The Design Observer Group

Posted 07.13.10

Dan Pitera

Detroit: Syncopating an Urban Landscape



Cities are ecological systems. Their populations grow and shrink. In fact, at least 374 cities worldwide have been losing population since 1950 (and incidentally, Detroit does not top this list; according to German Cultural Foundation’s study “Shrinking Cities," it ranks 32). Currently, there are many models for urban expansion, few for urban contraction. What we need, then, are not simply patterns or plans for growing or shrinking populations; what we need are appropriate strategies for adapting to inevitable and often unpredictable changes.

Despite the many challenges facing Detroit, despite population loss and economic decline, the city has an extraordinary, perhaps unique, opportunity to craft a new paradigm based on new economic and physical realities and also on its many assets. These assets include major anchor institutions, physical infrastructure, public spaces and networks of community organizations; but at the heart are Detroit’s people and their potential for human capital exchange, creativity and innovation. These assets, and Detroit's citizens, are my point of departure for this online exhibition of Detroit initiatives, which is centered on amplifying existing creative and alternative projects and events.

Syncopated Urban Landscape
The idea of a “syncopated urban landscape” reflects Detroit’s rich music history, and extends it to the city's landscapes. In music, to syncopate means to take the stronger, more dominant notes and make them weaker, and at the same time to take the weaker notes and make them stronger. In Detroit, something akin to this process has been happening organically, over decades. The vibrant economy of the mid-20th century has been weakening — and yet it remains, and will continue to be a force in the city. And new forces are emerging. The status quo is shifting.

Taken together, the projects presented here suggest that we should work to direct this shift, and not let it simply happen. The goal of a syncopated urban landscape is to reinforce a new asset-based economy — a dynamically balanced network of diverse industries and services at different scales, from the small business to large corporation. Assets grow and change. A flexible and nimble economy grows and changes accordingly. 

A syncopated urban landscape is not a vision of Detroit as a large park. Rather, it acknowledges that the city consists of a series of systems that interact and inspire each other. Throughout the United States, cities and towns have been rebranding themselves, often attempting to replace one strong asset with another. This might be helpful as a short-term tactic; but as a long-term strategy the focus on any single asset, no matter how powerful, will likely fall short — as the experience of Detroit shows too well.

The initiatives in the accompanying slideshow are organized into three categories.


Productive Landscapes
Some surveys suggest that there are about 40 square miles of undesignated open space (i.e., vacant land and buildings) within the limits of Detroit. This is almost the size of San Francisco — 46.69 square miles — and twice the size of Providence, Rhode Island —18.47 square miles (U.S. Census Bureau). But to be conservative, let's say there are 30 square miles, and divide that into 800,000 inhabitants (another potentially conservative number). The result: approximately 1,045 square feet of open, green space for each Detroiter. Which suggests that Detroit has the potential to be the greenest city in the United States — a prospect that could influence the quality of life for every resident.

Again, I am not proposing that this green space should be parkland. That notion is unsustainable, and, moreover, has no direct correlation to job creation (another key factor in a citizen’s quality of life). What I am suggesting is that this green space should be conceptualized as a network of “productive landscapes" — spaces that engage the public while also enabling a diverse economy of products and services. An example of a productive landscape in another post-industrial city is Steel Winds, a wind farm in Lackawanna, New York, a suburb of Buffalo. Starting in 2006, Steel Winds returned a former Bethlehem Steel mill to productive use, incorporating a wind farm and public park in the former plant. The result is a place where energy is produced, jobs are created, and people have a place to play.

Urban Ephemera
Urban environments are composites of long-term and short-term initiatives. Short-term events — major league games, fireworks displays, music festivals or art installations — may last a couple of hours, or a couple of days or weeks, but they can leave a lasting impression on residents, and often they are what attract visitors. They may also leave traces on the city's physical and psychological landscapes.

Architectural Interventions
Some estimates suggest that from 2005 to 2009 the number of foreclosures in Detroit exceeded 50,000; as a result the number of abandoned structures might very soon rise sharply. Given the scale of the problem, few will be reinhabited, at least with their prior uses. If they are not renovated, most will be demolished. There appears to be little middle ground. And some might be left standing in limbo, slowly deteriorating — a blight on both the physical and the psychological landscape. Some of the projects shown here offer alternative strategies for reuse.