The Urban Priorities Committee meets weekly at Beaubien House, Detroit AIAs headquarters.

The Urban Priorities Committee meets weekly at Beaubien House, Detroit AIAs headquarters.

Credit: Dwight Cendrowski

You’ve heard the sad tales of broken windows, senseless crime, and grating poverty. For years now, screaming headlines and dismayed television anchors have announced that Detroit is a ruin so complete that even God has forsaken it.

But the truth about this city is a little more complicated. There’s an underlying and less-explored narrative in the Motor City, and it involves ordinary people fighting an extraordinary battle—a narrative in which architects are playing an important and increasingly visible role. Many of Detroit’s most vexing problems—outsized infrastructure, urban sprawl, and vacant land (40 square miles by recent estimates)—are ripe for design intervention.

That’s where Joongsub Kim, AIA, and his colleagues at AIA Detroit’s Urban Priorities Committee (UPC) come in. Kim and a team of seven volunteers are putting their collective decades of experience up against the immense problems of this once-great American city.

Theirs is the team behind Leaner, Greener Detroit, a 2009 blueprint for urban revitalization. Embodied in that plan is a concept that has been the subject of intense attention and debate, particularly in the media frenzy that followed recent news that the city shed a staggering 25 percent of its population over the past decade.

The plan’s most controversial suggestion is that not all of Detroit’s neighborhoods can be saved. There are simply too many homes, too many streets, and too many neighborhoods for the 713,000 who currently occupy a 140-square-mile space that once held 1.8 million. Instead, the group argues, the city should focus on shrinking into densely populated urban villages in order to strengthen its healthiest neighborhoods, while letting the others return to nature and disappear.

The plan calls for connecting walkable neighborhoods via improved transit and cycling facilities—a stark departure from Detroit’s notoriously autocentric design. Finally, between these revitalized urban nodes, Kim and the UPC propose that fallow urban land could be converted into parks, green infrastructure, and even commercial farms.

AIA Michigan doesn’t have an official position on the shrinking-to-grow proposal, according to Barb Sido, CAE, executive director of AIA Michigan. Sido is hopeful, though, that the city can turn around. “Detroit’s best chance is to leverage its social capital,” she says, “to leverage relationships between people and their communities—particularly since the hard manufacturing core isn’t here in the same way that it once was.”

These concepts have been embraced by Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, whose short tenure at city hall has brought sweeping changes. Through his Detroit Works project, Bing has been exploring bold solutions to the city’s economic, land use, and transportation challenges: The financial, physical, and social realities leave him little choice. Meanwhile, the UPC is acting as a formal partner in this effort by consulting with the Detroit Works Project and the city’s Planning and Development Department.

“The city is in a transformative position right now, with a new mayor and a new council,” says Mark Nickita, AIA, a UPC member who serves as liaison from the AIA Detroit Board, and the mayor pro tem of Birmingham, Mich. “There’s a sense of moving forward with a big idea—a plan to change. Architects are looking at ways of assisting him [Bing].”

In light of Detroit’s doomsday prognostications, city leaders, local architects, and planners have a few counterpoints: homesteading artists, a budding entrepreneurial scene, and another less tangible but perhaps more important factor. Emanating from the city’s grand theaters and Art Deco skyscrapers, there is a hardened optimism. You might call it hope.

Beginning in April and continuing through the end of June, the UPC is hosting a series of symposia, under the heading Detroit: By Design. The group has invited the top urban thinkers and designers to share their visions for a new Detroit. The series is planned around three events, each exploring a different recurring shrinking-city theme: transportation, urban centers, and urban agriculture.

It turns out that it’s not just locals and the media who are captivated by Detroit’s unique blend of grandeur and wreckage. According to Kim, early registration netted more than 90 people, representing creative professionals and students in several countries and a number of major U.S. cities.

April’s transportation symposium included transit proposals that would serve as economic boosters, draw nature back into the city, and emphasize the human scale above all others. These aren’t new ideas, but collectively they create a landscape of actionable possibilities for a city that many have written off. Some of April’s presenters will bring their ideas to the wider design community and garner public feedback through a workshop.

The UPC hopes that some of the best proposals can be implemented directly through the Detroit Works project.

Despite the clear impetus for change, planners, architects, and city leaders are being forced to chart new territory, so to say. Vacancy and abandonment on the scale of Detroit is a problem without precedent in the history of the urban planning profession.

The Kresge Foundation recently tapped Toni L. Griffin, an adjunct associate professor at Harvard Graduate School of Design, to help advance the mayor’s goals. Griffin formerly worked in planning and development in Newark, N.J., and Washington, D.C. (See architect’s interview with Griffin online at bit.ly/duuA7S.)

“It’s an interesting time, where the architecture profession is able to think more broadly about the issue of the city and urbanism,” Griffin says. “More cities are using planning to move that forward.”

Of course, Detroit isn’t alone. A broad swath of the country, including St. Louis; Youngstown, Ohio; Cleveland; and Buffalo, New York, is struggling with the same issues to varying degrees, although none on quite the same scale. The Detroit: By Design and Detroit Works projects can be instructive for other shrinking cities, according to members of the UPC.

The UPC meets weekly downtown at Beaubien House, Detroit AIA’s headquarters, across the street from the Renaissance Center. Occasionally they hold meetings at the Detroit Studio in the New Center area, Lawrence Technological University’s community outreach, workshop, and exhibition space. UPC’s meeting structure and its revolving roster of members is more fluid than, say, an urban design center. But there is no less energy. Sometimes the lines between work and community service are blurred.

Kim, an associate professor at Lawrence Tech’s College of Architecture and Design, spends much of his time at the Detroit Studio, where his students are lending their expertise to local community development organizations. Another UPC member, Robert Piatek, AIA, LEED AP, is a Detroit native and part of an artists’ collaborative that is brightening the former Polish enclave of Hamtramck. Nickita is the founder of Archive D.S., a design studio that proudly makes its home in downtown Detroit. His support has led directly to the opening of several businesses and developments along the city’s Woodward corridor, around which the city is planning to focus its transit and revitalization plans.

“They’re very passionate volunteers,” says AIA Michigan’s Sido, “and Detroit is the best laboratory in the country for that kind of committee.”

On the other hand, the group tries to be realistic about what it can achieve. Detroit may never return to its height of 1.8 million people, as it was in the chrome-plated glory days of 1950s. But that doesn’t mean the city must continue to decline the way so many outside observers have presumed. Detroit isn’t out yet. Every volunteer hour donated, every business begun, and every proposal advanced will add up.

“We all feel that we’ve reached the bottom,” Kim says. “Things cannot be worse than this. From today on things will be better.”

Find out more at aiadetroit.com and aiadetroitbydesign.wordpress.com.