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detroit panel

Panelist Dan Pitera discusses the community engagement process for the Detroit Future City Strategic Framework plan that he helped develop. Photo: Steve Durrant

“This is all I have seen, so I’m willing to take some risks,” said architect Dan Pitera, quoting a Detroit resident’s response to the planning framework he helped create. Pitera, executive director of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC), presented as part of “Detroit Future City: Design for Rapid Change,” a panel that took place last winter in Seattle. That January night, design and planning professionals, students, community members and University of Washington faculty gathered at the Frye Art Museum for an evening of conversation about Detroit. The presentations weren’t so much about why Seattleites should be concerned about Detroit, or what lessons shrinking cities like Detroit could offer growing cities like Seattle. Instead, they focused on the struggles of Detroiters and their current, extraordinary efforts to lift the city out of decades of economic decline.

Detroit Future City: Design for Rapid Change from UW College of Built Environments on Vimeo.


In addition to Pitera, the panel included Rainy Hamilton, an African American architect and Detroit native. Both Hamilton and Pitera have played central roles in the creation of the Detroit Future City Strategic Framework, a detailed, long-term guide for decision making on rebuilding the city. They were also joined by Eric Becker, a Seattle-based filmmaker; Becker studied Detroit as a fellow of the UW Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies, as did the panel moderator, Lisa Picard of Skanska USA.

In sharing stories about the city, the panel showed how the spirit and unrelenting efforts of many have sustained Detroit against the odds. They discussed how, despite the public’s initial skepticism, planners, designers and community activists orchestrated a planning effort through Detroit Future City, bringing together diverse stakeholders to plot strategies for the city’s regeneration. More than any specific planning or design technique, the tenacity of Detroiters is what’s most inspiring about the city’s story — a story of resilience from within.

Looking forward, the panelists talked about how after decades of neglect and divestment, work is now underway in Detroit to grapple with the city’s vast amount of vacant land, create jobs, attract investments and rebuild the urban fabric. These initiatives are coming from both the top and bottom of the social, economic and political hierarchy.

“The stars were aligned,” commented Hamilton on the convergence of various initiatives, actors and resources after years of effort on multiple fronts.

Detroit’s struggles are far from over, but momentum and hope are apparently there. Detroit gains strength through its people, the most important source of resilience in a city facing adversity and uncertainty.

“Detroit Future City: Design for Rapid Change” was organized by the UW Department of Landscape Architecture and its Professional Advisory Council, with support from ARCADE, the UW Department of Urban Design & Planning, the UW Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies, Swift Company, GGLO and the Frye Art Museum.