evaluate them.

It's also about taking people's concerns about strategies seriously. For example, had the residents in the project of 200 flowering meadows the impression that they were well maintained, and in part, but the associated land was neglected. Important here are about property boundaries. When beautiful fences were created between the plots of land and the flowering meadows were in close proximity to the fence, the perception changed dramatically and people were more open-minded about their neighboring landscape. That's the kind of thing for which you get immediate feedback.

Stadtplanung Landschaftsarchitektur
Eine neue Trambahn, die Qline M1,5,3 Kilometer lang, wurde 2017 fertiggestellt und nimmt den Autoverkehr aus der Downtown. Foto: CC BY-SA 2.0
Stadtplanung Landschaftsarchitektur
Nach einem Verlust von 1,1 Millionen Einwohnern verfügt die Stadt heute über 24 Quadratmeilen Brachland, das sich über die ganze Stadt verteilt. Abb.: Andrew Jameson, eigenes Werk, CC BY-Sa 3.0

Or about bike paths. Partly there is the problem of cyclists riding the curb where cars are parked and they have to be careful when driving along. Or there are bicycle lanes on the vehicle lane or bicycle lanes that are integrated into the sidewalks. In discussions about this, we have found that people in a learning environment are ready to change their mindsets.
Another example is the neighborhoods in rainwater wetlands. They are located in an eastern area. Here we want to manage rainwater coming from some food companies that belong to a neighborhood. A vacant lot first became a rainwater garden. We have observed that the residents have gradually sought to accept the wetland gardens as part of their neighborhood identity. This will only succeed if people have confidence in the strategies. They are then ready to learn something new.

There is a commitment on the part of this city to grow again as a city. We develop strategies for the people who can stay in this city because of new investments. We have not been in this experiment for four years, but we are now starting to implement our strategy, based on the plans and purchases.

Patzer: You talked about commercial public nurseries and you talked about wetlands. What different approaches do you have for the different geological areas?

Cox: I have not focused much on agriculture because we are in the city and the people here are not farmers, but many are weekend farmers. So we have small community gardens and small farms, but most of the time it's a singlebusiness. It does not employ many people, so it's one of the applications we rely on, but we have no utopian vision that city people should become farmers.

Patzer: No, we meant something different.

Cox: We are not too busy with the strategy of growing food. For us, planting trees is more of an idea of how to handle our carbon footprint while respecting the restorative aspects of trees. Or if you want to deal with storm water, you can imagine the concept of a performative landscape, which then also fulfills a recreational purpose. Flowering meadows are again a kind of easy-to-use land use, which functions as a productive use of land. Try mowing 24 square miles of lawn ...

We have about ten different geographies in the city area and we all have to do with empty land, which we want to manage with the least possible effort. We are therefore exploring alternative land use in each neighborhood. For example, we could expand nine hectares as solar fields. But since the management is so complex, we have opted for a five-hectare solar field and a two-and-a-half acre solar field. And these are again tied up in a neighborhood.

In addition, we have areas that are less populated and have areas in their neighborhood that are heavily developed but have fewer inhabitants.

We are now testing the idea of creating six to twelve houses into one block with an identity. This unit can be achieved through graphics on the street or through tree plantings. These models are difficult to operationalize. In any case, there is no 40-acre nursery in an urban district in America, so does not exist. So we not only have to find the formal structure, but also clarify who owns the land and who runs this land. Invite families and tree nurseries in the US state of Michigan into an urban area to settle there, knowing that they'll get long-term land there.

None of these strategies offers simple answers. So we are very pragmatic and testing concepts that work and clarify on which infrastructure level and what framework they need to be executed. They are evaluated and we overgrow our success to learn from elsewhere. Detroit is a laboratory. No other American city has previously attempted to develop ideas to such an extent.

Klett: Yes, these are huge challenges, but on the other hand, I think it's exciting for you, too, and you're developing a city for the 21st century.

Cox: We had many attempts to realize utopian visions. In reality, there are no unsettled places. Every place has residents who have a right to stay in place. For example, we want everything to be accessible to the residents in 20 minutes. That's why we've confined ourselves to very specific areas, so we do not feel we need to develop strategies for 139 square miles of Detroit. So we are growing gradually. I think that is a very healthy, affirmative position. And it is a strong contrast to the government philosophy of five or six years ago, when this city had to cope with its decline.

Stadtplanung Landschaftsarchitektur
Dig Downtown Detroit. Visualisierung: Detroit

Patzer: How are all these projects financed? Are there public-private partnerships, are there companies? Who invests?

Cox: So we have created a strategic neighborhood fund, philanthropy, which brings together the private sector and the public sector to finance the redevelopment of the roads, to finance the rehabilitation of single-family homes and the development of apartment blocks, as well as new parks and green ways. This is a leverage fund that has brought together players who have not previously been involved in reinvestment in the neighborhood. There are seven inner-city collaborations, each of which has pledged $ 5 million to the Strategic Neighborhood Fund.

For the first time, you have partnered with banks to invest specifically in neighborhoods five or six miles from the city center. They have philanthropies, or private funds for charitable purposes, of around $ 15 million each. We spent $ 125 million to build the pedestrian areas. We have investment models for Detroit that involve public and philanthropic investors. Again, there are test phases. We create master plans and test multi-family models to reclaim affordable housing. There are new parks that receive significant local identity, and the Greenway system as a connection network for the various geographies. Philanthropy has been a major factor in Detroit's prolonged periods when the government has been unable to fund projects. For example, the Detroit River has a 22-acre park designed by noted landscape architect Michael van Valkenburgh. It's a park that cost $ 15 million, and this park was funded solely by a foundation from Detroit.

Patzer: Do you have an estimate of how big your total volume is?

Cox: We are committed to invest $ 130 million in the ten neighborhoods. There is also an escrow fund, an affordable housing fund, a so-called leverage fund, which has over $ 250 million. That's the funding.

Klett: One last question. Are their ideas transferable to structurally weak European regions?

Cox: Of course, Europe has a long tradition of not giving up on older cities. The European cities often have overlaying layers. But we have rejected our old urban development. Now we want to increase the pedestrian areas as much as possible. We have heard that the European cities want to push back the car that dominated the inner cities. This is an important trend that increases the space for pedestrians. There is even the idea of a "superblock" in Barcelona, where up to 60 percent of the busy roads for pedestrians and cyclists will be cleared within the next five years.

Europe is testing these models and we are trying to apply them to American conditions. I am not so familiar with alternative land uses in European cities. I know that especially in Germany there are many post-industrial cities that have lost many jobs and many people and have become laboratories. I think that a lot can be learned from a cultural exchange, and I quite frankly hope that this interview will help. Maybe we are testing some ideas that might apply to European conditions.

M. A. Mechthild Klett

Stadt+Grün, Redaktionsleiterin

Patzer Verlag GmbH & Co. KG
Dr. Moritz Patzer

Geschäftsführer Patzer Verlag

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