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The Effects of Urban Aesthetics in Detroit’s Development

October 26, 2016

By Lisa Berglund

As designers, our work tells a story. Our obligation is to tell that story in an inclusive and honest way, that is both significant and real. If we are to practice our work in a way that is socially just and that works towards equality, urban designers of all backgrounds are obligated to consider the role their work plays in either reinforcing or dismantling the unjust narratives so intimately tied to the history, and in many cases, the present condition of our cities.

This is no small notion. If planning for a city’s future is inevitably tied to race and class identity, designers will need to think again, perhaps beyond their formal training, about the role of their profession in society. We should think about the privilege that allows us to be considered ‘professional’ for addressing many of the same design challenges that less powerful classes have been facing on their own out of necessity. Even many public interest design firms operate on the assumption that their design expertise is cleverer, sexier, and more valuable than that of the communities they serve.

We must cultivate a sense of humility and consciousness when it comes to the social nature of our profession. The false value placed on the designer’s ‘genius’ relies on the denial of that quality in others, specifically those of  lower status who also possess the skills to create a better world through design. Communities of color that have been economically disenfranchised in our cities are only exceptional in the systemic denial of resources they’ve experienced, not in their dreams, ingenuity, or vision for the future of their neighborhoods. In fact, low-income communities have been a source of social and economic innovation, using tactics like street art, small-scale vending, and urban agriculture. These same strategies are now being co-opted by developers as powerful aesthetic tools used to numb the reality of contemporary gentrification.

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Urban Aesthetics in the Case of Detroit

Compared to even five years ago, there has been an increase in investment in downtown Detroit. The result has been an entirely new aesthetic and clientele, springing up seemingly overnight. The work of professional graffiti artists like Shepard Fairey adorns buildings, and street vendors and food carts populate public spaces in newly renovated areas of the city. Similarly, ad hoc public spaces in alleyways are decorated with artificial Detroit grit. Urban agriculture, with a professional urban design feel, double as public amenities where new tenants of nearby office buildings can relax. These changes, and the narrative around their development, cast Detroit’s downtown as vibrant and progressive. The successes of the urban core is clearly exceptional against the backdrop of a city largely deemed by many to be a wasteland. Such targeted branding strategies are essential to how downtown Detroit has developed and gentrified.

Aesthetic schemes like those mentioned above in no uncertain terms aim to attract a young, educated, mostly white class of professionals through its portrayal of the city as a whole, and downtown in particular, as gritty, trendy, cool, and on-the-rise. The aesthetics of things like urban agriculture and professional graffiti depict Detroit as a novel, edgy, and even dangerous frontier to be explored by newcomers. The city is presented as a blank canvas, ripe with potential for a certain race and class profile to turn it into a certain type of place; one that is attractive to further investment. The ‘new’ Detroiters are intended to bring in the vibrancy and energy to complete the change that these development projects seek to trigger.

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An interesting byproduct of the development is the ever-present question, “What will we do about the rest of it?” Outside of downtown, the rest of Detroit is still considered to be uncharted territory, currently thought of as beyond the design trends and development that make newly redeveloped areas of the city desirable and valuable. However, in a city with a population close to 700,000, the idea that the land outside of downtown is a blank slate should certainly be met with skepticism.

Despite the city’s recent aesthetic ‘renaissance,’ these same ideas have actually been present in the city for decades. For Detroit communities denied public resources to improve their neighborhoods, street art has been an inexpensive and accessible avenue for providing a pathway to a voice political messages. In the same vein, this exclusion from resources has led to economic ingenuity as well. Discrimination coupled with a mass migration to the suburban has led the remaining communities to create their own forms of vending, most often taking the form of street food vending and informal restaurants. Urban agriculture also has a history of being used in response to the highly racialized disinvestment in certain sections of Detroit, which has left communities without access to fresh produce.

It’s compelling to realize that these strategies, initially conceived by communities out of necessity and resistance to racism, are now being emulated by developers and their designers in gentrifying areas of the Detroit. Further, they are celebrated for their reawakening of the city, despite the fact that these practices have existed in Detroit for quite some time.

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Singular Aesthetics, Double Standards

While the new formal language of downtown Detroit resembles tactics developed by Detroit communities in the past, their origins couldn’t be more different. One version has sustained communities throughout decades of disenfranchisement, while the other is an instrument to popularize an ‘up-and-coming’ downtown to attract a new demographic along race and class lines. Yet, things like murals commissioned by professional artists in gentrifying areas of the city are lauded for their cultural richness, while similar aesthetic approaches are disregarded when painted by shop owners or for political use.

Headlines about urban agriculture focus mostly on high design, well-funded projects such as Lafayette Greens in downtown, or Hantz Farms on the East Side.  Meanwhile, functional, community-initiated gardens, existing in pockets across the city as part Detroit’s social fabric for decades, are often less valued. Downtown street life created through private development that repurposes street vending is credited with driving the renaissance of the city. At the same time, informal vending in other neighborhoods is not seen as novel or an amenity; in fact, it’s often viewed (and treated) as criminal.

While designers and developers are working away at rebranding Detroit’s urban core, what other, perhaps less intentional, messages does this development create regarding who belongs and who doesn’t in this ‘new’ Detroit? How do we respond to the fact that, while this is all happening, basic amenities and infrastructure in other areas of the city are continuing to crumble, calling on the resilience of long-time Detroiters once again? The dismissal of Detroit communities who must, yet again, design for themselves makes it all too obvious. The subtext is this: It’s not what you do, it’s who you are. If you are a member of a community that has spent decades subsisting under racialized disinvestment, you will be left to fend for yourself. Further, if you produce design work of cultural value out of necessity, it can be co-opted and used by those with an advantage in the marketplace.

This issue isn’t unique to Detroit. We’re experiencing a period of migration back to urban cores and many cities across the country are wrestling with gentrification. Similar interests and investment opportunities are being met with similar aesthetic approaches. As we continue to give form to our future cities, much is at stake during this moment of confluence between renewed investment interest and the perpetuation of exclusion. Unintentional consequences, like those apparent in Detroit, can happen when sophisticated traditions of resistance are presented and reproduced one-dimensionally – in terms of their appearance only. Professional designers need to understand the consequences of their actions when reproducing such economically vital strategies for coping and survival with little or no explanation or context.

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Sending A Different Message

There are some steps designers can take immediately to elevate the social value we bring to the redevelopment of our cities. First, we must reconsider our positions as inherently privileged professional designers, imposing our visions on cities under the assumption that we hold unique expertise. Instead, we must channel our resources to lift the visions and expertise of communities shut out by urban development. Designers at private firms, non-profits, universities, and municipal agencies all have tremendous resources at their disposal in terms of funding and professional networks. Channeling these resources to allow block clubs, community groups, and young people in underserved communities tell their own stories and histories through their own design—free from the imposing vision of professional design—is an important way to exercise humility and inclusion.

Second, we must always remember that, even in our efforts to design for cities with often quickly changing social and economic landscapes, we are not entitled to revise or erase history. Design, as an endeavor in creativity and problem solving, should serve as an opportunity to cement inclusion into its processes. Moving forward, in order to create this inclusion, our work will require the input of historically marginalized communities. It will also require a realization and confession that formally trained urban designers, in their knowledge of their profession, are not more equipped to meet the challenges of urban disinvestment than the communities who have weathered the storm. In fact, it is likely that the reverse is true.


Lisa Berglund is an architect and urban designer from Lansing, Michigan. She is currently a doctoral student in the Urban Planning Department at UCLA and working on dissertation research in Detroit.

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