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Adversity Breeds Innovation: Detroit's Motors for Growth

Despite Detroit’s tale of riches to rags, the city is brimming with optimism and creativity

A complex city with a long history of innovation and prosperity, Detroit’s more recent association with adversity and hardship has thrown the role of the architect into a state of flux. As fragile signs of renewal appear, architects are recasting their positions adopting an entrepreneurial energy within the profession, breathing new life into Detroit’s neighbourhoods while reconsidering their traditional role in the community to become city-builders of the future. Exploring Detroit’s complex history, and examination of current entrepreneurial pursuits, reveals methods architects across the world can learn from, as Detroit’s renewal process continues.

Detroit’s current conditions are linked to specific moments in its long and layered history. The French first settled the city in 1701, planting ribbon farms, long narrow tracts of land, allowing everyone equal access to the river. Before the civil war, Detroit became an important stop along the underground railway as escaping slaves fled over the nearby Canadian boarder. This very proximity to Canada and access to the mighty Detroit River helped grow the manufacturing industry in the mid 1800s. As a connection between the Great Lakes and the Erie Canal and the rail lines, Detroit became a prominent hub for transport of goods and materials and many wealthy entrepreneurs grew from a rapid manufacturing boom. Later Henry Ford grew his eponymous motor company by introducing production lines. Ford used the increased profits to offer higher living wages to his workers, allowing them to purchase the products they made, tempting many thousands of workers to move to ‘motor city’ in search of higher wages.

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The population peaked at nearly two million in the 1950s, but its prosperity came at a cost. Black workers, migrating from the South, suffered discrimination in their search for jobs and housing. Racial unrest peaked during the 1967 riots when black citizens protested against police brutality, racism and lack of city services. ‘White flight’ described a movement of wealthy, mostly white affluent Detroiters who fled the city depleting the tax base and socio-economic mix. During the social turmoil that followed, the city continued to shrink and, by 2000, the population was half of what it was only 50 years before. Today Detroit has become the largest US city to file for bankruptcy. Speculators and detached wealthy individuals are large property owners in Detroit, allowing many large buildings to decay, while the city struggles to stop the blight.

Despite this tale of riches to rags, Detroit’s history shows the city shines brightest when innovating in the face of adversity. Techno was invented in Detroit, growing as an underground movement in the 1980s making use of abandoned warehouses for parties and flourishing when it broke through to the mainstream. In the 1990s, urban gardening grew from the lack of fresh food, and this movement has become a healthy and beautifying concept rolling out across cities around the US and worldwide. When Detroiters become innovative, their ideas and exports have the capacity to shape global currents.

Today the waning population and decline in services has inspired small business owners to open brand new shops in Detroit. Lack of quality rentable space has encouraged many entrepreneurs to purchase property outright and rebuild. This is city building in a raw and opportunistic state.

City building relies on a series of partnerships and relationships − small business, large corporations, city government, neighbourhood associations and families all have important roles in the process. Architects are trained to contextualise the built environment, to imagine the impact of one building or place on its surroundings, necessary to the development of neighbourhoods. Architects can draw inspiration from Detroit where creative city-building is currently happening. Detroit architects are forming partnerships with small business owners, engaging in rekindling a sense of place and purpose across the city in a number of exciting projects.

At Detroit Soup, diners pay $5 and receive soup, salad, bread and a vote − projects are pitched during the meal with the scheme winning the most votes getting funded. The events combine entrepreneurship with creative crowd support while providing an optimistic framework for synergistic conversations between community stakeholders.

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A workshop at Ponyride - the founders hope to turn the Detroit foreclosure crisis into an opportunity to help start-up businesses with social ambitions access quality spaces

Ponyride, a creative incubator and workspace in Corktown, tests how the foreclosure crisis can have a positive impact on our communities. Housed in a warehouse in a desolate neighbourhood, Ponyride provides affordable space for socially conscious start-up businesses actively promoting community stewardship, through volunteer opportunities and free classes taught by tenants, while fostering entrepreneurship and productive city growth.

A partnership between Laavu, an architectural design practice, and the Detroit Institute of Bagels, built not only a bagel shop, but a pocket park for the Corktown neighbourhood, partnering with artists and crafts people in their networks to build a quality neighbourhood place. Windows that face the pocket park were programmed to allow patrons to experience the bagel-making process while enjoying the green space. By taking payment in part through equity, this, along with many other decisions and investigations made during the design process, was a direct result of an architect being financially invested in a project’s long-term success.

To create value in challenging settings like Detroit, architects need to understand the process that small business owners, entrepreneurs and civic leaders are facing. Small business owners, unaware of the city-building aspirations, view the architect’s contribution as predominantly aesthetic. Clients want results, they don’t want to engage in process. How then, can architects promote city-building through practice? Architectural practice in Detroit is beginning to adopt a more entrepreneurial approach in the design process, partnering as equals with clients resulting in thoughtful, contextualised projects.

The media are full of negative stories about Detroit, but on deeper inspection, the city is brimming with optimism and creativity. Architects cannot invest in every project, but by directly engaging in the process, can re-emerge as leaders and trusted advisors in city-building efforts. This requires them to search for entrepreneurial energy, and like the industrial innovations of the 1950s or music revolutions of the 1980s, it requires networked professional coalitions. This method of city-building is not glamorous, but it is fulfilling and effective. There are many cities around the world suffering similar urban decay. If designers there learned from architects in Detroit, this new method of embedded practice could yet become another great Detroit export.

About the Author:

Kaija Wuollet is the managing director of Laavu, a Detroit based architectural design studio.

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