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Detroit’s 50-Year Plan

Many cities are partnering with nonprofits, but Detroit’s project may represent the best effort to create a vision for the future and provide the tools to make it a reality.

Among other things, the plan includes create job growth and economic prosperity.
David Kidd
What if a city developed more than just a master plan? What if it had a blueprint for how it wanted to transform itself physically and socially over the course of a half-century?

MORE: Read the rest of the December issue.

It’s wildly ambitious, but that’s exactly what a group called Detroit Future City (DFC) is trying to do. Backed by foundations, the organization was born out of city hall but is now a fully fledged think tank with a 15-member team and a downtown office that opened this year. The blueprint for the 50-year plan came from the Detroit Works Long-Term Planning initiative started by former Mayor Dave Bing. After two years of community meetings, the initiative released a 347-page strategic framework in December 2012 and rebranded itself as Detroit Future City. The plan acts as a guiding document on how to best recast Detroit’s abundance of land, create job growth and economic prosperity, ensure vibrant neighborhoods, build an infrastructure that serves citizens at a reasonable cost, and maintain a high level of community engagement throughout the process.

The framework has five planning areas of focus -- economic growth, land use, city systems, neighborhoods and building assets -- and has short-term and long-term goals in each area to help keep the initiative on target. After all, 50 years is a long time to wait for results. Calvin Gladney, a Washington, D.C.-based urban planner who has consulted for Detroit, calls the DFC an “unprecedented effort” for creating both an extremely broad vision and providing the practical tools needed to make that vision a reality. For example, the DFC’s Carbon Buffering Pilot Program, which is being run by the nonprofit Greening of Detroit, will plant trees on vacant land near expressways to create so-called carbon buffers. The buffers will absorb carbon dioxide, particulate matter and other car pollution. The program hits goals in all five of the DFC’s planning areas.

Detroit’s undertaking may be unprecedented but it is representative of an ongoing trend in cities: More and more, they are looking to partner with nonprofit agencies on common goals. Taking these ideas outside of city hall doesn’t just save city resources, says the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Michael Pagano, it also gives a project instant “do-gooder” credibility. What sets Detroit’s work apart is that the DFC will act as a clearinghouse for dozens of these public-private partnerships. That kind of convener role is an important one, because it provides balance between the thinkers and the doers. “The challenge is that the line of who’s a doer and who’s a thought-leader tends to blur,” says Gladney, “and you want to make sure everyone knows their role.”

Liz Farmer, a former Governing staff writer covering fiscal policy, helps lead the Pew Charitable Trusts’ state fiscal health project’s Fiscal 50 online resource.
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