What we can learn from Detroit

Greater infusion of ideas and capital needed at the ground level to reverse decline in Winnipeg

Stefan Tkacz

After more than half a century of decline, Detroit - the symbol of urban America’s dramatic rise and fall - is making a modest comeback.

It is not all good news for the Motor City.

Abandonment continues to dominate much of the landscape, and recent census figures show that Detroit’s overall population shrank by a staggering 25 per cent over the past decade.

However, in that same period, the number of university-educated people under 35 living in downtown Detroit grew by almost 60 per cent.

The improvements in Detroit are not from an influx of big development projects, or major funding initiatives - the city has had no shortage of these over the years. Rather, the improvements are from countless smaller initiatives, from urban gardens started by penniless activists, to art deco office towers redeveloped by deep-pocketed risk-takers.

As Phillip Cooley, one of Detroit’s prominent entrepreneurs and boosters says, turning Detroit around should be thought of as many small solutions to many small problems, rather than as one or two solutions to one big problem.

Small solutions abound.

In Corktown, a neighbourhood a kilometre or so west of downtown, a boutique hipster coffee shop - the bellwether of any emerging neighbourhood - sits among a row of old commercial buildings on Michigan Avenue.

Elsewhere in Corktown, and in places like downtown and midtown, new commercial establishments are opening. Artists and entrepreneurs work in forgotten warehouse spaces, house-buyers fix up houses and urban agrarians transform vacant lots into market gardens.

Perhaps part of the appeal of doing things in Detroit is the ability to feel like one is in on the ground floor of something.

In a city that has nowhere to go but up, every new coat of paint on a house, every new coffee shop in an abandoned storefront, is an exciting improvement.

While Winnipeg’s level of decline cannot be compared to Detroit’s, there is a similar feeling here as North Point Douglas becomes West Broadway’s cooler and grittier older cousin, and as a residential population and creative sector slowly emerge in and around the Exchange District.

Slow as it may be, things are finally happening.

For cities like Detroit and Winnipeg, the old neighbourhoods with a dense collection of readily available storefronts, lofts and houses are the low-hanging fruit that can be reused without great sums of money.

The challenge is the spaces in between: the long-abandoned buildings, large parking lots, rail yards, and freeways and freeway-like roadways that separate the city’s neighbourhoods from each other.

It is relatively easy to start a design firm in an old garment factory loft on McDermot, but to build new mixed-use buildings on former industrial land on Higgins Avenue is something else altogether.

Physical disconnection prevents Winnipeg from being concentrated and practically walkable, and from being more than just a few tiny, isolated islands of street life.

This limits the ability of a city to attract talent from other places.

Talented young people put up with crushingly high rents in New York, San Francisco and Toronto because the concentration and connectivity improves both their quality of life and their professional opportunities.

Winnipeg can make good redevelopment easier through continuing to reform zoning regulations, and by pre-approving certain types of development - or at least expediting and de-politicizing the approval process.

Too often, civic authorities are more permissive of landowners sitting on a vacant and derelict building than of them rehabilitating one. Without a planning board, the most modest of infill developments are at the mercy of the local city councillor.

Attracting higher levels of investment capital is tricky in a city that has been psychologically hostile to enterprise for decades, but creating more predictable rezoning approval processes - ones that actively support doing the right kinds of development - can go a long way in changing Winnipeg’s risk-averse development culture.

While innovative urban gardening co-operatives and collaborative work spaces make excellent copy on the Atlantic Cities blog, they alone are not enough to reverse deep-seated decline in cities like Detroit and Winnipeg.

It will take an entirely new and concerted approach to planning and zoning at the government level, and a greater infusion of ideas and capital at the ground level.
Robert Galston is a University of Winnipeg student who writes about urban issues. Visit his blog at http://riseandsprawl.tumblr.com.

Published in Volume 66, Number 28 of The Uniter (June 27, 2012)

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