By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, May 15-21, 2011
The political landscape is shifting in Detroit. Two of the most polarizing public figures are fading away. Robert Bobb, the current Emergency Financial Manager of the Detroit Public Schools, is now working side by side with his replacement, former GM executive Roy Roberts. High profile press has followed this transition, with the Detroit News proclaiming, “Roberts Rides to Rescue.”
The Detroit Works Project, the foundation-backed effort to shrink the city, is also remaking itself. It seems Toni Griffin, the out-of -town project head, will not be returning to Detroit after her widely reported “vacation.” The Kresge Foundation has been less than forthcoming about Ms. Griffin’s possible replacement.
This shift in leadership is an opportunity to turn around two of the most divisive, ill-conceived efforts at urban engineering in decades.
While both Bobb and Griffin were problematic personalities, the chaos of DPS and of the “Shrinking of Detroit” is not the result of their personalities. . Rather, both efforts reflect an outmoded view of change from the top down. . Both ignore the genuine vision, imagination, thinking and work that have been taking place at the grassroots. Both efforts were incapable of seeing the strength and resilience in the city.
Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, identified this topdown approach to change as a source of disaster. In a recent article in the New York Times entitled “How not to ‘Save’ a City,” Florida affirms what most Detroiters know from experience, “The record of schemes to revive cities by assembling and remaking neighborhoods is littered with disastrous unintended consequences.”
He says, “Today’s shrinking-cities advocates are certainly a great deal more sensitive to the problems facing older industrial communities” than earlier efforts at urban renewal, but “how do we guarantee that the notion of shrinking cities does not become cover for private developers looking to assemble massive parcels of centrally located and well-connected urban land on the cheap?”
“The most successful efforts of renewing old urban neighborhoods don’t come from top-down reclamation schemes but from organic, bottom-up, community-based efforts to strengthen and build on neighborhood assets.”
“Instead of handing over neighborhoods or even whole sections of cities to City Hall or private developers, we’d be much better off enabling residents to take control of and build on community assets, engaging them in community-based organizations that can spearhead revitalization and build real quality of place. ”
Florida concludes that “This is the kind of approach Jane Jacobs long ago laid out: It generates revitalization by empowering and harnessing the creativity of people who live and work in the neighborhood. It does not cost an arm and a leg, and it works.”
Jacobs has long argued forcefully that “The key is to engage the residents of the area, the business owners, the shopkeepers, the workers and the commuters. They’re the ones that can show the way to rebuild.”
Last week there was some hope that the Detroit Works effort recognizes the need to shift its approach. At the Environmental Summit, community groups took over the process for the session. Clickers were gone, replaced with flip charts and substantial discussions of values, visions and polices.
As a measure of how little respect the Detroit Works process has achieved thus far, virtually every organization present opened with a statement that their participation should in no way be construed as endorsing the Detroit Works process.
Both the new DPS EFM and the Detroit Works Project should stop to evaluate and rethink their approach. They should apologize for the chaos they have created and start asking themselves what they should do differently.
If they do not do this, they will squander what may be their last opportunity to move our city forward.