Detroit's Got Lessons for Portland

Submitted by: Sarah Iannarone, Associate Director, First Stop Portland

In 30 years of hosting outbound study trips on behalf of the greater Portland region, organizer Randy Miller has never revisited a city.

Until now.

This month, compelled by rumors of Detroit’s dramatic comeback, a cross-sector contingent of Portland-based leaders, hosted by Greater Portland Inc. and co-facilitated by First Stop Portland, headed back to the Motor City for a firsthand look at what had changed in six years.

On the ground in Detroit, the Portland group heard a story that was in many ways the inverse of theirs. While Portland had entered the knowledge economy and was planning for sustainable growth, Detroit was hemorrhaging population, beset by municipal mismanagement, and battered by globalization’s effects on its one-and-only industry—automobile manufacturing.

Detail, "Detroit Industry" fresco cycle, Diego Rivera, 1932-3, Detroit Institute of Arts
When Portland’s future seemed implausibly bright, as touted by The New York Times and embodied in the young talent (and their empty-nester parents) migrating to the city in droves, Detroit’s couldn’t have seemed more bleak: by 2013, America’s once fourth-most-populous city had lost over a million inhabitants and filed the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history, more than $18 billion in debt.


At 3.5 million square feet, Detroit's Packard Automotive Plant is the largest industrial ruin in the world
Detroit’s motto, Resurget Cineribus, "It will rise from the ashes,” foreshadows how hitting rock bottom was probably the best thing that could have happened to the city. There’s a saying when it comes to adversity:  you can let it define you, let it destroy you, or let it strengthen you. By all accounts, Detroit’s bankruptcy forced state and local leaders to change course ASAP, setting the city on a new path toward a stronger, more resilient future. Their turnaround strategy was rooted in re-imagining their downtown as a vibrant, connected, livable place that would attract the talent and investment its economy sorely needed. Six years later, according to the Portland delegation, the difference was dramatic. Throughout the study trip, discussions among the delegates returned invariably to the rapid pace at which the central city revitalization was driving Detroit’s urban renaissance.

Public art adorns high-rises in downtown Detroit
This comes as no surprise to someone whose 'Welcome to Portland' presentation includes a slide titled, “Reimagining the City Center.” A key part of the narrative that First Stop shares with visitors is how a placemaking revolution in the downtown forty years ago underlies much of Portland’s success today. Escaping Robert Moses’ concrete and asphalt influence was not easy: it took a change in leadership (and some stern warnings from the Feds) for Portland to head back to the drawing board in the 1970s and transform its downtown from a repository for suburban commuters to a vibrant commercial center oriented around pedestrians and transit.

Campus Martius Park is managed by the Detroit 300 Conservancy under the auspices of the Downtown Detroit Partnership, a public-private partnership overseeing downtown Detroit's BIZ (business improvement zone)
Since then, steady urban planning and investments have made Portland a “model city,” renowned around the globe as a “green” leader. This suggests Portland has a lot to teach Detroit about successful city building. While there may be some valuable lessons Portland could share, I get the sense that Detroit is growing weary of unsolicited advice from outsiders. Frankly, based on my experiences there, they don’t really need it.

In three days of site visits, bike tours, and meetings with local leaders across Detroit, I saw a city on the right urban redevelopment track: revitalizing their core; connecting green, walkable communities with bike lanes and transit; building partnerships for better project outcomes; and attempting to grow more equitably through investments in local talent and entrepreneurship. From riverfront conservation to artisan manufacturing, business accelerators to urban agriculture, public art to restaurants & nightclubs, Detroit right now is, in many ways, out-Portlanding Portland.

"Open Streets Detroit" opens 4 miles of major streets downtown for cyclists and pedestrians twice annually, "to create space for healthy activities, community building, and connection to local retail." Sound familiar?

My most important take away from the study trip? Portland has a thing or two it should be learning from Detroit—especially when it comes to getting things done.

In Portland, as rapid growth quickly becomes the “new normal,” locals have been struggling to keep up with the pace of change. The economy is expanding at a healthy clip, yet a lack of affordability drives cocktail party conversation. Real estate developers and density advocates butt heads with neighborhoods over issues like infill and historic preservation. Increased congestion downtown and on arterials has motorists, bicyclists, and transit operators vying for precious right-of-way. And while the vast expanses of East Portland are expected to accommodate the majority of population growth in coming decades, they hold little-to-no power in City Hall where decisions are being made about how that growth takes place.

Conventional wisdom holds that rock bottom situations like Detroit’s bankruptcy are a necessary precursor to transformative change, but I don’t think Portland can afford to wait for extreme conditions before changing course, at least a little bit. Although Detroit’s situation dramatically differs from Portland’s (and while I’m sure their city leaders would love to have some of Portland’s growing pains), Detroit’s remarkable comeback offers relevant lessons for Portland:

1. Identify your common cause and act with a sense of urgency.  Detroit’s bankruptcy gave the city a “nowhere to go but up” optimism. From the airport shuttle driver to the small-biz owner, non-profit volunteer to elected official, the entire city seemed genuinely enthusiastic about the possibilities inherent in working together to bring about the city’s recovery. The all-hands-on-deck energy was almost intoxicating. What is Portland’s common cause right now? Perhaps it’s seeing the current growth as an opportunity to do what it does best—growing sustainably and equitably. It would be powerful indeed if the city rallied with a sense of urgency around an expressed common goal at this critical juncture in the city’s history.

Quote: Jeanette Pierce, Detroit Experience Factory
Interestingly, First Stop Portland’s Motown counterpart, the Detroit Experience Factory, has shared Detroit’s story with over 70,000 people the past decade! Sharing stories with locals as well as visitors seems to play a key role in creating a shared citywide narrative.

2. If it’s broken, fix it. Detroit’s bankruptcy forced local leaders to take hard look at the toll that 60-years of white flight, disinvestment, mismanagement, and corruption had taken on the city. What they saw left them with little choice: they had to break things apart to put them back together again. In response, Detroit completely overhauled their retirement system and—in a citizen-led effort—rewrote the city charter so that city council members would be elected by district rather than at-large. Sound familiar? These reforms are fiscally responsible while helping ensure greater transparency and representation for Detroit’s communities.

Reps from city council and non-profits share how they brought Detroit's communities together to fight blight, clean-up neighborhoods, and reform municipal government
3. Think pink. With little more than dreams at their disposal, Detroit’s communities are taking DIY to a whole new level, undertaking revitalization block-by-block, transforming empty lots to farms and empty buildings to artist studios and business incubators. We repeatedly heard the phrase, “get it done… lighter, cheaper, faster.” In Detroit’s recovery, duct tape ingenuity and innovative partnerships necessarily stand-in for big budgets. For a small but enthusiastic cohort of seemingly "risk oblivious" early investors, a lack of municipal regulatory capacity means projects get done with minimal bureaucracy. Andres Duany calls this “pink tape” development—zones where red tape is lightened (to pink) spur cost effective innovation and investment. Granted, Portland’s land markets differ significantly from Detroit’s, but some pink thinking around certain transportation and housing problems could lower the costs and speed up the rate at which projects come online. Imagine the possibilities of less red tape for housing our homeless or transportation safety in East Portland—places where the need is greatest, the budgets lowest, and the landscapes look more like Detroit that the Pearl District in many ways.

4. Ask the question: “How does this create jobs?” It seems commonsense, but I was surprised by how frequently I heard this asked during my time in Detroit. Every presentation. Every site visit. Every policy discussion. Detroit’s obsession with job creation is completely understandable given their unemployment rate hovered around 25% at the peak of their fiscal crisis. Yet, even as Portland’s unemployment rate dips to 15-year-lows, the question of how we’re creating jobs—what kind and for whom—with our public investments sometimes get lost in a sea of lofty aspirations. A focus on job creation as we work toward our climate goals will help ensure our communities are equitable and resilient.

Finally, since sharing ideas across cities is as much passion as occupation for me, I can’t resist offering Detroit one piece of unsolicited advice—and it’s for the greater region, not the municipality per se: focus on building regional cohesiveness. A bit of regional planning in the short term could go a long way strengthening Detroit for the future: reducing inter-municipal competition, building out the transit network, investing in education and R&D, and filling in the “doughnut of disinvestment” between their center city, neighborhoods, suburbs, and edge cities. I anticipate that with a little foresight and a lot of relationship building, the greater Detroit region will be be a resilient powerhouse in a rapidly changing global economy. If Detroit would like to visit Portland to study regionalism (or any of our other smart growth tools), First Stop Portland would be happy to host them.

(You can visit our photo album from the trip, too.)

1 comment:

  1. Extremely well-written and solid analysis. Many lessons to learn. Inspiring to learn of the several efforts at redevelopment and reinvestmnet.