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Last Updated: Monday, 10 July 2006, 17:34 GMT 18:34 UK
Making Cities Work: Detroit
By Dejan Sudjic

Cadillac Hotel
Development includes giving the vacant Cadillac Hotel a $180m overhaul
Detroit is a classic "doughnut" post-urban city, seemingly pleasant around the outside, but empty in the middle. But now it is trying hard to plug the hole in its industrial heart.

Once described as the largest factory town ever built, Detroit's population has halved since its 1960s peak - and 10,000 people are still leaving every year.

Detroit is synonymous with the car industry - so much so it earned the nicknames Motor City and Motown. Indeed, the classic American car - the Cadillac - is named after the city's founder.

But although two of the US big three car companies - General Motors (GM), Ford and Chrysler - still have their headquarters in the city, most of the manufacturing has been squeezed out by the low labour costs of overseas competitors, and by imports of foreign cars.

Post-industrial wasteland

Ernie Zachary, a Detroit-based finance and planning consultant, says that the car-makers tackled market pressures "largely by walking away."

Two-hundred-thousand jobs were lost in the space of three years - and this had a huge effect on the city.

"What went with that was the neighbourhoods that were around it. You not only lost the industry, you also lost the residential areas," he explained.

Detroit waterfront

"Now if you look at the city of Detroit, you find wide areas where there is no housing.

"It always has been painted as a separated community - the suburbs versus the city. If you look at Detroit, one third of the city lives in poverty."

These developments left Detroit with a modestly affluent suburban area, but an empty, sprawling post-industrial wasteland in the middle. It is what city planners call a "doughnut."

As a result, the first priority for the authorities looking to redevelop Detroit has been to repopulate the city centre.

And after years of this investment, it is looking a bit better.

Initiatives have ranged from simple street cleaning and tree planting to the $300m waterfront development.

The real goal, however, is to bring back workers and their families.

Urban living

Building on the groundwork done by the non-profit sector, small-scale private developers are blossoming, making a profit by converting Detroit's empty industrial legacy into fashionable lofts and apartments.

Susan Mosey, of the city's University Culture Center Association, said that Detroit and Michigan's governments had passed "a lot of really great legislation" to allow this to happen.

Crucially, this offered incentives for revitalising neighbourhoods, such as tax credits and property tax relief. Developers are also helped with brownfield applications, so that they can re-use old property.


"Urban living is hot right now - baby boomers, in that 40-50 age range and even older, want to come back, live downtown, and be able to walk to restaurants, stores and stadiums as opposed to driving," said George Jackson, president of Detroit Economic Growth Foundation.

"That urban lifestyle is something that is starting to grow here."

But tax breaks alone are not enough to regenerate a city. Providing infrastructure is the second key role a city has to play.

Campus Martius, the main square in the city, now boasts new fountain, sculptures, and even a picnic area.

And in the run-up to Superbowl XL in February, the city saw unprecedented activity. Over 78 new, attractive building facades appeared in the 36 months prior to the American football match, which is the most watched event in the US.

There is considerable debate in the city, however, as to how much of this was permanent. While city planners maintain that "not a single red dime" was spent on temporary structures, Detroit Public Radio's Quinn Klinefelter claims that around 50 of these facades disappeared within two weeks of the end of the Superbowl.

What is not contested is that the promise of the Superbowl allowed a number of new companies to grow, giving people the chance to find jobs, and keeping more of the brightest and most talented people from leaving the city's universities once they graduate.


And there are even more ambitious plans for the future, with people in the city re-thinking the whole concept of what a post-industrial city can be.

The abandoned Packard factory - two million square feet that has been empty for more than a quarter of a century - is the centre of an alternative vision, created at Detroit Mercy University by architecture dean Steven Vogel.

It would see the factory become a shrimp factory - and from there, would take in a wind farm, communal housing, grazing land, and a dairy.

"One way to describe it is romantic utopianism - people returning to their own self-reliance, to create a living community," he said.

While it is only a concept, many community members have latched onto the ethos of the project, and the small-scale sustainable development taking place all over the city.

Not all the projects to regenerate Detroit have been successful - an ambitious effort to turn it into a gambling city has provided three giant casinos, but also led to a dramatic increase in personal bankruptcy in Michigan.

Dejan Sudjic is the Guardian's architecture critic.

This programme was broadcast on BBC World Service on Monday 10 July.

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