Transforming Ground: Detroit Future City

TransformingGroundBannerThis is the first in a series of posts that will examine what different individuals and organizations are doing to access and repurpose vacant land. Given the large number of vacant lots in Philadelphia, there is incredible opportunity for revitalizing this underutilized land and many have already begun to do just that in thoughtful and creative ways. We’ll highlight a few of them in this series.

Detroit Future City (DFC)

A vacant lot in Detroit.

© Detroit Future City

When discussing vacancy, Detroit is not just a city, but the city that dominates the headlines. Hard-hit by the decline of the automobile industry, the Motor City has experienced debilitating outmigration of residents in recent decades leading to citywide vacancy rates around 30 percent (according to a 2014 New York Times article).

Detroit Future City (DFC) emerged as a response to the growing economic woes of the Midwestern city and began as a strategic framework, released in 2013. With the support of multiple organizations – including the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation – and the city of Detroit, DFC quickly gained momentum. In 2015, DFC transitioned to an independent nonprofit organization and, just recently, announced the hiring of Anika Goss-Foster as its executive director.

“I think what attracted me to the position is this incredible opportunity to align all of the sectors around one strategy for Detroit,” explains Goss-Foster. “It focuses on Detroit in its entirety. It’s not just the downtown, it’s not just the high-growth neighborhoods, it’s focused on creating and aligning strategies for the entire city. That is the most exciting part of what we are doing.” (Quotes obtained from a 2015 Detroit Free Press article).

Specifically, they have broken down their strategy into six planning elements: economic growth, land use, city systems, neighborhood, land and building assets, and civic capacity. While addressing vacant land is certainly a priority of the organization, they are doing so through all of these lenses, acknowledging vacancy as much more than just a land use issue.

Philadelphia has a lot fewer vacant lots and blighted buildings than Detroit, but certainly can learn a lot from this strategic thinking. With the recent genesis of the Philadelphia Land Bank, there are still a lot of questions to be answered about how the city will actually manage vacant lots. Will this public authority work fluidly with other departments? Would Philadelphia benefit from a non-profit organization like DFC offering alternative approaches to revitalization? What can we takeaway from the Detroit example?

© Detroit Future City

© Detroit Future City

One recent initiative of the DFC is the Field Guide to Working with Lots, which offers 34 designs to transform empty land into a neighborhood asset. Available both in print and online, the guide is a useful tool that provides the necessary information for project implementation, including cost, upkeep, experience, and labor necessary to see the design through to completion.

Here are some of my favorites:

Organic Bowl: “A people-friendly green infrastructure solution that creates flexible spaces for neighborhoods gatherings and manages stormwater on site.”

Basement Rain Garden: “Transforms the basement area of a recently-demolished house into a series of stepped rain garden tiers.”

Alt Space / Grape Seed Detroit: “This Detroit-based group is using a cooperative model on vacant lots to grow grapes as part of a long-term wine making operation.”

Holland Maze: “A playful adaptation of the tulip fields found in the Netherlands.”

DFC is looking to take the initiative even further and currently has two associated projects selected as 2016 Knight Cities Challenge finalists.