Reimagining the Civic Commons

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Detroit

This project supports the development of a civic commons in a neighborhood lacking traditional civic assets, removing the barriers that separate two anchor institutions from the community that surrounds them through the creation of a new public realm.

Detroit’s Livernois-McNichols neighborhood offers an opportunity to explore the meaning of the civic commons at multiple scales:

At the Neighborhood Scale: Fitzgerald Land Stewardship
The reimagining of more than 25 acres of vacant parcels scattered across the Fitzgerald neighborhood into a new set of amenities includes a passive recreational greenway and a linear connection between Marygrove College, the University of Detroit Mercy and the community. The project team is partnered with workforce development programs that train residents in green-collar construction and maintenance jobs and allowing residents to participate in the revitalization of their communities.

At the Corridor + Building Scale: Livernois Cultural Corridor + Immaculata High School
Revitalizing obsolete, one-story commercial structures and multiple vacant parcels on Livernois Avenue directly across from the University of Detroit Mercy campus creates multiple benefits: a traditional Main Street with mixed-use retail anchored by local

entrepreneurial talent, a new front door for the campus and gathering places for the neighborhood. The former Immaculata High School, a three-story structure on the Marygrove College campus, is re-purposed through design and programming as a community hub.

At the Human Scale: Civic Engagement and Programs
Critical to the success of this project is the need to rejuvenate the civic character of the neighborhood by investing in and uplifting the communities of residents, students, faculty, staff, businesspeople and property owners. This investment in human capital builds trust within the community, in city government, at the universities and with development actors. It also, provides technical and employment support for businesses and residents.

Detroit’s project is located in a neighborhood that is among Mayor Mike Duggan’s top priorities for revitalization, offering an opportunity to reimagine the civic commons in a way that is especially relevant for cities and neighborhoods not rich in existing civic assets.

“Through the Civic Commons initiative, we hope to rekindle the sense of pride current residents should have living in a neighborhood adjacent to such wonderful institutions of higher learning. Vacant lots turned into a park and greenway connecting Marygrove College and U of D Mercy complement our effort to rehab and reoccupy 100 vacant homes in the neighborhood, and help strengthen the entire fabric of the community.”

Maurice D. Cox, Director of Planning and Development, City of Detroit

Business Leaders: Invest in Detroit’s Public Places

05.21.17

Entrepreneurs think high quality public places like parks, libraries, trails and the riverfront are some of the most important investments Detroit can make.

So say the national and local leaders queried in The Kresge Foundation’s Detroit Reinvestment Index, a survey that examined the perceptions of businesspeople about Detroit. The Kresge Foundation found that eight in 10 business leaders in Detroit and around the country believe that the city can continue its comeback and rise to become a great American city once more.

The report demonstrated that business leaders understand the value of investment in the civic commons:

  • 19% of entrepreneurs in the city said high-quality public places were the most important attributes to running a small business—the top choice over options like low taxes and a motivated workforce.
  • 77% of national business leaders and 78% of Detroit entrepreneurs said high-quality public places are necessary for business success.
  • 46% of Detroit’s entrepreneurs said improving the pace of revitalizing and rehabilitating neighborhoods and communities is one of the top two things small business owners primarily need to succeed in Detroit. This was tied with skilled workers for the top spot.

In Detroit, Reimagining the Civic Commons investments include a new city park, a non-motorized greenway, and “neighborhood hubs,” which could become community gardens, volleyball courts or other community-chosen spaces. It will also transform vacant lots into new land-based agribusinesses that could grow food or other crops.

People working on these projects understand that public assets like parks and recreation centers enable neighborhoods to prosper, improve sustainability, and foster relationships among people of diverse backgrounds. And it turns out that business leaders understand the impact of quality public places on a city’s economic success as well.

 

Spring Forward on Six Mile

05.15.17
photo credit: Alexa Bush

By Alexa Bush

Six Mile (also known as McNichols Road) is anchored by key businesses, including the Metro Detroit Barber College, Lucki’s Cheesecakes and the soon-to-be-grand-opening of coffee shop Detroit Sip. However, the environment of the street presents significant challenges to vibrant activity: it lacks street trees and seating, the sidewalks need repairs, many vacant buildings run along its length, and cars speed in two travel lanes that lack defined parking areas, sidewalks and other urban cues.

On April 22nd, the Detroit Civic Commons team hosted a pop-up event on a block of Six Mile to celebrate community and test out a reimagined streetscape with local vendors, entertainment and temporary bike lanes. The event featured activities for all ages, including spoken word, Zumba and a Hustle instructor who got everyone to their feet, from local residents and families, city officials, and community developers to university students.

Learning lessons from prior collaborations with the Better Block Foundation, the team included the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, Planning and Development, Public Works, the Greening of Detroit, the Live6 Alliance, Detroit Sip, Metro Detroit Barber College, Challenge Detroit and residents from the Fitzgerald, Bagley and University District neighborhoods, among others, to set up the event. The streetscape installation ran from Saturday April 22nd to Tuesday, April 25th, with the events and retail pop ups taking place all day Saturday from 2- 6:30pm.

Alexa Bush is a Landscape Architect for the City of Detroit’s Planning & Development Department.

From Fitzgerald to Oak Cliff

05.02.17
photo credit: Detroit Civic Commons

By Stephanie Harbin

How our communities deal with vacant lots, abandoned properties, economic growth, social decline, some level of poverty were just some of the things we found in common with others on the civic commons learning journey to Oak Cliff in Dallas, led by Better Block. It is always good to find new partners in this important work.

photo credit: Can Turkyilmaz

Ideas and community coming together

Better Block founder Jason Roberts shared his methods on how to develop open spaces and temporary pop-up events to fuel and engage the community, how to overcome obstacles, to be innovative and never give up on the vision for the community. He showed us that when ideas and community come together through Better Block, neighborhoods can be revived, restored and renewed. The vibrant communities that result bring people together to share ideas and effort to create further improvement. And that creates long term opportunities to change the landscape for a better quality of life.

Travel to Oak Cliff encouraged me to think of everyone as a community stakeholder, from children to adults to business owners.  What I saw makes me optimistic about Fitzgerald Revitalization Project in Detroit putting our neighborhood on a pathway to recovery for sustainability.

photo credit: Can Turkyilmaz

An opportunity lens

We must use an opportunity lens through which we view everything as having value. How can we put to use what others might discard? How can we overcome stigma that unfairly casts a negative shadow on our neighborhood? How can we develop a positive plan that will encourage the community to work together so that our project gains momentum? How can we attract additional attention from local and state governments, along with foundations?

photo credit: Can Turkyilmaz

Moving forward in a positive direction

Without hesitation I can say that the Fitzgerald Revitalization Project for the City of Detroit is a step in the right direction for the Fitzgerald area. This project is long overdue and very much needed. For me it is an answered prayer for the Fitzgerald Community to thrive and become vibrant again. Our goal for the Fitzgerald Community is the only way we can go and that is up and forward in a positive direction.

Stephanie Harbin at Civic Commons Learning Journey; photo credit: Can Turkyilmaz

Stephanie Harbin is President of San Juan Block Club in the Fitzgerald neighborhood of Detroit.

If you build it, will they come?

03.20.17
Storefront Stories; photo credit: Peter Larson, courtesy of IDEO

By Alexa Bush

Our work in Detroit is situated within a community that lacks many of the quality public spaces where we envision economic mixing would occur: the park, the vibrant Main Street sidewalk, the coffee shop, the shady place to stroll. As we begin constructing some of these physical assets, we know this transformation will create significant physical change in the neighborhood. Hundreds of vacant lots and houses, several vacant commercial storefronts, and a vacant former high school building will be activated and transformed over the course of our work. While our hope is for this activity to create a number of positive outcomes for the communities in which it sits, this process will bring new investment, potentially new neighbors and comes in a context in which fears and concern about displacement are constant topics of conversation, reflecting perceptions about the experience of urban redevelopment in cities and neighborhoods across the US, including Detroit.

photo credit: Peter Larson, courtesy of IDEO

We believe this reinvestment has the possibility to create inclusive growth and benefit residents who have stayed through tough times. We are thinking hard about how to address the fear of gentrification, the fear of the unknown, the fear of the other as these investments take place. Keenly aware of the history of racism and segregation in Detroit’s past urban growth, we believe it will take more than just the creation of physical assets to entice a diversity of people to come use them; it will also require a change to the culture and thinking it which they operate, and an active approach to including and inviting people to join and to participate in their creation.

Seeding social infrastructure for economic mixing

Programming can provide critical groundwork for the coming changes, as pop up and temporary events that take place in these currently vacant spaces will set the tone for the way people feel about them in the future. Having an inclusive process by which the community participates in the creation of these assets helps ensure that people shape their direction and convey that the changes are truly for their benefit. Additionally, there is not a lot of mixing between the university and neighborhood communities. Building a sense of trust will be a key step in forging those relationships that lead to true exchange. As many in the neighborhood have developed strong bonds and shared purpose around stewardship of the neighborhood in the face of disinvestment, what will be the future cause that people rally around as investment returns? We must begin by growing the social infrastructure to seed these networks and connections among people in order for our future assets to provide them a place to build and grow.

Livernois Better Block; photo credit: Alexa Bush

Storefront Stories

One of our earliest ideas for encouraging a culture that promotes mixing was to address the current fears and reservations about change. We wanted to create a space for people to talk and build empathy with others in the community through our Storefront Stories events. We piloted our first Storefront Stories session last spring, to which we invited a wide cross section of individuals from a number of communities: existing residents from the Fitzgerald, Bagley, University District and Sherwood Forest neighborhoods, business owners, property owners, students, staff and faculty from both universities and potential developers. The group was intentional, small, and started with people with whom we had existing relationships, building off of the social capital that exists across our team. This approach also ensured that we got a diverse cross-section of individuals to attend by sending personal invitations as opposed to a more generic marketing approach.

Storefront Stories; photo credit: Peter Larson, courtesy of IDEO

At the event, we set up a number of small tables with five seats a piece, and each table centerpiece had a jar full of questions, an ice-breaker to get a conversation going. The questions ranged from sharing past experiences, impressions about the neighborhood and hopes and fears about its future potential. We requested that people sit with others they didn’t know, and we had everyone switch seats half way through the event.

Storefront Stories; photo credit: Peter Larson, courtesy of IDEO

Overall, Storefront Stories achieved its early goal of creating a setting for people of diverse backgrounds to meet and have a positive experience of exchange. We received encouraging feedback from surveys and had to break up the tables for the evening at the end of the event. While this event was highly structured, we hope to build on it through subsequent programming.

Unresolved questions

Questions remain as to whether this mixing will continue happening organically outside of the structure of the civic commons events and within the assets that we are soon to construct. Are there particular programs, rituals or events that can shape a new culture that is welcoming and creates a sense of generosity that encourages exchange? Will this type of exchange build from our efforts to develop nascent social networks and relationships when given a place to grow in a new, high quality public realm? Is building from existing social networks a scalable strategy? Do we have enough diversity across our existing relationships to be truly inclusive? We will continue to challenge ourselves with these questions as we continue with our work.

photo credit: Peter Larson, courtesy of IDEO

Alexa Bush is Senior City Planner for the City of Detroit’s Planning & Development Department.

Civic Commons Studio #1: Lessons for Detroit

03.06.17
Detroit's RCC team notes on next steps from Studio #1

By Ceara O’Leary

A common refrain at the first Reimagining the Civic Commons (RCC) Learning Network convening was that civic commons means more than physical improvements to each city’s “assets.” Civic commons includes the assets but also extends to the programs that strengthen our neighborhoods, the collaborative process by which we develop programs and places, and the perception of people who experience the commons. In Detroit, the RCC team is steeped in collaboration, and we welcomed an opportunity to talk more about RCC as an avenue to move beyond business as usual. The following insights emerged throughout the course of the three-day dialogue.

Civic commons can be considered a community campaign building toward a collective goal that is substantially larger than individual assets. This revelation impacts how we approach our work and speaks to sustained day-to-day engagement that strengthens resident investment in the overall effort. This also informs storytelling as we seek to diversify storytellers at the neighborhood, citywide and national levels to build a campaign.

photo credit: Meredith Edlow

At the local level, campaigning means continuing to grow our street team and also recognizing neighbors who are steadfast contributors to growing the civic commons. Next steps that emerged from the convening include an appreciation dinner for residents who volunteer their time and an intention to include community leaders in learning trips. The forthcoming ‘neighborhood home base’ on McNichols is another key campaign element, as it will increase access, visibility, and the opportunity to convene. Importantly, the entire civic commons campaign is committed to reaching goals that both benefit and build from existing traditions, stories and relationships in the community.

photo credit: Meredith Edlow

Our team also left with a commitment to equity and an acknowledgement that it is not an option to miss the mark on inclusion in the civic commons. Ideas from the convening include continuing to ensure that a diverse group of people sits at the table with the resources and that we serve the existing neighborhood while including neighbors in the process. We are moving forward on drafting principles that will guide decision-making with intention toward inclusion.

Winterfest, designed by Groundswell Design Group. photo credit: Meredith Edlow

Finally, we left the Learning Network recharged with ideas for programming the civic commons that will support both inclusion and campaign goals. Chicago’s concept of “radical hospitality” is fruitful inspiration. We are currently planning on a series of activation events, directly tapping the skills and strategies of Groundswell that we enjoyed at the convening. We are also planning to implement a postcard and event exchange similar to those shared by the Philadelphia civic commons team. Civic commons is by nature a multi-layered effort, and we seek to keep adding layers that benefit the neighborhood as we learn from our local and national partners.

Ceara O’Leary is a senior designer and project director at Detroit Collaborative Design Center.

A 21st Century Vision for Detroit

02.15.17
photo credit: Alexa Bush

By Alexa Bush

In the last decade, the story of Detroit has transformed from one focused on decline to one about a resurgence. While much of the press on Detroit’s comeback has been around its Greater Downtown, that’s only part of it. Our work with Reimagining the Civic Commons, focused in a neighborhood, is one of several targeted efforts in neighborhoods across Detroit. The Detroit Civic Commons work is located in the area around Livernois Ave and McNichols Rd. This neighborhood developed between the 1920’s and 1950’s as a predominantly single family neighborhood at a time when manufacturing offered the promise of homeownership to everyone, from the wealthiest to the working classes.

Our ambition is to bring greater vibrancy to this neighborhood, reinforcing the efforts of residents and businesses that have persevered and thrived in the face of dramatic economic and social change. We will improve the civic character and quality of life in the neighborhood. However, our vision of urban vitality cannot be a return to a nostalgic dream of the past; rather, it must be forward looking and more adaptive, diverse, integrated and resilient than what came before. We are working with three themes:

Vacant land is our greatest asset

In our project area in the Fitzgerald neighborhood, almost 40 percent of the residential parcels are publicly-owned by the Detroit Land Bank Authority. While some of these parcels contain structures, the majority, approximately 75 percent, are lots where the structures have been demolished. Rather than think of this land as the missing teeth in the block or a void space in the neighborhood that must be infilled with new structures to feel whole, we seek to use this land to create new, urban landscapes that provide a compelling sense of place and a public commons. These landscapes will also do productive work for the community, such as managing stormwater, producing food, providing access to natural environments, conveying a sense of beauty and care, and making the neighborhood feel complete even without the addition of new buildings on every lot. Vacant land along our commercial corridors is also useful. We’re exploring how attracting select mixed-use and mixed-income multifamily developments can add density, new retail services and a diversity of housing options beyond the single family detached home.

photo credit: Alexa Bush

photo credit: Alexa Bush

Retrofit for biking and walking

Detroit’s Mayor Mike Duggan has embraced the concept of a “20-Minute Neighborhood” that puts the amenities, services, transit options and civic assets necessary for daily life within a 20-minute walk or bike ride from where residents live. Doing this in a city like Detroit which has historically focused heavily on mobility via the private automobile (even going so far as to remove the public streetcars which once connected our major thoroughfares) means we’re working against the grain of prior urban planning decisions. How do we integrate a more expansive and diverse idea of mobility into our streets? We believe that this kind of walkable environment is not only more attractive to people across many demographic categories, but also more equitable, providing better access and quality of life to the most vulnerable populations: youth, seniors and those without access to a vehicle.

photo credit: Alexa Bush

photo credit: Alexa Bush

Not your old local government

We believe we have the opportunity to reinvent the role of local government as a partner in neighborhood development. As the City government has restructured after municipal bankruptcy, there is new capacity for the City to engage with neighborhoods. But the local government that emerges cannot recreate a 20th century model that was so highly resource-intensive and top-down. It must develop a nimbler, more collaborative model that is more resilient to economic changes, and responsive to the community. This involves “lighter” projects such as pilots and pop-ups to test ideas before investing capital, such as we’ve done this past spring and summer as part of our Civic Commons efforts, working with the Better Block Foundation and local stakeholders including University Commons and the Live6 Alliance to prototype bike lanes on Livernois. It also involves taking a collaborative approach to partnerships with the private, non-profit and philanthropic sectors, as well as residents, to shape the vision and get things done.

These three themes add up to a big question: how do we reimagine and retrofit our twentieth century urban fabric and develop the multi-sector relationships to meet the needs of the twenty-first? Stay tuned—that’s what we’ll be working on for the next three years with Detroit Civic Commons.

Alexa Bush is Senior City Planner for the City of Detroit’s Planning & Development Department.

Business Leaders: Invest in Detroit’s Public Places

05.21.17

Entrepreneurs think high quality public places like parks, libraries, trails and the riverfront are some of the most important investments Detroit can make. So say the national and local leaders queried in The Kresge Foundation’s Detroit Reinvestment Index, a survey that examined the perceptions of businesspeople about Detroit. The Kresge Foundation found that eight in…

photo credit: Alexa Bush

Spring Forward on Six Mile

05.15.17

By Alexa Bush Six Mile (also known as McNichols Road) is anchored by key businesses, including the Metro Detroit Barber College, Lucki’s Cheesecakes and the soon-to-be-grand-opening of coffee shop Detroit Sip. However, the environment of the street presents significant challenges to vibrant activity: it lacks street trees and seating, the sidewalks need repairs, many vacant…

photo credit: Detroit Civic Commons

From Fitzgerald to Oak Cliff

05.02.17

By Stephanie Harbin How our communities deal with vacant lots, abandoned properties, economic growth, social decline, some level of poverty were just some of the things we found in common with others on the civic commons learning journey to Oak Cliff in Dallas, led by Better Block. It is always good to find new partners in…

Storefront Stories; photo credit: Peter Larson, courtesy of IDEO

If you build it, will they come?

03.20.17

By Alexa Bush Our work in Detroit is situated within a community that lacks many of the quality public spaces where we envision economic mixing would occur: the park, the vibrant Main Street sidewalk, the coffee shop, the shady place to stroll. As we begin constructing some of these physical assets, we know this transformation…

Detroit's RCC team notes on next steps from Studio #1

Civic Commons Studio #1: Lessons for Detroit

03.06.17

By Ceara O’Leary A common refrain at the first Reimagining the Civic Commons (RCC) Learning Network convening was that civic commons means more than physical improvements to each city’s “assets.” Civic commons includes the assets but also extends to the programs that strengthen our neighborhoods, the collaborative process by which we develop programs and places,…

photo credit: Alexa Bush

A 21st Century Vision for Detroit

02.15.17

By Alexa Bush In the last decade, the story of Detroit has transformed from one focused on decline to one about a resurgence. While much of the press on Detroit’s comeback has been around its Greater Downtown, that’s only part of it. Our work with Reimagining the Civic Commons, focused in a neighborhood, is one…

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