CNU 24 was held in Detroit this year, and it has been many years since I attended (CNU 9 in New York City). I appreciated CNU’s attention to designing for the public realm and potential for building community, but I stopped attending because it did not seem relevant to me due to its dogma of traditional design and fakery of the architecture. In returning after almost 15 years, I felt that the organization had grown up. While the founders still clung to traditionalist ideals and privileged ideas about their role and who they served, I found that the newcomers brought added dimensions of self-development, equity, and the importance role that Right-of-Way (ROW) design had in placemaking. I learned about some inspiring and innovative organizations that are leading the food justice movement – Keep Growing Detroit, Detroit Labs, and Detroit Dirt – a full cycle that is empowering people to grow food. Keep Growing Detroit’s mission is for Detroit to become a food sovereign city. Detroit Labs helps residents create value added products from the food produced in Detroit, and Detroit Dirt is taking food waste from corporate cafeterias to create rich compost to replenish the soil and give the residents of Detroit a chance to become self-reliant. Amazing organizations doing amazing work.
CNU24 was also the first time in almost 19 years that I was in Detroit. When I was working at Skidmore Owings & Merrill, I spent almost 10 months in Detroit – commuting weekly to conduct interviews with General Motors staff to program the uses that would move into the Renaissance Center as GM consolidated to a central World Headquarters. It was a huge move to help re-energize downtown Detroit…which I was uncertain about. But I was pleasantly surprised to see how much the city had evolved. I was in awe of the beautiful architecture that survived years of blight and vandalism, and that a patron had decided to relocate his corporation to Detroit and refurbish the Central Business District. The streets were grand – on the scale of Chicago’s boulevards. They were beautifully planted and super clean. The investment in architecture was balanced with an investment in jobs – scores of people were employed to patrol and clean the streets as well as staff the public open space. Their presence was welcome and demonstrated a high level of community investment.
Campus Martius was an open space worthy of study – a green space with a bandstand, tables and chairs surrounding the space, a fountain, a beach with cabana-like food/beverage service coming out of a shipping container. Adjacent to that in vacated ROW, there were 4 basketball courts, ping pong tables, and other games available to any and all who wanted to use them. There were staff checking out balls and paddles. And the space was well utilized.
Another great public space was the Dequindre Cut Greenway. This abandoned rail line was recaptured as a recreational trail. The below grade corridor was landscaped with benches and lighting and graffiti artists were welcomed in to give it life. The 1.5 mile trail connects the north end of Lafayette Park to the Riverwalk, providing several miles of public trails within the city center.
The food was great, and the shopping was also. For those who want to play up the decay of Detroit…stop it. It doesn’t exist. Go visit, because Detroit is seeing a renaissance.