Detroit’s development at the turn of the last century was built solidly on the principles of the middle class, where independence, ownership, family and technical vocation afforded an impressive leap forward from the predominately agrarian society from which many Detroiters migrated. The disinvestment in urban America over the latter half of the 20th century has significantly interrupted the American dream for Detroit’s lower income families and for many middle-class suburbanites who might otherwise return to the city—as has happened in other parts of the country—thus creating a region that is more divided than ever by race, age, and class. What is to become of a regional urban center that is too large for its local government to manage, has too much land to return to near-term economic value, and is too spread out to maintain sustainable infrastructure, service delivery, neighborhoods and communities? What must Detroit do to reposition itself as a new form of American city?
Detroit Interrupted: Defining New Geographies for the American City began as a Spring 2011 design studio at Harvard GSD which explored new typologies for the 21st century American city. In Part One of the studio, students examined Detroit’s historic settlement patterns at multiple scales by mapping social and economic forces and the flux of formal and emergent landscapes. These maps, combined with an assessment of seminal urban form-making theories, were the basis for a video manifesto and a proposed new geography for Detroit—a physical framework that allows for contraction, expansion, and/or temporary or permanent development patterns. In Part Two, students developed informal and/or disruptive interventions that embodied their new geographical contexts. Projects engaged a variety of scales and timespans rather than a specific site, so that they could maximize their potential as didactic case studies which can be applied to other post-industrial shrinking cities. The intervention prototypes think big, operating at the system, neighborhood, and district scales so as to reposition Detroit as an important and still relevant American city.
Following the studio, Fluxscape designed and co-authored (with Toni Griffin) a publication expanding the themes of the studio. The publication added several data visualizations and infographics on Detroit’s culture, geography, and the local and regional urban design issues resulting from extreme shrinkage and decline in property values.