Detroit’s future city framework offers lessons on resilience


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There is a positive vibe around Detroit today, as the city transforms itself under the Detroit Future City Strategic Framework, a blueprint that will guide decision making and actions to realize a shared vision. In many ways, Detroit embodies the problems of cities around the world – post-industrial decline, deterioration of services, lack of economic opportunities. What can we learn from Detroit’s experience to become more resilient? Dan Kinkead, Director of Projects for the Detroit Future City Implementation Office, shares his insights on moving a legacy city into the future.

You’ve emphasized the importance of participatory planning in developing a framework for Detroit’s future. Why?

We knew we’d need an array of stakeholders to participate in implementation, which begins with participation in planning. Over roughly 3 years, we had 163,000 interactions, using methods such as conventional surveys and town halls, interactive round table discussions, online gaming exercises which got kids involved, a ‘roaming table’ set up on street corners around the city, letting people contribute and see their voices reflected in the planning.

It was very revealing, giving us a comprehensive picture of conditions that people faced, and some of the broader concepts of how to move the city forward. Most interesting was what local communities were doing in their own neighborhoods to improve circumstances. Through this process, people have gained a working knowledge of what this is all about, so we are so much better equipped to implement it.

In your Framework, “increasing job opportunities for Detroiters within the city” is listed at the top of 12 imperative actions. How are you approaching this challenge?

We knew nothing could really change until more Detroiters were part of the labor force. We needed to develop broader economic strategies that were inclusionary, focused on making sure businesses could thrive, especially MBEs (minority business enterprises) that face challenges accessing capital. We’re working with new and innovative funders to stem the tide. We also need proper labor market intermediaries that are able to stitch together the work force with existing and emerging enterprises.

Detroit’s historic industrial legacy provides value too – core infrastructure including rail, freeways, port, and international border – and an aging but skilled workforce. These can link to broader innovation. A lot of people think of industries as dirty dinosaurs, but it’s very technologically driven work. So it’s important to look at your assets, what you do well, and where you can provide value that cannot be matched in other places. If you have a turnkey operation that is part of a division of labor, anyone, anywhere can pick that up. You need to cultivate a very clear set of skills that are unique, where you can be extremely competitive.

What is your strategy for delivering basic services for citizens? 

There is a recognition that we need to think differently. We need to improve service delivery in a way that can support the city’s need for greater revenue generation, mitigate costs, while also stabilizing neighborhoods. This means capital programs and maintenance regimes are going to be different. High employment areas need to be strengthened as well as areas with renewal plans, since they will buoy the rest of the city. In low density areas, we recommend an approach that is based on emergency repair and replacement. Over time, incentives can be provided for people to relocate if they choose, to create large enough contiguous areas of land where you can decommission conventional systems and replace them with innovative green and blue systems, which will have a tremendous environmental and cost benefit.

Looking back, why was Detroit unable to respond to shocks for such a long time?

To understand where Detroit is today, you need to go back and see the city as an emerging global economy coming into the 20th century with the development of the auto, transforming the city overnight. I don’t think the city understood the long term trajectory. Many thought Detroit would pick up again by diversifying its mono-economy. Also, the region was still utilizing Detroit’s infrastructure – without paying for it. The city has huge global logistics components to it, in transportation and distribution, with $1.7 million worth of goods going across one bridge from Detroit to Windsor, Ontario every single day.

Would a metropolitan government help address these issues better, compared to city government?

There are successful cities which have embraced regional governance or cooperation, like Denver with its regional rail program, or Minneapolis and St. Paul, with larger regional land use control which is really powerful. Detroit was not able to forge a sense of regional governance, but circumstances can be better. One of the things we’re looking at now is the idea of a shared tax base that can help the region grow.

Photo credit: Chisako Fukada, World Bank


Chisako Fukuda

Senior Communications Officer