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Urbanists vs. Technocrats in Detroit

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Almost three years ago -- before I had visited Detroit, curated an exhibit there, made friends, and bought a house there -- my partner and I filmed this video. Staged as a call for entries for our Detroit- and Brooklyn-focused art and architecture exhibit that opened in 2011, the video features us talking about Detroit and walking past a graffiti-sprayed backdrop of rusted fences, dead sidewalks, and empty buildings. Not until the final 30 seconds of the video do we arrive at a luxury condominium, revealing that we have been walking along expensive waterfront real estate in uber-trendy Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The point of the video is manyfold: that transformation and decay can often appear indistinguishable, that vantage point is everything, that cities are nuanced, self-inconsistent, and changing. These are basic lessons of contemporary urban design, observations that appear to be completely missing from the current process of state-controlled emergency management.

The emergency manager take-over of Detroit may not immediately seem like an issue of urban design or urban planning. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder's justification for the shockingly anti-democratic policy is couched in terms of financial management and crisis. The number often used to summarize the emergency -- $14 billion in long-term liabilities -- did not exist before Governor Snyder's "Report of the Detroit Financial Review Team," but it is repeated unquestioningly (here in the New York Times, for instance).

If the technocratic logic of the Emergency Management seems irrefutable to you, consider the lesser-circulated statistics. A report released last month from the U.S. Department of Commerce's Bureau of Economic Analysis found that Detroit's GDP was actually the 2nd fastest growing in the nation in 2011 at 3.5 percent. This puts Detroit ahead of even oil rich Dallas, Texas, which had 3.1 percent growth. In addition, as far as population, core central areas in Detroit, such as Corktown, Downtown and Southwest, have grown in population from 2000 to 2010. Even the Report of the Detroit Financial Review Team, itself, found that Detroit's deficits have actually been improving in the past few years -- from a $332 million deficit in the general fund in 2009 down slightly to $327 million in 2012.

How is it that as Detroit's democracy is discussed primarily in terms of dollars and efficiency, such key data-points are so easily ignored?

We would be kidding ourselves if we did not acknowledge that the image of Detroit is a major factor here. The image that circulates nationally is one specifically of urban forms and buildings in states of disrepair, often missing windows or charred at the edges or overtaken by vegetation. There is the iconic ruin of Michigan Central Station, for example. It is owned by a private individual, Matty Moroun, one of the richest men in America. It circulates as an image representing not corporate apathy, but Detroit's supposed urban failure. An outdoor conference this past summer organized by ModCAR addressed the issue of this type of national representation of the image of Detroit, as has my own work with Queens Museum of Art, SUPERFRONT, and local Detroit art institutions, such as the Anti-Auto show and SpreadArt.

As far as directly addressing the overly evocative symbols of deterioration and the logistics of population decline, Detroit just this January released Detroit Future City, an ambitious and broad-minded long-term strategy to handle the changes that a shrinking urban population brings to land use and urban planning policy. Detroit has been steadily gaining national recognition for urban farming, community organizing, and entrepreneurship. Global organizations working in social entrepreneurism have recognized Detroit's leadership in these areas, for reasons summarized well in this blog from San Francisco.

This is not to say that Detroit does not have problems to solve. One of the arguments in support of emergency management is that a bankruptcy may be required to keep Detroit solvent. But bankruptcy, itself, does not necessitate this revocation of local democratic rule. Bankruptcy, like urban planning, is a process that can be negotiated in a number of different ways. Remember that California printed IOUs under a Republican Governor in 2009. Some Detroit mayoral candidates have already developed debt management plans that they are openly campaigning on. Saying that the financial situation demands an emergency manager is like saying city planning can only happen through the executive commission of a master architect's plan, à la Chandigarh or Brasilia.

In the fields of urban design and architecture we may talk about the aesthetic or formal implications of political economic changes. Architectural theorist Thomas De Monchaux has written eloquently about the aesthetic associations between austerity and minimalism. Beyond these stylistic concerns, can we practice urban design and work on urban form without acknowledging the public and its character? Effectively, what we are seeing in Detroit are two different disciplines -- abstract finance on one hand and urban planning and design on the other -- telling two very different stories about the same city. We may think that what is happening in Detroit, as architects or urban designers or planners, is beyond our field. But if we do that we are simply acquiescing to the technocrats.