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Building a more inclusive future for Detroit

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A conversation with Jay Pitter

A recent luncheon with Jay Pitter and Detroit city-builders at the Urban Consulate.
Photo by Valaurian Waller

Who will benefit from Detroit’s revitalization? It’s a question asked among many circles in the city, as developers stake their claim to cheap land and buildings in the Central Business District and beyond.

While many point to civic leaders, investors, foundations, and companies as leading the revitalization, it’s important to keep in mind those who have been here, who’ve stuck it out, who continue to quietly improve their neighborhoods throughout the city.

We recently sat down with Toronto-based placemaker and author Jay Pitter to discuss the unsung heroes of Detroit, and explore what both developers and residents can do to build a more equitable future for the city.

Pitter speaks at the University of Detroit Mercy
Photo by Troy Anderson

Pitter’s work and research has been focused on design and engagement processes related to the public realm, including parks, squares, housing (public and private), neighborhoods, and complete streets. She’s completed research in social justice and spatial design, most often in cities that are rapidly changing. She recently visited Detroit with the support of the Knight Foundation, the Urban Consulate, and Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD) to talk to city-builders and architecture students at the University of Detroit Mercy about building a more inclusive city for the future.

When researching cities, Pitter looks past the main narrative (Detroit’s just starting to come back) and toward those who have been city-building in their realms. In looking at Detroit, Pitter saw many block clubs that have helped maintain areas in the city. “Before there was so much investment here,” she says, “women really held the city together at the neighborhood level—both women in urbanism fields and the women doing the ground, street-level, neighborhood-based work.”

Many in Detroit took city-building into their own hands while the city was in a cycle of disinvestment. Since the city has more resources in planning and developers have shown more interest, some challenges have emerged for those who take a more DIY approach to improving their neighborhoods. Many felt emboldened to move forward with their ideas in the past; now, more permitting is taking place, and city-builders have concerns around the formality. Pitter says that processes and permitting often slow down inclusive development.

There’s a misconception that revitalization is just starting, notes Pitter, which is an erasure of what’s been taking place. But planners, developers, and residents can all take steps to ensure that city revitalization isn’t just for those who are moving here, but for those who have been here.

Planners and developers need to start with one fundamental question, says Pitter: Who’s not here? When they come to a neighborhood with their ideas, they need to look around the table and see who’s not represented. Are the mothers here? The social workers? The elders? The mental health workers? The artists? Asking that question will help the planners bring a range of expertise to the table.

Pitter notes a mindset that’s been prevalent in Detroit: looking at land or a neighborhood as a blank slate. She urges planners to dig into the history and recognize the women, the marginalized people, the low-income laborers who might have called that land home.

And finally, we often look at what neighborhoods don’t have. But Pitter says it’s important to map out community assets to take stock of what neighborhoods do have. Instead of looking at neighborhoods as a problem to solve—and urban planners often look at themselves as problem solvers—neighborhoods could be looked at as an opportunity. Changing this mindset could lead to more collaboration with residents.

What if, say, a large company or developer announces plans to move into a neighborhood? Pitter advises residents to consider what kind of community benefits would work for their specific neighborhoods, and to request transparency and plain language in a typically jargon-heavy process. Pitter also says that residents should request smaller meetings, transportation, language services, and day care to eliminate barriers so voices can be heard.

As many cities—San Francisco, DC, New York, Toronto—face housing crises, social disparities are increasing across North America, says Pitter. “As cities begin to prosper and thrive and attract innovation and development, even privileged people are being forced out,” she says. “People without mobility are being crushed.” Housing is key to this crisis: “We need to boldly redefine what dignified and affordable housing is. There’s a denial where people don’t want to actually wrap numbers around affordability. Housing is becoming less and less affordable.”

Detroit could move in a different direction—where all ranges of income could live here—but a different approach needs to be taken. “In Detroit, what I would observe is if the city attracts industry and jobs, but doesn’t also concurrently develop transit and housing, this will be a failed effort,” Pitter says. “In urbanism, housing and transit and employment are conceived in separate silos. There should be a concerted interdisciplinary approach to reviving the city or the people who end up benefiting from the revitalization are not the people who live here currently, and [it] will be an epic failure on the part of the city if that happens.”

Detroit, it seems, has plenty of opportunities to get it right.