Dan Pitera

A Future City Vision for Detroit

Motown Café, Detroit © Creative Commons

Detroit is probably one of today’s largest urban laboratories as well as one of the most fascinating examples of a city that reluctantly has been coerced into reinventing itself in order to survive, now that it is bankrupt and faces urban wastelands of titanic dimensions, and is affected by a severe decrease in population. Dan Pitera evokes Detroit’s renewal through the “Detroit Future City” project, which fosters citizen initiatives and experimentation. It promotes a dense city in terms of complexity and intensity of human interactions. His hybrid work, midway between research and practice in the field, leads him to engage in “participatory planning” with the ambition to improve the resilience and adaptability of the city.

Dan Pitera is an architect and the Executive Director of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture.

Stream : From your point of view, in the very specific context of Detroit, what have the big changes been since the 2000s: technology, the subprime crisis, global warming, etc.? And how have they affected the city?

Daniel Pitera : What’s curious about the timing that you mentioned is that I’m actually not from the city, I’m from the northeast and I came to Detroit in 1998 or 1999. When I arrived people in Detroit didn’t have a very strong positive attitude toward their city. That has shifted tremendously in the last decade: that connection to the city has become very strong. I don’t mean to say that it didn’t exist before, but I think they sort of forgot it and what their city could really be. They let the overwhelming negatives take over. Then they began to notice that even with the negatives, a lot of good things were happening. That sort of changed the perspective of the typical Detroiter, whether that is a resident or an organization.


Change perspective

Looking around the city now you see everything from urban gardening to graffiti art, things like the Heidelberg open-air art project. Many of these initiatives happened before, but only here and there. Now they have coalesced into something really strong that I think is tied to this change in people’s perception. You can have a thirtysomething coming in from outside the city to do graffiti on the Grand River while at the same time you could have an alley in southwest Detroit that’s a graffiti museum done by people who have grown up in the city. It’s no longer only the outsider coming in and doing graffiti, the residents themselves are involved. They are also appreciating and supporting each other, where that wouldn’t have happened before. This is a wonderful time and I think part of the reason why we were able to do work like the Detroit Future City project and other perhaps less conventional projects, is because of this changed perception.

Detroit view © Detroit Future City, Dan Pitera


The other aspect has to do with people: politics is about people. Part of the difference between fifteen years ago and now is that the people who are now getting into power, and that may be low-level power, are in their thirties or early forties. We talked to older people, and I don’t mean to discredit seniors here, but we heard people say what Detroit was like fifty or sixty years ago. You could hear the nostalgia for the days where they could play in the back alleys. I think that’s wonderful. People entering power now say, “You know what? I’ve never experienced that. I’ve never experienced a Detroit that’s safe.” That gets back to what I was saying about the shift in mindset and that is part of the reason why we’re now seeing more and more of these initiatives. Whether you agree with urban farming or not—which was illegal until six months ago—the reason it hasn’t been ticketed or closed down is because the people in charge are saying “Why not?” They’re willing to take risks. So many of those people in their thirties and forties are saying “the old ways didn’t work and still aren’t working, so maybe we should try something new.” That has caused conflict between younger people in power and older people in power. That’s really significant.

When you’re talking about the change in the automotive business, my family grew up expecting that they would have a great job in the auto business. I grew up not having that and I never expected to have that. The industry has been dying since the 1970s. We keep hearing that it’s recent but Chrysler was first bailed out in the 1980s. People in their thirties and forties don’t see this as anything new.

Stream : It’s a global evolution, manufacturing has moved to Asia, so we have to bet on innovation and the creative class. Do you see Detroit as a symbol of this shift ?

Dan Pitera : The definition of the creative class is expanding, for instance in the writings of Richard Florida, which I think is much more appropriate. You can’t define an entire economic and urban system based on something so narrow, because there are only certain types of jobs that people can get. We need to think about people who have very little education but expect a good job. They’re not entering the process expecting to suddenly become a graphic designer, an architect, or a sculptor. Now, creativity is really more about doing your job differently from everybody else. A truck driver can be creative. Actually I think a truck driver is one of the most three-dimensional people we know: anyone who can take that thing and back it into something that’s only a couple of inches bigger is a very three-dimensional thinker.

I think that shift in perspective has allowed us to say that we can have creative but also manufacturing. Is manufacturing the only thing that governs Detroit? That’s what it was in the past. Will it be the same kind of manufacturing?

"Policy Audit Posters", 2011 © Detroit Future City, Dan Pitera

I think we’re seeing a resurgence of manufacturing in this country but the problem is that people are saying, “We can go back to being a manufacturer.” No, it shouldn’t be one big thing. What we’re essentially learning is that places like Detroit were one-horse towns. We were all about manufacturing. So what people tried to do, was to find a new horse. The reality is, instead of having a new horse we should be thinking about an entire stable with several horses. If one horse gets sick, another horse can develop. Talking about the creative class is another way of saying that. If you’re creative in a variety of ways then we can have manufacturing, but maybe green manufacturing, or cleaner manufacturing. Yes the automobile industry is never going to be what it was. That’s fine. But now you can actually have a whole system of things.

I think the decline of the automobile industry has allowed for other things that were always here to become more noticeable. For example, we have strong medical research that was always overshadowed by the auto sector. Do we pick one of these areas or do we actually support them all to work together as a system or a network? That is actually a good thing about the automobile becoming less important.

Stream : Can you tell us more about your Detroit Works Project?


Dan Pitera : The intention of Detroit Works is to do a lot of the things we’ve been discussing. To put it into a very succinct statement, and this is going to sound a little bit cliché, but when you have a four-hundred-page report, how do you get people to understand it in a way that touches them. For example when John F. Kennedy said that we were going to put a man on the moon. That one statement had a whole bunch of other stuff embedded in it, but it touched people’s hearts. It was about politics, it was about world domination, that we were going to put our flag on the moon like it belongs to the United States. There were all these political issues behind it but the statement itself didn’t have to say all that, it was embedded in it.

This project is trying to make a city that can adapt to change. It’s not about resilience: resilience is primarily about major disasters. It’s bigger than that. How do cities essentially design a framework that allows them to adapt to change? Cities change, it’s natural. We have a capitalist society that is only seen as positive when it does this, and only seen as negative when it does that. And that is how we measure our cities: if they’re growing that’s good, if they’re shrinking, that’s bad. That’s actually not always the case. In fact, having a smaller population may be good.

The other issue is that if we are adapting to change, how do we design a city in the future that is both an ecological and an equitable urban environment. That’s what everything is pointing to in that report. To get there, we then said, we need to have more than just a design on a sheet of paper. We need to be engaging people so they feel—and are—a part of the process and so that all this incredible work is happening in a system that can be amplified. In other words, you have this great urban farm, you have this great graffiti piece, this art center. Until recently, they’ve been structured to be independent. That was done for people in Detroit to survive. Neighborhoods worked as silos. Organizations worked as silos. The only way we’re going to thrive is to begin to break down those walls and to connect. A lot of Detroit Works was about breaking down those lines and connecting people in various ways to see their work differently, to work together differently, to use that as a basis for how to think about the future. 

"Policy Audit Posters", 2011 © Detroit Future City, Dan Pitera

It’s not about saying that this city will be a whole bunch of urban farms. It’s not about looking at one of those things as a priority, but about looking at all of them as a system.

Stream : Could you explain your point of view on density and the first phase of your project, which was the stabilization of the city?

Dan Pitera : Let me say two things and then we’ll move into that. The first thing is that you often hear people say, “We’re here to fix Detroit, we’re here to reinvent Detroit,” statements that treat Detroit as if it has been broken. If you are trying to move toward an ecological and equitable urban environment, you need to reestablish new systems for that to occur because the old systems were not based on that. Maybe Detroit is going through an evolution—not a revolution, but an evolution. A lot of what happened in the 1960s and 1970s was about hitting the reset button and saying, “We need to rethink where we are, but to do that we’re going to have to accept a dip.” This dip is actually productive because it’s about rethinking who we are to create a city that is in evolution. So we talk a lot about the city as an evolutionary process that’s connected to living organisms.

The other thing is the idea of the “plan.” Our work in the Detroit Future City in particular is about a strategic framework. Instead of a specific future we talk about multiple futures. That way the city can adapt as it moves forward.

With that in mind, we have a certain image of what a city should look like. We can look at Vogue magazine for women and GQ for men and know what good-looking men and women are. But that’s actually a very thin slice of reality. The same thing exists in architecture and urban design. We know what beautiful cities look like. And they don’t look like Detroit. (Laughs). But there’s a certain density to those cities. Cities like São Paulo make New York look like it is low-density.

"Policy Audit Posters", 2011 © Detroit Future City, Dan Pitera


We talk about density not just as the number of people per square mile or the number of buildings, but as the complexity and intensity of human interactions. With that you can then ask, what is the density of a landscape? With a dense city that’s really about interactions, you don’t really have to have a million people.

The difference with a suburban environment is that those interactions are often limited because the layers—business, residential, shopping—have been separated. It has really been more about layering and multiplicity. That doesn’t mean that, for a city to survive, it has to have a certain type of density; a certain number of people per square mile.

With that said, we can look at cities that have smaller populations than the city of Detroit. Atlanta is a great example. It has 430,000 people to our 700,000 people. And it has the same land area.

How can Atlanta have just under 300,000 fewer inhabitants and not have the problems that Detroit has if the issue is population size? Because their average density is higher than ours. It’s wonderful to say that density is the complexity of human interactions, that makes sense as a philosophy. To then operationalize that in the everyday, you have to recognize that it means that you can have areas that are less dense, but that you also need areas that are more dense to complement each other. That happens in Atlanta. Portland, Oregon, is another example. In fact Portland is seen as a sustainable capital, but it only has 500,000 people in the same land area as Detroit.

What we need to do is rethink our notion of density, but we also need to think about the balance between high and low density. And we don’t have that now. We have average and low density, but we don’t have high density, in terms of the traditional definitions of it.

Urban farm © Detroit Future City, Dan Pitera

Farms in the city

Stream : On the subject of low density, can you tell us more about the phenomenon of urban farming in Detroit?

Dan Pitera : The phrase urban farming is really only being half-used. Transplanting a rural farm into the city of Detroit is not an urban farm, that’s a farm. I think the question that we have is what does it mean to have an urban farm. Right now, because there’s so much available land and so little opportunity for people to get fresh food within the city of Detroit—there are great grocery stores but they’re still limited compared to other cities—people set up some small farms in the city. That’s grown to hundreds and hundreds of little farms and to bigger farms over a few acres. But this is being done along the lines of how a rural farm would operate. What we want to ask is, can you create farms that feed people, that can be a part of a community effort, but also be designed as urban farms different to rural farms? We don’t have very many—or any—examples of that at this point, and so our hope is that now that we have farming that’s very successful, we can ask how can we design urban farming that helps to bring about the densities that we’ve been talking about. It definitely has to be on a much, much bigger scale.

There’s one area of the city that many people think of when they think of urban farming and that’s Brightmoor, in the far northwest of the city. They have an area called Farm Way that you can walk around. There is an old abandoned house that’s been painted into a community bulletin board and a house that’s been converted into an amphitheater. As objects, they are wonderful. Is that urban? That’s the question. It’s more than rural. It’s not the country.

Stream : It’s also a way to survive for the people who are living there.

Dan Pitera : Exactly. That is getting back to the other part of my answer, which is that these farms are not only there because of the lack of availability of fresh food, but also because many of them are market farms that can be used for people to make money to survive. Some of them can and are being used for income.

Stream : There is a whole debate on bringing agriculture back into cities, for ecological reasons. But do you think that for Detroit it’s only a phase due to the crisis? Because what will happen to these farms if land becomes expensive again, because of real estate?

Dan Pitera : That’s a huge issue, which gets back to your point of stabilization. To get back to the general notion of the framework, the reason why it’s not just a land use plan, a city systems plan, or a public land plan, but that it includes neighborhoods, economic growth, civic engagement, land use, city systems, and public land, is because it’s all of those things need to work together. We can’t assume that because we have put this framework out, the things that we’re talking about now will remain in the future. Talking about evolution, it’s fine if they shift and change. What we’re trying to do, besides coming up with a framework for people to follow, is also to change the policies that will allow for good ideas not just now but also later on. Some of that has to do with gentrification. There are lots of people working hard in the city to make it a better place. Will those people be pushed out in the future because incomes go up and land values go up? A lot of the work that we’re talking about now is also focused on thinking about policy in a more creative way.

The law to make urban farming legal in Detroit was passed in May 2013. So the thousands of farms that we have—we have goats and chickens in Detroit, even cows—were all illegal until then. Now the numbers have grown, but that has been going on for decades. We have to legalize them because now there are so many we can’t ignore them anymore. There isn’t just one organization on urban farming, there are almost ten major organizations working toward this goal—the Detroit Fair Food Network, the Greening of Detroit, and others. That is very different from other cities.



"Urban farm", Detroit, 2013 © Detroit Future City, Dan Pitera

Stream : How is that strategic framework implemented on a daily basis?

Dan Pitera : We like to say that we’re blending community expertise with design/professional/disciplined/technical expertise. Most people think that if you’re going to engage with people, you’re going to have a town hall meeting. We think that those are good, but there are many other ways to engage. As we are designers, we designed a table that’s this unusual-looking contraption. It’s around seven feet tall, made out of recycled material, but it folds up and can fit in the back of a car. We drove it all over the city. Three times a week we would pop it up into one area of the city and we would stay in that area, in one location, not even moving around the area, for three to four hours and have one-on-one conversations with people in front of a bus stop, a school, a business. And we’d do this three times a week for eight months.

There were process leaders—they were appointed before this started. They worked with us and they were in the community saying “ok, we need something like that here, something like that there.” Besides having a map of the tactics, we had a map of the city. And every time something happened we would add it to the map to make sure that these dialogues were happening all over the city. That’s just the beginning. We then had a whole team of full-time people working on taking all that data and transposing and synthesizing it into usable documents. They were put online, given to the technical team, and so on. So it’s not just engagement. Everything we heard was translated and transposed so as to be usable in the planning process.



Stream : So you call this process participatory planning?

Dan Pitera : Kind of, yes. And with all this information from people we made a four-hundred-page book, which is much more comprehensive than the master plans of the city. Some departments of the city are already adopting pieces of it. While this isn’t an official document, because of this process of engaging thousands of people, many people are now using it because they see themselves in it. They’re a part of the planning. That’s very important to understand. I mentioned the 6,000 people involved in that roaming table. But we had 30,700 one-on-one conversations with people and 163,000 interactions with people. That’s not 163,000 people, but that’s still tens of thousands of different people that we engaged with.

Detroit, 2013 © Detroit Future City, Dan Pitera

Stream : Can you be more specific about the way you work?

Dan Pitera : I’m an academic and part of a university so people assume I teach in a classroom, but I haven’t taught in a classroom in five years. The only way I can explain my office is that it is like what a teaching hospital is to a medical school. That is what we are to a school of architecture. A teaching hospital is a real hospital, with real doctors and students working alongside them on real patients. I have an office of ten people: landscape architects, architects, urban planners, urban designers, professionals with licenses, and so on. And then I have two to three students every semester who work full-time with those professionals like they would work full-time in a teaching hospital on real projects. It really is an office with real projects. We also believe that a teaching hospital isn’t a place that just does work. They don’t just operate on people. They research at the same time, they do experimental projects. We see ourselves as not just doing work, but as experimenting with the work. And so when people come to us, we’ll say “we’re gonna experiment with the idea of density.” We’ll play with that and research that.

All our projects are meant to be built, but as with any architect, not all of them are. We say there’s diagnostic research and applied research, just like a teaching hospital. They do research and then apply it to a patient. Part of our research is blending meaningful civic engagement with great design. Architectural education teaches you that if you engage people it means you have to abandon the tools of our discipline. We can’t do good design if we bring more people into the process because it will “muddy” the process, water it down, or some other cliché. But we found that, in reality, you can actually create great design if you work through civic engagement in non-typical ways. Part of that is acknowledging that everyone comes to the table with a different expertise. My expertise is in architecture. Your expertise is in living in the community. I can never tell you what it’s like to live there. I want to know that. But you have to accept that I actually have a knowledge of architecture that you may not have. It’s like going to the doctor. Hopefully the doctor will talk to me about what I feel and take that into account when she’s operating. But when she gets out a scalpel to cut me, I’m not going to say, “Could you move that over two inches?” (Laughs). No one’s going to tell a doctor where to cut, but they always tell architects and landscape architects what to do. So we try to change that as well, to say that there’s an expertise that comes with this work. We’ve actually tried to separate ourselves out from culture, where maybe another way is to engage culture more directly to help people see that that expertise is actually meaningful, by acknowledging that their expertise is meaningful too. A lot of our research is focused on that.

Stream :And did you come up with a clear vision? To use your example, did you find your version of “putting a man on the moon”?

Dan Pitera : I tried to articulate that with the two ideas I mentioned: the city that adapts to change and the city that can be equitable and ecological in the future. But that still isn’t really like putting a man on the moon. It doesn’t touch you. It still has jargon, archi-speak. That’s actually been the tough part. Even the best marketers, the best communications consultants we brought on board struggle to find the right words for that. But people rally behind the book itself. I walk into a place and I see copies with dog-eared corners.

(This article was published in Stream 03 in 2014.)