idsgn (a design blog)

Do you heart Detroit?

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June 25 2010

Abandoned homes left to decay in Detroit (Photo: lessismoreorless, Flickr)

The Motor City... Motown...City of Champions... Hockeytown... Rock City...

These are a few of the heartfelt metonyms for Detroit, Michigan. A city that has suffered such highs and lows in its recent history that its residents are now calling for a sea change.

One resident calling for that change is Detroit’s mayor, Dave Bing. Bing and his staff have initiated a bold plan to reshape the city in ways that there is little precedent for. Once boasting a population of almost two million, Detroit’s 2010 census is feared to fall below 800,000. Top that with an economic collapse, a battered automotive industry and new reports that Motown’s unemployment rate is hovering around 14%, there is little dispute that this city needs some help getting back on its feet.

The basis of Detroit’s new plan is essentially the shrinking of a city. While it seems counterintuitive to most city planners: making a city smaller instead of bigger, it seems to be the only strategy left for Detroit.

For years, abandoned homes have been left to decay, been occupied by squatters and used for criminal activity. As crime increases and housing deteriorate, property values suffer all around it. Pair that with the money required to police and service distant, unpopulated, communities, and what’s left is a bold plan to concentrate the city population.

Bulldozers have already been deployed and are planning to take down a minimum of 15 homes a day. Mayor Bing has implemented a task force to oversee the destruction of over 3,000 homes in the next few months alone, with the goal of removing 10,000 during his four-year term. 77 public parks are also on the list to close. Trash cans will be removed, events cancelled and the once-groomed lawns and gardens will return to the wilderness.

Some see it as a last resort. Some residents loathe to see a historic, once-thriving community bulldozed away, but others are optimistic and see this as a possibility for yet another rebirth for Detroit. A large city with vast open space is an unknown. It’s been proposed that the newly vacant land could be converted to urban gardens or other innovative projects, but the city hasn’t decided yet.

Something is definitely happening in this city. Whether this moment is the beginning of a new era or not, Detroit is moving in a new direction. Throughout its struggles, Detroit has remained a determined underdog whose fans can’t wait to see in an upset win.

What can a designer do to cheer on a City of Champions?

This pinnacle of a moment—with a city fighting an identity of high crime and poor living conditions, in a time when residents are crying for change—reminded me of a similar time in New York City.

In the ’70s, New York faced a similar identity crisis, with high crime, lousy accommodations and a troubled economy.

Though a great number of factors resuscitated NYC, a well known design case-study was also borne of that era. It was Milton Glaser’s I (heart) New York logo. An icon that a population embraced at a pivotal moment. A simple message made it acceptable for residents to reclaim their pride and proclaim love for a city that seemed unlovable.

Milton Glaser’s logo helped rejuvenate New York, and is now a symbol of pride on everything from t-shirts to coffee mugs (Photo: fabioricco, Flickr)

Back in the mid-70s there was a collapse of well-being and morale in this town, and nobody wanted to be here. The city and the state had gotten very apprehensive about what was going on…

I have made nothing on ‘I Heart’ or ‘I Love New York’—ever. There have been no cash rewards… on the other hand it really makes me feel very, very proud to have taken part in that shift of the city’s consciousness from being indifferent to itself, to realizing ‘we love this place.’

—Milton Glaser, from To Inform and Delight

We can’t attempt to recreate the past or demand that lightning strike twice, but as designers there is an importance to remember that design has an impact on society.

Detroit could use a little love.

Note: We've created a Flickr group dedicated to Detroit. Feel free to upload any images or messages in honor of the city in transition: We heart Detroit

Filed under: culture

By Josh Smith