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What to do about Detroit? A Q&A with urban planner, Toni Griffin

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TEDCity2.0 2013 - September 20, 2013, New York, NY. Photo: Ryan Lash

Toni Griffin speaks at TEDCity2.0. Photo: Ryan Lash

Everyone knows Detroit is in trouble. The list of problems assaulting the once-mighty Motor City is long and, from a look at national newspapers, incessantly documented. Most recently, the city filed for bankruptcy; its former mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, was sentenced to 28 years in prison for public corruption. Since the booming 1950s, the city of Detroit has lost more than a million residents; the vacant lots that now speckle the city form a space about the size of Manhattan.

Toni Griffin: A new vision for rebuilding Detroit Toni Griffin: A new vision for rebuilding Detroit Of course, Detroit’s economic collapse was not solely brought about by bad management, but is the result of larger global economic shifts. In a post-industrial economy, as manufacturing has evolved and established itself overseas, Detroit needs to figure out its new place in the new world.

Many people are optimistic it can be done. In today’s talk, architect and city planner Toni Griffin talks about how she and her team plan to rebuild the city from the ground up through an initiative they’re calling the Detroit Works Project.

“There is a future for the next generation of Detroiters, both those there now, and those that want to come,” she says in her talk. “Let’s not focus on what Detroit is, but what it can be.”

As part of this week’s “Invented Here” series, the TED Blog interviewed Griffin about the challenges that Detroit faces as it transitions to a post-industrial economy. The real key, she says: support local entrepreneurship and the burgeoning creative economy. An edited version of our conversation follows:

What’s your involvement with Detroit Works?

I worked on the whole planning piece, which is Detroit Future City, published in December 2012. It’s a series of strategies around six planning elements: economic growth, land use, neighborhoods, city systems, public land and civic engagement.

And where is that project now?

We have a series of strategies for each of these six elements, and now, Detroit Future City’s mission is to partner with the different agencies, nonprofit groups and businesses to implement those strategies. Every sector — from media organizations to corporate business to education — is developing a plan and implementing it.

Obviously there’s a lot going on right now related to the city’s bankruptcy and restructuring. Coming out of the bankruptcy, as difficult as that will be, there is hopefully an opportunity to reconfigure our operations and systems to better support the initiatives of Detroit Future City.

How can you do that?

As an example, we might reconfigure infrastructure such as transportation, water systems, and so on, so it’s better aligned with a more sustainable land-use pattern that promotes density. The goal is to enable neighborhoods in the areas where they’re most viable. What we need to do is realign service delivery, utility systems, transportation systems. For instance, let’s identify the neighborhoods that are dense and active, and make sure they get great bus service.

Detroit has become the poster child for urban decay. How can it build an economy that will survive and thrive in a post-industrial world?

For decades, Detroit has been a mono-economy city, focused on the automobile industry. The region is still very automotive-centered. Both domestic and international automakers have a presence in the Detroit metro region, including two automakers still within the city itself.

There is an opportunity to build on that — for example, by focusing on R&D as it relates to the auto industry and supporting existing small businesses and suppliers. But at the same time, we need to support creating new small businesses and suppliers as part of the larger regional economy.

One of the tenets of Detroit Future City is that it’s not so much about the land use as it is about the city’s larger strategy for economic growth. The key is to build that economic growth within the city limits, so that there’s more revenue generated in the city and for the city — and more opportunities for Detroiters to be employed within the city.

Remember, while Detroit has lost more than 60% of its population since its peak in 1950, it’s experienced an even higher percentage of employment losses. We still have many more residents than we have jobs for them. We need to rebalance the ratio of jobs to residents of the city.

As a great step forward. Goldman Sachs just identified Detroit for its 10,000 Small Businesses program. That will link local Detroit businesses to supportive services and access to capital and capacity for growth.

How can Detroit become a meaningful player in the new global economy?

Well, Detroit has always been a member of the global economy as a real driver of the automobile industry. And that industry has never left the region. Parts of it have left the city, but not the region.

So Detroit is still an important international hub for the automotive industry, with international and domestic businesses located in the region.

What we want to remind people is that we need to re-root some of this industry back into the city itself. Detroit has some of the largest educational institutions in the region, as well as companies, including GM’s headquarters. That keeps Detroit as a viable place for continuing to attract business to the region and the city.

And how does your plan try to bring jobs back to Detroit?

One way is through supporting local entrepreneurship, because we believe that entrepreneurship creates a substantial amount of jobs. We’re also focusing on education. When we visited our sister city of Torino, Italy, another auto-industry town, we found it impressive that the educational sector of R&D there related to the innovation and technologies that create new advancements in the automotive sector. We can do the same with Detroit’s education system; it’s a great opportunity to link back to that larger auto industry.

A third sector is to develop the creative class. There’s a great project now called the Tech Town, which is an incubator of creative R&D firms that have the potential to support all kinds of sectors, including automotive and healthcare. This incubator model is also something we learned from Torino, and it gives us an opportunity to expand and support other kinds of sectors.

What have you learned from rethinking Detroit?

What we realized is that Detroit is richer than one economy. In fact, it’s a network of economies. There’s been a lot of attention in the last year on how the downtown and midtown areas are starting to take on an exciting new life. We’re also seeing efforts to create more housing for new tenants to foster more residential living downtown and to bring more employees back into the city by renovating our classic office buildings.

There’s often a tension between encouraging local development and entrepreneurship and also trying to attract new residents to the city. How do you see these dynamics playing out in Detroit?

That’s always a tension in any city. That’s why we want to really highlight local entrepreneurship development, and I think that takes on a very broad scale. Entrepreneurs can be very small firms producing for the automobile industry — but they could also be a sole proprietor doing advertising and marketing or website development. Or they can be young and creative entrepreneurs who are thinking about new ways to be productive in the city.

Given that the city is 82% African-American, there was also an equity issue on the table about how we intentionally tried to reach out and into the local community to find ways to support those local businesses, from the established business in an office building or shopping strip to the sole proprietor working from home.

There’s always a tension between downtown and the neighborhoods, but it helps to have local business owners invest in their own downtown. What we hope to see is a model with opportunities for local neighborhood businesses and local homegrown entrepreneurs to have locations and visibility within the new downtown space.

When can Detroiters expect to start seeing these changes in action?

You’ll already see that if you walk through Woodward Avenue downtown. There are a lot of very local firms there, and we’re beginning to see some local retail stores. There’s an intentional move to bridge the gap between the downtown neighborhood tension and the outsider/insider tension of new local entrepreneurs.

And I think there really are opportunities to overcome that challenge. Shinola, the watch and bike company that I discussed in the talk, is one of those really great examples. The firm decided to move to Detroit, and in doing so, was committed to creating a staff predominantly made up of local Detroiters. That hopefully extends to how they think about their supply chain and how they’ll partner with other local entrepreneurs.