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Detroit's Key to Leadership: Going Green

Motown has the mix to redefine what ‘modern city’ means

December 14, 2010 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Loft of Merchants Row
  The Dequindre Cut, Detroit’s first bikes-only freeway, points to a different future for the former Motor City.

Part Five of a five-part series

It is obvious that Detroit has fallen from the ranks of the nation’s top cities and faces huge infrastructure, recruiting, innovation, and vitality challenges.

In other words, it’s all hands on deck if Detroit is to regain its stature. But the city needs a comeback plan. In this commentary, I explain why making Detroit a leader in the green economy is the strategy that can and should work.

Right now, the stars are lining up for Detroit. There’s a new city administration. Many local organizations are advocating change. Foundations are strongly committed. City residents truly care about their plight. There’s renewed national interest in urban areas, and aggressive urban policy platforms coming out of some parts of Washington, D.C. There is even a good chance that more resources are headed for programs that could help the city.

However, successful cities such as Pittsburg and Minneapolis show us that this is not enough. They remind us just how crucial it is for Detroit to fully appreciate all of its assets, and then apply them to a bold, even audacious vision.

We must also remember that the comeback we hope and plan for simply will not be based on the assets that fueled Detroit’s original rise to greatness. In fact, the foundations for Detroit’s future economy cannot be tied to industrial models for progress.

That is why Detroit’s resurgence requires out-of-the-box thinking and strategies.

The city must have a vision so unique that it presents an entirely new way for cities to look at themselves. It must redouble its marketing efforts to make it a global destination for talented, vital people, including immigrants. Investors must see Detroit as one of the best financial opportunities in the world—a place where the productivity of capital and the skill of its workers are unrivaled.

Taking all of this into consideration, I believe that Detroit must brand itself as “America’s Green New-Economy City.”

Green Space, Green Economy
Detroit must be—and be seen as—clean, spacious, green, and “cool.” It must be attractive in ways that recruit and retain the workers who are the basis of a 21st-century urban success story. So it must use place making to attract New Economy talent and businesses, and take advantage of every available “green” opportunity.

With its abundant open space—and the potential for significantly more, given the city’s demolition opportunities—Detroit is better positioned than any other city to achieve this vision.

Detroiters must rebuild the city for more than themselves: Right now, they add up to less than 50 percent of the city’s population capacity. Moreover, new residents bring new ideas, culture, and innovation to an already very rich historical and contemporary milieu.

Obviously, the city’s bold plan must attract new people, new money, new enterprises, new technologies, new development—all facilitated by a serious attempt at regional place-making. So, Detroit must create the nation’s best strategic growth plan. Efforts by the mayor’s office and foundations to redefine the city with consulting help from Tony Griffin and McKinsey & Company may well be the first step.

I have developed my own bold plan—the Marshall Plan for Detroit. It’s named after the original Marshall Plan, from the years following World War II, when America stepped up to help with Europe’s resurgence.

Four Big Steps
We developed the Marshall Plan for Detroit in concert with key city representatives and higher education partners. Our idea was to integrate the activities of all the positive people and groups working on behalf of Detroit.

The rational was simple: If Michigan can become visionary, it can capture international, federal, state, and philanthropic resources available for blighted places. This plan, first unveiled in 2007, includes four initiatives: Jobs Today-Jobs Tomorrow, Green Detroit, Detroit Community/Neighborhood, andDetroit on the Move.

Here are my thoughts on each of theses:

The Jobs Today–Jobs Tomorrow Initiative grows, retains, and attracts jobs related to the New Economy, the green economy, neighborhood investment, and small enterprise. It calls for developing high-quality K-12 education and promoting secondary education for all Detroit youth. It also encourages higher education to partner in more economic development and support programs for job training and the unemployed.

Elements could include:

  • Talent-attraction, population attraction, and place-making strategies that bring New Economy jobs.
  • Tax Increment Financing (TIF) for place-making projects and other innovative real estate projects.
  • An international image campaign defining Detroit as a green new-American city with affordable space and housing, and recruiting foreign investment.
  • A university jobs program that repositions Wayne State University as a first-class research institution, triples WSU graduation rates, funds a campus Youth Corp program, cuts tuition for Detroit residents, and expands the campus via tuition differentials and Tax Increment Financing.
  • An Office of New Americans that offers educated immigrants EB-5 visas and training, uses foreign students to attract immigrants, creates an Immigrant Network program, and connects immigrants to venture funds and an entrepreneurial development.
  • A jobs program that trains the unemployed in community service. 

The Green Detroit Initiative calls for using the city’s infrastructure to help it attract, grow, and retain green and New Economy workers. That means investing in renewable energy resources and opportunities, creating a new economic sector around food and agriculture; preserving, improving and connecting green spaces; an enhancing water resources, including water quality, water-based technologies and coastlines.

Elements could include:

  • Aggressive citywide efficiency and clean energy mandates, with grants for home and brownfield projects.
  • A sustainable Eastern Market, a fund for urban agriculture entrepreneurship, and financing and grants for urban stores that promote local food systems.
  • Citywide bike lanes and greenways, and special fuel tax districts to fund more of both, as well as parks, grants for green developers and entrepreneurs, and neighborhood beautification.
  • Investment in boating and waterfront access, with a redevelopment fund for riverfront business and neighborhood districts.

The Detroit Community/Neighborhood Development Initiative reminds us that Detroit’s resurgence cannot center wholly on its downtown. There are many functional neighborhoods that can be a part of the city’s refurbishing. This Initiative combines land use and economic development, preserves and strengthens neighborhood and downtown vitality, and implements sustainable development projects, Smart Growth tenets, and other efforts that make the entire city more attractive.

Elements could include:

  • Addressing blight and revamping “success centers” across the city, like the stadium district and downtown, and marketing them at local and regional levels.
  • Revamping the city’s property record system and retooling its planning units.
  • Land banking, cleaning up, and packaging, via a regional land aggregation plan, vacant properties into land for green economic development.
  • A Community Revitalization Fund that helps NGOs implement job-generating greening and rebuilding projects.
  • Revamping abandoned property for affordable housing redevelopment, eliminating tax abatements for new properties, and providing grants to new college graduates.
  • Marketing Detroit’s affordability via a domestic and international recruitment team focused on young people.
  • Encouraging urban supermarkets, e-infrastructure, and a social lending network.
  • Making communities safe and healthy places to live, work, and play.

The Detroit-on-the-Move Initiative confronts the fact that the Motor City’s unmatched auto heritage may have helped deter the city from maintaining a quality public transportation system—something every city that expects to succeed today must have.

Elements could include:

  • Implementing a comprehensive, reliable, and integrated regional transportation system.
  • Securing federal monies to build regional public transit, or to implement private-sector transit similar to the M-1 project if public partners are elusive.
  • Implementing a Non-Motorized Urban Transportation Master Plan.
  • Establishing transit-oriented development.
  • Improving existing road, bike, boating, and walking infrastructure. 
  • Establishing toll roads that raise revenue for expanding mobility choices.

There are many more ideas that could be—and are being—considered by decision makers in Detroit. The bottom line: “Is Detroit ready?”

I believe that vision drives budgets, and programs drive structure. The big challenge is to make sure that the planning effort underway in the city is bold enough to excite all the relevant stakeholders, not just the usual ones, and that those planning projects line up well with the principles of the New Economy.

Dr. Soji Adelaja is the John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor in Land Policy and director of the Land Policy Institute at Michigan State University. This article was first published by LPI on Oct. 15, 2010, and is used by permission. Parts One, Two, Three, and Four of this five-part series are also online.

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