Detroit: Citizen-led growth

caredetroit2The former Motor City has come to epitomise urban decline in recent years. But it is now discovering a different kind of growth, led by its citizens and their love of place, as Dan Gilmartin and Sarah Craft report

Detroit is known to the world as a poster child of industrial decline. Finding articles on the Motor City’s challenges is all too easy. But there’s much more to Detroit than the stories of dramatic loss of auto-industry jobs, crime, race relations, significant population decline, home foreclosures, criminal mismanagement and challenged schools.

Behind these negative headlines is a story of perseverance. It’s a story of passionate people. It’s a story of innovation. When Detroiters have a problem, they don’t often wait for government intervention. Instead, they organise neighbours and solve the problem themselves.

It’s the passion that people have for the city of Detroit that makes it great. People say we’re gritty, determined, stubborn, boisterous, cantankerous, opinionated, assertive and defensive — and we’re just fine with all those adjectives. Just don’t call us dead because the people of Detroit prove day in and day out that we’re far from that. We may be knocked down, but we keep getting back up.

There are countless examples across the city of residents working together to improve neighbourhood safety, expand public art, develop youth, and activate vacant storefronts. Economic factors often forced local leaders to the sidelines, allowing for an active grassroots improvement movement across the city. The examples that follow don’t attempt to tell Detroit’s whole story, but act as a snapshot of how resident engagement can change the scene and attitude of the entire city.




Community Fundraising: Detroit Soup

detroitsoupcroppedDetroit Soup is a perfect illustration of residents’ commitment to self-action. Soup is a crowdfunding potluck that brings residents together to raise money and support for community projects. Attendees make a suggested donation of $5 and listen to four pitches from people doing great things in their community — anything from running an after-school programme, to starting a small business. Over a potluck-style dinner, attendees vote on the project they like the best. The winner leaves with all of the money raised at the door to carry out their initiative. Residents look to their neighbours for cash, in-kind donations, and volunteers; not a government entity and not a charitable foundation.

Lots of Love recently presented at Detroit Soup and won nearly $900 from the combined donation of attendees. With so much empty land in the city, abandoned lots and poorly maintained city parks grow tall weeds and become illegal dumping sites. Spring and summer in Detroit is full of community clean-ups, but residents often lack access to quality yard tools and lawnmowers. Seeing a way to address the need, Detroit residents Becki Kenderes and Chelsea Neblett started a free tool lending library on wheels, Lots of Love (Lol). Residents leading community cleanups can contact Lol, they’ll promote the event on social media to attract volunteers, drive the tool truck to the clean-up location, and work alongside volunteers to give the land a little love.lotsoflovecropped

‘Detroit has more vacant lots than available resources for maintenance and upkeep, so residents are increasingly becoming more active in caring for these lots in their neighborhoods,’ Lots of Love co-founder Kenderes said. ‘We created Lots of Love to support community volunteers and their efforts.’

Using the money won at Detroit Soup, Lots of Love was able to purchase costly, but necessary equipment, such as a commercial-grade brush hog, for transforming vacant lots.

In four years of Detroit Soup dinners, the event has raised nearly $70,000 for small-scale projects across the city. In 2013 alone, more than 4,000 people gathered at Soup events to build relationships, share ideas, and support each other. Local leaders sometimes attend Soup dinners to engage with constituents and support community projects, but have no active role in Soup or its initiatives.





Coworking Space: Ponyride

ponyridebuildingA relatively small market in a big city makes Detroit an attractive place to live and work for artists and socially conscious entrepreneurs. Detroit’s foreclosure crisis and industrial decline left the city with an abundance of empty structures. Many are left crumbling and sit on the city’s long demolition list, thousands of structures long.

Ponyride organisers purchased a foreclosed, 30,000-square-foot warehouse to turn into a shared workspace for local artists, entrepreneurs and non-profits. Instead of using traditional financing and redevelopment, organisers turned to the community.

Logging more than 60,000 volunteer hours, private donations and in-kind support, Ponyride will soon be the shared workspace of over 65 tenants. Although the building is not quite complete, Ponyride is already the home of a locally-owned coffee shop, a lawyer, a smith shop, woodworkers, dance groups, and an afterschool programme. The organisation is attracting small businesses and social innovators to Detroit and providing them with the support and collaboration they need to accomplish their goals.ponyridecropped

‘Government is often the last institution to change its policies and operations to reflect the modern world we live in,’ Ponyride communications manager Christianne Simms said. ‘When innovative organisations like Ponyride challenge the status quo and offer a new model of economic development, it forces government, and other traditional institutions like foundations and chambers of commerce, to think differently about the communities they serve.’






Recycling & Community Centre: Recycle Here!

Detroit recycling1Before Recycle Here! started in 2005, Detroit residents had no public recycling option. A group of young Detroiters put a recycling dumpster in their neighborhood but quickly saw a need to expand. Recycle Here! formed as a non-profit and developed a formal partnership with the city to become Detroit’s official recycling centre.

The non-profit moved into an empty warehouse and invited local artists to paint bright and colourful murals on the interior and exterior walls. Recycle Here! worked with neighbours, artists and local organizations to clean up empty lots surrounding the building and create a park with public art, bonfires, musical performances, and events for residents to enjoy while they’re recycling or at a community-organised event.

‘Recycle Here! was born out of a need the community had in the absence of a functioning government,’ Recycle Here! director of operations Matthew Naimi said. ‘People come to recycle and we reward them with art, music, and a space to gather. We focus on the community and have found that if you build it, they will come, but if they build it, they will stay.’

Detroit’s Future: Engagement & Community Partnerships

Through hardship and lack of financial resources, American local governments have been challenged to think differently about their role. Thankfully, these times of hardship also foster innovation.

For Detroit to maintain and build upon the momentum from projects like Soup and Ponyride, local government leaders must redefine the fundamentals of governance in the city. No longer is it possible to provide the level of services that once were provided. Luckily (yes, luckily!) city residents don’t need that level in 2014, at least not from the municipal government. By devolving service provisions and problem solving to resident innovators, the city is at a point where it can reposition its core service delivery while engaging citizens and businesses in a cooperative and ambitious manner not thought possible even a decade ago.


A bicycle stroll in Detroit

  • For more about the efforts to rebuild Detroit and other Michigan communities through grassroots and placemaking initiatives, visit the Michigan Municipal League’s website at
  • Dan Gilmartin is CEO and executive director of the Michigan Municipal League, a non-profit organisation that advocates on behalf of Michigan’s cities and villages.
  • Sarah Craft is a programme coordinator for the Michigan Municipal League.


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