The Future Design of Detroit

Jennifer Guerra

You’re going to hear the words asset and opportunity a lot in this story. And frankly, that’s a pretty welcome surprise. It’s not often you hear those words associated with Detroit these days.

But don’t tell that to Charles Cross, Chandra Moore, and Virginia Stanard. They all work at the Detroit Collaborative Design Center. The firm is associated with the University of Detroit Mercy. And most of their work focuses on Detroit’s abandoned spaces.

“Many communities come to us because they’re searching for some sort of revitalization or rethinking of their communities based on the strengths and assets that still exist in their communities,” explains Stanard.

The table at the front of the design center is covered in colorful mock ups and drawings of all the potential projects they want to work on.

They’re currently working on a project on Heidelberg Street in Detroit. A lot of children live around there, and it also happens to be one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country. Chandra Moore explains how they’re going to take one of the vacant houses on the street “and figure out we can make it an open, urban amphitheater for the area.”

The reason they’re able to do the project is because they got a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Without the grant, who knows if the project would’ve happened. A lot of time the fate of a project does come down to money.

Virginia Stanard says money is, of course, important, “but it’s also collaboration and partnerships. And I do think there are a lot of strong foundations, non profits, organizations in the city, of course as well as the city government. And we’ve actually been fortunate enough to be in conversation with some of these groups and start to talk about some of these ideas.”

An idea that Charles Cross has is to turn a vacant building into a fish farm:

“There’s a gentleman in Brooklyn, New York who’s raising tilapia in these tanks in basements of buildings,” says Cross. “He’s done some research and said there’s a market for this. Other people are doing these things and we have infrastructure with the abandoned factories that are here that can be retrofitted and reused.”

When asked if he thinks there’s a space in Detroit to farm tilapia, Cross says “there’s one right around the corner from my apartment. And they used to support the auto industry; they’re now out of business. The building is still in good condition and it’s huge; I don’t see why this couldn’t be done there.”

Virginia Stanard tosses out another idea, this one is taken from Germany. It’s a country that has lots of similar post-industrial issues.

“They’ve been able to transform some of their current factories that are no longer in use into recreation and tourist destinations,” says Stanard. “There are some climbing wall locations, there are some park and walking areas. It’s an interpretative space as well. So they’re learning about the history of this particular factory, and the history of this region as an industrial region.”

The photo they showed me of the German factory looks like an attraction at Cedar Point: It is super bright, with red, purple and green neon lights. And there are people actually rappelling off one the side of the factory.

Now of course, they know it’s gonna take time to transform some of these dreams into realities.

But Charles Cross figures if other cities can do it, so can Detroit.

“The guy in Brooklyn,” says Cross, “this guy is raising fish! Why couldn’t we grow potatoes and have Detroit made fries or tater tots or something? So I really think it’s going to take a lot of political will and a lot of partnerships with the nonprofits and with the communities. We can’t sit back and wait for things to happen. We have to make them happen.”

Detroit made Tator Tots? I could totally see it.


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