Making Detroit Cool Again

How dynamic planning can bring revitalization to communities
November 27, 2017
David Kidd
By Lisa Wong  |  Senior Fellow, Governing Institute
Lisa Wong is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and former mayor of Fitchburg, Mass.
Dynamically Planned

Detroit is on my mind. I love reading about Detroit. And I really love when National Geographic writes articles about Detroit with headlines like “Tough, Cheap, and Real, Detroit is Cool Again” and “Taking Back Detroit.” I especially love the photos of the city’s beautiful architecture and residents rebuilding the city. Basically, I love a great story and Detroit has no shortage.

Detroit is also on my mind because Arthur Jemison, director of housing and revitalization for the city, just gave a brilliant talk about Detroit’s revival as the keynote speaker at the 2017 Gateway Cities Innovation Awards Luncheon. He spoke before several hundred people on the top floor of a revitalized mill in the heart of Lawrence, Mass., a city that shares much history with Detroit’s rise, fall and renaissance. He took us through a journey of strategy, leadership, hope and risk -- showing us the city’s potential and plans already in motion.

For years, Jemison served as the deputy undersecretary of the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development. He held that position in 2012 when then Gov. Deval Patrick announced a challenge to create 10,000 new multi-family housing units a year. Massachusetts was, and still is, in desperate need of affordable workforce housing.

Jemison was a pivotal figure in increasing housing production not just in Boston, but across the state to smaller urban areas that needed the investment and were often overlooked. The state has a long way to go but has made progress towards its goals through initiatives aimed at increasing project density, providing technical assistance to smaller cities and towns, and incentivizing developers to invest in brownfield sites.

So it was no wonder that other cities came knocking on Jemison’s door for his expertise. Detroit is a thrilling challenge for any city planner, especially one with a masters from MIT and professional roots in both the private sector and government. And it’s also where Jemison was born.

Now, as the director of housing and revitalization for Detroit, he’s faced with a daunting task. In Detroit, there are 380,000 city parcels. Of those, 95,000 parcels -- 25 percent of the total -- are owned by the Land Bank. To bring these parcels and the city back involves dynamic planning.

According to Jemison, the battle in Detroit for many decades was led by Coleman Young. Young was the first African-American mayor of Detroit, serving from 1974-1994. He was a staunch advocate for equality and worked hard to point out inequities. However, population decline, crime and poverty continued to plague the city, and real divisions between the urban core and outlying suburbs were exacerbated.

Today, the message Detroit wants to send to the community is: “Retain, Plus Attract, Plus Grow.” According to Jemison, “We need to keep the people we have. People make decisions every day about where they live.” And he wants to make it an easy decision for people to choose Detroit.

The task isn’t easy, but it’s bringing Detroit in the right direction. Unique partnerships have allowed the city to green and landscape vacant parcels; people are choosing to live in and buy in Detroit; and billions of dollars in investments are underway. Detroit is definitely cool again.

Lisa Wong | Senior Fellow, Governing Institute