detroit works

Commentary: Saving Detroit--a blueprint

Jan 10, 2013

Two inspiring things happened yesterday in a place where the word “hope” is too often preceded by the words “little” or “no.” Mayor Dave Bing’s Detroit Works Project finally released its “future city” report on how to build a Detroit that works.

That might not have meant much in itself. There have been all sorts of bright and brilliant visionary plans that today are gathering dust on some library shelf.

But the release of the book-length Detroit Future City Plan was accompanied by the announcement that the Kresge Foundation was pledging a $150 million to help it stay on track to reality. While that sounds like a lot, it is, of course, a drop in the bucket, an amount that by itself might not even cover the soaring current budget deficit. But it is a sign of belief in the future.

The plan, called the Detroit Strategic Framework, envisions a Detroit 17 years from now that seems more like some idealized version of Seattle or Vancouver.

By then, the planners see the population has having stabilized at between six and eight hundred thousand people, a city transformed by federal, state, local and just good old sweat equity efforts into a variety of green spaces and mixed-use neighborhoods.

Changing Gears reporter Kate Davidson last week debunked the conventional wisdom that Detroit has 40 square miles of vacant land. In her report she found that in all likelihood the number is probably closer to half that.

Which, if you think about it, is still a lot of empty land. 

Which is where the Detroit Works Project comes in -- that's the name of Mayor Dave Bing's revitalization plan for the city. The Detroit Works team has to figure out what to do with all that empty land. To help them find some answers, they're turning to Detroit's residents for help.

They're also enlisting the help of ... a table.

A table, you say?

Yes. But this is no ordinary table, dear reader. The purpose of this particular table is to "disrupt people’s everyday lives," according to Theresa Skora, who helped design it.

"It’s meant to fold up and be put into a car and be taken around," says Skora. Which is why they call it the Roaming Table.  And believe it or not this table – with its nifty green logo and stacks of glossy pamphlets – is key to the city's revitalization plan aka Detroit Works.

Forty square miles.  That’s how much of Detroit lies vacant, nearly a third of the city.  You could fit Miami or San Francisco inside all that emptiness.  At least, that’s what we’ve heard for years.  The thing is, it might not be true.

This is a story about a number – an estimate, really — and how it became a fact illustrating Detroit’s decline. I’ve read about 40 square miles in the Detroit Free Press, the Detroit News, ForbesThe Wall Street JournalThe Guardian and The Washington Times. I’ve heard it on Fox and I’ve said it on the radio.

That’s when Margaret Dewar called me out.

“Wait, this can’t be true.”


Detroit residents interested in Mayor Dave Bing’s planning project for the city have a place to go for information. The Detroit Works long-term planning team has just opened a walk-in office in Eastern Market.

Detroit is expanding Project 14, a housing incentive program that initially targeted police officers, to all city employees.

It’s part of an effort to entice people to live where they work, and re-build Detroit’s population.

All Detroit city employees had to live in the city until state law overturned a residency requirement in 1999. That dealt a crushing blow to Detroit’s already-diminished tax base.