Fertile Ground: The Challenges Facing Gowanus and Detroit




A few years ago, I co-founded Gowanus by Design. This was before the Gowanus Canal, a heavily contaminated post-industrial waterway in Brooklyn, New York, was designated a Superfund site. The canal has became a symbol for the urban planning challenges facing us in the early part of the 21st century that are a direct result of misguided 20th century industry growth.

The Canal’s future remains still in doubt. Will the clunky vision proposed by developers such as Lightstone justify Spike Lee’s disgust with the gentrification of Brooklyn? Or will the hard work of many community based organizations, coupled with “Bridging Gowanus,” Councilmember’s Brad Lander’s recent public planning process, create a robust, performance-based strategy for the neighborhood that overcomes the city’s inability to put forth a new environmentally responsible urban plan? (Quick personal note to Mr. Lee: the Upper East Side does not suit you; either please move back to Brooklyn and work with us or donate to Gowanus by Design. Yes, I am a very lucky white middle class suburban guy who moved here 26 years ago, but I also care about our city’s future and its citizens).

My interest in the Gowanus has exposed me to similar issues that have arisen in other cities, including the reclamation of the Cheonggyecheon River in Seoul, the massive bureaucratic challenges to cleaning up the Matanza-Riachuelo River in Greater Buenos Aires, and Jan Gehl’s work in Melbourne and Copenhagen. Closer to home, I follow the sobering news about Detroit’s demise and am curious how the city is grappling with its seemingly endless challenges.

Since Detroit came onto my radar in the 1980s, it has been like watching a train wreck. How could a city that once represented 20th-century prosperity and ingenuity suffer ignominy for so long and finally collapse into bankruptcy? And how can a responsible civic government decide to bulldoze homes as a crime prevention measure? As I started to learn more about the situation, by following the stories, talking to former residents, and reading Detroit’s Strategic Framework Plan, I realized that its situation, though at a larger scale and definitely more grim, has common elements with the Gowanus and many other deteriorating industry-based urban centers.

Detroit’s population has dropped to nearly 700,000 from a peak of 1.8 million in the 1950's. Despite the surge in worldwide urban populations, the Plan anticipates that the city will lose another 100,000 residents by 2030. The city's land area is approximately 140 square miles. To help put this in perspective, the total combined land area of Boston, San Francisco, and Manhattan is less than 115 square miles and home to over three million people. There is an average of eight residents per acre in Detroit (Brooklyn has 66 residents per acre) and 36% of Detroit’s commercial parcels are vacant.

In addition, the city suffers serious ecological and water management problems. There are 72 Superfund sites in Detroit, and combined sewer overflows (CSO) and sanitary sewer overflows (SSO), conditions which discharge untreated sewage into the environment prior to reaching sewage treatment facilities, flood the city’s rivers several dozen times each year.

Detroit’s immediate future looks pretty grim. The Plan does not sugarcoat the cold hard facts and challenges that lay ahead. There is not much mention of law enforcement’s role in the city’s reclamation, and some of its conclusions seem a little Pollyannaish: despite commending the residents for toughing it out, I suspect that many of them did not have a choice. Poverty and unemployment have a debilitating impact on the financial and educational resources necessary to move elsewhere, particularly with a corrupt and ineffective city government.

The Plan also does not mention large scale, city-wide retreat; this is a very, very difficult topic to discuss as we witnessed in Governor Cuomo’s marginally successful voluntary plan to buy out residents in flood-prone areas after Hurricane Sandy. Detroit was designed to support 2 million people; its infrastructure cannot be supported with roughly a third of its population. Does it really need 140 square miles to exist or can the underutilized land be converted to urban agriculture?

There are people and groups trying to make a difference. Quicken Loan’s billionaire Dan Gilbert, who grew up outside of Detroit, is investing heavily in creating a corporate campus directly adjacent to downtown Campus Martius Park at one end of Michigan Avenue; he is an investor in a light rail project and has purchased real estate at bargain basement prices. The notion of corporate investment in downtown communities (Zappos in Las Vegas and Amazon in Seattle are two other recent examples) has its supporters and detractors. The privatization of a civic resurgence is a concern and Detroit’s Mayor Dave Bing has openly admitted that he is trying to stay out of the way of Gilbert’s ambitious undertaking. Creating a secure downtown work environment for Quicken employees probably will help Detroit’s tax base and definitely help those who work at Quicken, but corporate gentrification will not help underserved communities.

Detroit should be wary of simply throwing money at its problems, particularly investing too heavily in one sector. The Motor City has suffered for half a century because it placed its faith in an industry that was borne out of its role in helping the United States win World War II. Before the environmental and urban impacts were fully understood, automobiles and the open road represented freedom, not insignificant cultural values, but ones that stood apart from cities as shared community experiences.

Detroit, like the Gowanus, is fertile ground for reimagining an urban center that embraces dynamic relationship between individuals, cultures, social organizations, commerce, industry, and government. The authors of the Plan, who set forth a series of horizons that extend to the middle of this century, clearly know that the process will take time and carefully focus on the strategies rather than beautifully rendered visions. Let’s hope that Detroit has a bright future.

posted by David Briggs