Opportunity Detroit

I'm moving to Detroit this week!

It seemed appropriate to write my last blog at Spacesmith about the city that will soon become my home, and share the project that introduced me to Detroit. When I was at City College studying Architecture, I worked as a research assistant for the J. Max Bond Center on Design for the Just City (yes, that’s the same Bond as in Davis Brody Bond, in partnership with Spacesmith). One of the major research initiatives we pursued was studying Legacy Cities and how design could improve the lives of their residents.   

What is Legacy City Design?

Many people are familiar with Detroit and the struggles it has faced due to shifts in its major industries and sustained population loss. Most people are less familiar with the term Legacy City, which simply refers to older, industrial urban areas that have experienced significant population and job loss. The list of these cities, which share characteristics like high vacancy, poverty and limited public resources, varies depending on the specific definition used. For our research, we had 48 cities, all over 50,000 people and all with significant population loss since their peak. We started with this map simply showing population loss since 1950 and recent trend for all cities on our list. 

Map produced by the J. Max Bond Center

The idea grew, under the direction of Toni Griffin (then the director of the J. Max Bond Center). We wanted to layer in demographic and economic census data from 2000 and 2010 as well as a physical / geographic understanding of the cities with the hopes of providing a more nuanced story.

Detroit stands out on all maps and infographics, due to the sheer scale of the city. 

Even though Detroit lost 61% of it’s population since it’s peak in 1950, it is still one largest cities in the United States (around 18th). That’s 713,777 people (according to 2010 census) that still call Detroit home. This is the argument made in Toni Griffin's TED Talk from 2013 that provides more social and historical context regarding Detroit’s population loss.   

The data we compiled was also incorporated into a the website LegacyCityDesign, so that others could geek out comparing these cities like we had been...and you still can!

Detroit is not a city that can be abandoned and just fade away.

After compiling all of this city data, we looked at what was actually happening in these cities. We collected and catalogued design projects geared toward helping improve the lives of residents in these cities. I became fascinated with the data and also found a new hobby in the visual display of information...see the related blog that I love: Very Small Array. We produced more maps and more infographics, which eventually became the report: Mapping America's Legacy Cities. 



After looking at what others were doing, it was time to get involved...that’s how I ended up making this move! 

I realized when I sat down to write this blog that I couldn’t really write from personal knowledge about the city of Detroit itself. Besides a few quick visits, and a day of biking around town, it is only the data and stories about the city that I know. Now is the chance to get out of the data and into the city. A city that is catching the eyes of more and more people every day for reasons of opportunity – investment, arts, food, community, and industrial beauty and unique urban landscape. So until I get out there later this week, all I can offer of the city itself is a few snapshots from my afternoon biking around town.

Michele Flournoy, Designer