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Detroit Releases Plan to Resize, Remake Itself

A castlelike apartment building in Detroit which will be leveled over, due to the decrease in population throughout the city
A castlelike apartment building in Detroit is among those that have been leveled over the past few years as the city’s population has decreased. A new plan calls for the city to rethink the way such infrastructure as sewers, gas mains, storm-water systems, and roadways are designed, constructed, and maintained as specific neighborhoods shrink. Associated Press

Years in the making, a new report recommends maintaining some parts of the city’s infrastructure, removing others, and taking full advantage of its unused land.

April 2, 2013—Detroiters have been working for years on finding ways to retool their ailing city for the 21st century. City leaders have long pushed the idea that the city needs to shrink its services to better reflect its smaller population. A comprehensive new report, three years in the making and completed late last year, is finally providing a sound, strategic framework for how the city can reduce, decommission, and retool its critical infrastructure.

Entitled Detroit Future City, the 349-page report takes a serious, unflinching look at the city’s challenges. From its peak population of 1.8 million in the early 1950s, Detroit is now home to only 714,000, and it is predicted that by 2030 the city’s population will have stabilized somewhere between 600,000 and 800,000. Yet even with the drastically reduced numbers, at present there is only one job for every four Detroiters.

“When we look at the scope of things within the city of Detroit, we see over the last roughly 50 to 60 years, when balanced out for inflation, . . . a 60 percent decline in tax revenue since 1950,” says Dan Kinkead, AIA, a design principal with Detroit-based Hamilton Anderson Associates, one of the planning firms that worked on the report.

The city is the same physical size as always, but its needs are clearly changing. It is becoming more and more fiscally insolvent; its newly installed “emergency manager,” a bankruptcy lawyer selected by the governor of Michigan, has been charged to sort out Detroit’s crumbling finances. Still, Kinkead says, the report is about showing Detroiters that the success of their city does not depend on an increase in population over the next 10 to 20 years. What it does depend on, the report concludes, is integrating economic planning with land use and overhauling systems to reflect the city that Detroit is becoming—not the mid-century behemoth it once was.

“Detroit’s systems, public and private, are aging,” Kinkead says. “Within the next 10 to 20 years, significant capital renewals are going to be necessary. We need to find a way to handle the renewals to keep the city moving and to provide a high quality of life to Detroiters, at the same time being very strategic about how we do this to minimize unnecessary uses of resources.”

Planning for no growth requires a completely different mind-set than usual, says Lawrie Robertson, RIBA, a partner in the London office of the international engineering and consulting firm Buro Happold, which is a member of Detroit’s planning team. Robertson, who is also the firm’s head of strategic planning, says most urban plans are based on a growth model.”

“That growth model runs very deep in the way that things get engineered, the way that things get procured, the way that things get funded, and the way decision-making models are set up,” Robertson says. Whereas cities ordinarily scrutinize decisions about making investments, “decisions about disinvestment,” he says, are something “there isn’t a framework for.”

Initiated and funded in part by the Kresge Foundation, which is based in Troy, Michigan, in partnership with Mayor Dave Bing, the report brought together hundreds of stakeholders and consultants not just from Detroit but from around the country and from abroad under a planning process called the Detroit Works Project. (Funding was also provided by the Ford, W.K. Kellogg, and Knight foundations.) “There was a great deal of concern that this was just going to be another plan,” says Kinkead. Cities turn them out all the time, and the fear going in was that the report might be perceived as just one more publication, something that would probably sit on a table and gather dust or, worse, undermine the nascent progress in the city. But between its inception, in 2010, and the end of 2012 the Detroit Works Project engaged in hundreds of community meetings, held 30,000 conversations, and contacted citizens more than 163,000 times. Kinkead feels the production of the report has brought together enough stakeholders to provide the kind of “catalytic action” the city needs if it’s going to remake itself. “In a city that is as challenged as Detroit is,” he says, “with such a wealth of interested parties to help turn it around, you have an even greater proportion of planning efforts that are done here, perhaps, than other places.

“This is going to go down as not only one of the more important comprehensive strategic plans for a major U.S. city,” he says, “but also one of the most robust engagement and participatory planning efforts.”

The city’s plans for strategic infrastructure renewal involve a complex mapping of the city’s population, land uses, and economic priorities to determine which parts of the city require infrastructure to be maintained or expanded, which parts require it to be maintained but reduced, and which parts would benefit from having their infrastructure “decommissioned.”

“Detroit didn’t have the luxury of reconfiguring infrastructure to support new activity on a cost-free or even cost-neutral basis,” Robertson says. “This is all about finding ways of providing that service to people with a fundamentally lower cost of delivery.”

The report highlights one pilot project already under way that may serve as an example. The city’s gas utility, DTE Energy, is pulling out every second gas main in one depopulated Detroit neighborhood. “Once the vacancy levels fall to a certain point, it makes a lot of sense to take out and retire the gas mains, many of which are coming to the end of their design lives,” Robertson says. “You take them out [of] every other street and then you just reconnect the few properties that are left on the street where the main has been retired” to those pipelines that remain, he says. “It took a bit of detailed engineering to figure out whether that would save money or would work,” he adds. “It definitely does.”

The report also envisions a network of “green” and “blue” infrastructure to improve respectively air and water quality. The high cost of upgrading the city’s sewer system in part dictated this approach. “You can build a tube underground for $3 billion, and it serves no purpose for people other than the fact it’s dealing with the water,” says Scott Bishop, an associate principal in the Boston-based landscape architecture firm Stoss, another member of the planning team. Instead, Stoss proposes to address vacant land, polluting industries, and storm-water runoff—the city is largely built on nonporous clay—all at once. The idea is to plant “carbon forests” alongside roadways and create complex networks of bioswales and retention ponds. “The green-blue infrastructure tries to address all of these issues simultaneously,” says Chris Reed, a Stoss principal, “and also [to] create landscape spaces of value to nearby communities, just as a kind of visual amenity—never mind a kind of environmental amenity, never mind a kind of recreation and landscape amenity.”

“We’re looking at a landscape as a way to achieve all those goals and not just put things underground,” adds Bishop, who sees the latter approach as a “kind of 19th- and 20th-century idea of infrastructure that needs to disappear.” The problem, he adds, is that “eventually people forget about it and it’s not serviced.” But adding aboveground, nature-inspired systems makes the infrastructure and its functions obvious to all.

But the plan doesn’t call for a one-size-fits-all approach. Some sustainable infrastructure can be linked to, for example, the city’s network of radial boulevards. Designers have proposed taking large roads that have excess capacity and shrinking them by adding a series of drainage areas and retention ponds. “In other places, the topography doesn’t allow that,” says Reed. “You can have small-scale dispersed areas that can collect water within neighborhoods at very, very small scales. You have edges of neighborhoods, transition areas that can be utilized to collect runoff, or you can also look at larger-scale surface lakes or river marshland, where you’re devoting a much larger contiguous area to bigger ponds, which perform an ecological function as habitat or even as recreational areas.”

Another idea is to “rubbleize” underused roads, breaking up asphalt to make impervious surfaces pervious. “Techniques like that are really small scale and modest [but] can also contribute to the general bigger project of blue and green infrastructure,” says Reed.

Bishop notes that an analysis of common strategies for dealing with storm water—whether through infiltration, conveyance, or retention—revealed that such natural infrastructure systems could handle 99 percent of runoff during large storm events.

Now that the report has been completed, the Detroit Works Project is keen to establish a permanent implementation team to help move things forward. Robertson says that it’s important that the changes to infrastructure, which may unfold over 20 years, work within existing plans. Downsizing infrastructure is not something that’s carried out rapidly and all at once. “Doing that in the right way means rolling with existing cycles,” he says. “The more you can work within typical maintenance and renewal cycles, the more you can work within budgeting and approval cycles [and] the more easily this can be integrated into the way of doing things.”

Coordination also will be important. Robertson notes that investment strategies for different districts of the city need to be linked to the fundamental land use and economic development strategies that the report lays out.

It is assumed here that reducing, decommissioning, and, in some cases, retooling infrastructure will be affordable investments. Robertson says there are real savings to be made, although he did not want to give details.

“This is a problem that stretches way beyond Detroit,” Robertson notes. When infrastructure systems are installed, he says, people are most often worried about the investment needed to build them. Very little thought is given to sustaining and maintaining the infrastructure, much less decommissioning it.

Cities or countries may install great systems that can scale up to meet the needs of large populations. But then economic growth inevitably slows, and population growth slows as economies develop and mature, Robertson says. “The revenues just aren’t really there to support those systems in the long run. Detroit definitely has that problem, but it’s a problem that it shares with many cities in many parts of the world.”

Of course, as Robertson concedes, it’s hard to see 50 years into the future. No one in Detroit in 1950 would have imagined the city could lose half its population. Still, he notes that U.S. cities have invested in a “space-extensive and resource-intensive” infrastructure system that has created expensive legacy costs. It’s important, he notes, to hold on to the core engineering value of frugality [and to try] hard not to saddle the next generation with high costs.

The report may represent a new start and help to revive Detroit on the basis of the city’s two greatest assets: its people and its vacant land. “One of the characteristics of Detroit as we know it now is this huge asset of available land,” Reed says. “In the past, vacant land has been seen as a problem. We see it as this enormous opportunity, an opportunity other cities would love to be able to have.”



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