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Detroit can be model for how to do things right

Flickr/Michigan Municipal League

The Next Idea

When we hear the term “perfect storm,” the image that generally comes to mind is one of a high-level disaster.

The phrase is relatively new, though its use as the title of the 1993 Sebastian Junger novel which inspired the 2000 film of the same name has accelerated its use in the cultural lexicon.  However, no common dictionary definition for it exists. 

Instead we must turn to that trusted source of information, Wikipedia, which describes a perfect storm as “an expression that describes an event where a rare combination of circumstances will aggravate a situation drastically.  The term is also used to describe an actual phenomenon that happens to occur in such a confluence, resulting in an event of unusual magnitude.”

In many ways, it seems that Detroit is experiencing its own perfect storm, albeit in a good way, if such a thing can be said to exist.  For the first time in recent memory, it seems that an unprecedented volume of positive activity is taking place.

Whether it’s the massive investments made by Dan Gilbert in and around downtown; the city’s swift exit from bankruptcy; the ongoing development of the M-1 rail line; or the progress by Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration in getting city government to function effectively – these events and others have combined to produce a renewed sense of optimism about Detroit’s future.

Nationally, as other cities like Chicago struggle with overwhelming debt, we have a chance to set a high bar and become a model for the rebuilding of a major American city.

Even the city’s profile in the national media has changed. 

Detroit has long been held up as the poster child for urban dysfunction.  For the last few years, we’ve been plagued by invading armies of national and international reporters who’ve parachuted into town and gone the easy route of photographing the first set of abandoned buildings to illustrate “the tragedy of Detroit.” We’re not seeing that as much anymore.

Instead, more and more national news stories are touting Detroit as “America’s Comeback City.” Though this is a positive development, it is not entirely accurate. These new oversimplifications swing too far the other way, ignoring the fact that Detroit continues to grapple with significant challenges.

The implication that all of Detroit’s problems have been “fixed” is ultimately just as misleading and destructive as portraying our city as a dystopian wasteland. Neither is a complete or true story, and this brings up two important questions:

  1. What is the whole story of Detroit? 
  2. What is the next chapter?

With this in mind, the Detroit Future City Implementation Office is presenting “Ideas for Innovation,” a series of six events and six publications centered on different elements of the Detroit Future City Strategic Framework.

The Frameworkis a 353-page document which lays out a shared 50-year vision for the city centered on multiple strategies, from re-use of vacant land to the creation of a number of employment districts, all with the overarching goal to improve quality of life for Detroiters.

Though the DFC Strategic Framework was published in January 2013, it was always intended to be the “starting point of Detroit’s transformation” rather than the end. 

It is our hope that our “Ideas for Innovation” series will be an opportunity for people to hear best practices and engage in important dialog about Detroit and how we can continue to shape a brighter tomorrow.

The topics we will address in the series include: 

  • What Makes Great Cities
  • Opportunities for Innovation
  • Strengthening the City’s Neighborhoods
  • The Case for Open Space
  • Equitable Growth
  • The Making of a Shared Regional Vision

The events will present a broad array of speakers who are both local, regional, and national experts on the topics presented. The goal is to have a series of events that are not only informative but which can catalyze action in neighborhoods and communities throughout Detroit and even elsewhere in Michigan.
Detroit has always been the engine that drives the Michigan economy. A strong urban core community will ultimately strengthen Michigan as a whole. Furthermore, many of the problems and challenges Detroit has faced simply don’t stop at the city’s borders. Lessons learned and successful strategies implemented in Michigan’s largest city can have potential applications for townships and cities throughout Michigan.

Nationally, as other cities like Chicago struggle with overwhelming debt, we have a chance to set a high bar and become a model for the rebuilding of a major American city.

At Detroit Future City, we believe collaboration and participation will be the key to transforming Detroit into a city of innovation rather one of desperation. This “Ideas for Innovation” series will offer us another useful means by which we can work together to achieve this lofty, but essential goal. Please join us. We could use your help.

Kenneth Cockrel Jr. is executive director of the Detroit Future City Implementation Office. He has previously served on the Wayne County Commission, the Detroit City Council, and was mayor of Detroit in 2008-09. 

Editor's note: Michigan Radio's The Next Idea is the media partner for the "Ideas for Innovation" series. During the next six months, we will feature essays and interviews from panelists and  Detroit residents about how to turn the best ideas that emerge from these community conversations into action.


"Ideas for Innovation: The Making of a Great City" moderated by Michigan Radio's Jenn White

Tuesday, April 14; 6 to 8 p.m.

Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit