Posts tagged with "Detroit":
The City of Detroit is solving one of its major problems with the help of one of its other problems. Detroit is experiencing combined sewer overflow, a messy, and often downright dangerous event that happens every time it rains too much. But by leveraging the abundant city-owned vacant land, Detroit may have found a way to alleviate at least some of the overflow.
Detroit, like many cities its size, has a combined sewage and rainwater sewer system. This means that when it rains, water is flushed into the same pipes that lead to the city’s sewage treatment plant. But when it rains too much, this system can be overwhelmed, leading to massive discharges of untreated sewage into the waterways around the city. These sewer overflows pollute the Great Lakes and often flood residents’ basements with sewage. The raw sewage, filled with bacteria, chemicals, and prescription drug waste, also contributes to dangerous algae blooms in Lake Erie (though soil erosion and fertilizer runoff are also major causes).
In cities like Chicago and Milwaukee, which have partial or fully combined sewer systems, there are epic underground caverns and reservoirs to tackle the overflows. Detroit has been catching up, investing approximately $1 billion in new wastewater treatment facilities that have reduced the volume of its sewer overflows by 90 to 95 percent on average.
To take care of the rest, Detroit is turning to a more grassroots approach. One of the major issues of rainwater in any city is that so much of the ground is impermeable, forcing the water into drains instead of just soaking into the earth. As the City of Detroit controls nearly half of the land within the city limits, it has decided to actively ensure this land is permeable. Aside from simply breaking up many square miles of surface pavement, the city is working with communities to build bioswales, rain gardens, and marshlands.
Joan Nassauer, a landscape architect and University of Michigan professor, has already implemented a set of aggressive water retention prototypes. Working with a team of university researchers, she devised a system that is now in a pilot phase. After the Detroit Land Bank demolishes homes, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department excavates the large holes formerly occupied by the houses’ basements, fills them with sand and stones, and tops them with hardy, short plants. Each resulting bioretention garden collects stormwater from the street, stopping it from entering the overburdened drains.
For Nassauer, the gardens presented quite a design challenge: Her experiences taught her that green infrastructure in financially-stressed neighborhoods is successful and accepted by the community when it looks well-kept. So the gardens had to be low maintenance without looking wild. Moreover, an overgrown garden might create visibility and safety concerns. The plant varities Nassauer selected—such as St. John's wort, bergamot, coneflower, yarrow—are all showy but short: They remain visually appealing without growing too tall and requiring attention. Four test sites were built in Detroit’s Warrendale neighborhood; each can hold over 300,000 gallons of storm water per year.
In legacy cities like Detroit, Nassauer said, there’s simultaneously an “opportunity to design super-efficient green infrastructure and immediately make people’s neighborhoods better places....” But much hinges on political will: In Detroit, Nassauer’s challenge to coordinate among institutions was greatly aided the mayor’s office and political climate. “There are political forces and a lot of citizen energy [going] toward taking Detroit to a new level of desirability for a place to live and work,” she said.
Along with Nassauer’s prototypes, the city’s flood mitigation plan is heavily based on the 2012 report Detroit Future City. Among other things, the report recommended changing the way the city thinks about infrastructure. Rather than focusing on hard infrastructure—roads, sewers, bridges—the report encouraged “landscapes as infrastructure.” The benefits of the plan are varied, but one of the main advantages is the community-based nature of improvements. Not only can the public see the improvements, but they are able to enact their own changes within the system. Multiple nonprofits have taught residents how to construct rain gardens, while other groups already working in vacant lots to cultivate land for food production. More formal projects by the city include permeable sidewalks and streets, improvements that can be made when streets are already in need of repair.
Detroit has set a goal of 2029 to reform its water situation. It is not expected that this plan will completely solve the city’s issue, but it represents a positive shift in its relationship with its sewer system. And who wouldn’t prefer a flowering rain garden to sewage-filled waterways?This article was part of our Oct. 12 issue which focused on how water is shaping today’s landscape architecture and urbanism. Communities face deluges and droughts—for some, the stakes can be survival itself, but others see opportunities for decadence. To explore these stories from around the U.S. and the world, click here.
From the beginning of this project we laid out a process that enabled the architects to meet with a number of diverse community groups. These organizations included members of business improvement districts that Menking erroneously claims were excluded from the process: the Southwest Detroit Business Association, the Eastern Market Corporation, Detroit Future City, Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, and others too numerous to list here. From these community meetings, the architects developed programs that recognized neighborhood aspirations and then they began to work on architectural designs. (Emphases added.)Through nothing else than the magic of word substitution, we see meetings with philanthrocapitalist development groups becoming “community meetings” and “community meetings” offering revelations of “neighborhood aspirations.” Once again, the curators perform an annihilation by co-option: otherwise unrepresented “neighborhood aspirations” are here conjured up through some of the very entities that these neighborhoods are currently opposing. What is at stake in these word substitutions? We think that the stakes are high enough to qualify these substitutions as at least as “egregious” as Menking’s replacement of “concrete” with “serious.” Through rhetoric, magical thinking, and an arrogation of the right to profess upon communities to which they have no accountability, the curators place themselves and their project in the position of giving voice to a supposedly voiceless citizenry, a citizenry otherwise unable to contend with the socio-political situation in which they find themselves. Consider, then, these lofty words from the curators’ “Response”:
By putting architectural ideas and forms on the table for Detroit, The Architectural Imagination gives the city’s residents access to a high level of architectural design and language. This access empowers citizens to engage in discussions about the city’s future direction before that direction is decided by existing power structures.In staging an exhibition of speculative architectural projects as a gift of “a high level of architectural design and language” to Detroit’s residents, we hear the echo of civilizing missions whose colonial authority is cast as educative and morally uplifting; in the claim that the exhibition of these projects “empowers citizens,” we see the imagination of an abject citizenry with no capacity to empower themselves; in the notion that “the city’s future direction” has not yet been decided by “existing power structures,” we see a disengagement from a city whose ongoing reality is, to a great degree, the attempted imposition of precisely that direction by precisely those structures; and in the claim that the speculative architectural projects in The Architectural Imagination “address inequality, sustainability, insecurity, segregation, and much, much more,” we hear an attempt to co-opt the work of organizations that are actually working with and for the communities dealing with those issues. In a final exercise of word substitution, let us substitute the imaginary “community activists” invoked by the curators of The Architectural Imagination with actual community activists currently resisting mass water shutoffs, mass foreclosures, mass evictions, racial injustice, police violence, food insecurity, education privatization, and other threats facing Detroit’s residents: We the People of Detroit, Detroit’s People Platform, Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management, Black Lives Matter Detroit, Detroit Eviction Defense, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, People’s Water Board, and many other groups—none of which the curators of The Architectural Imagination apparently saw fit to engage. When seen in the context of the work of these groups, we cannot understand the engagements with “inequality, sustainability, insecurity, segregation,” and the other issues the curators claim for The Architectural Imagination as at all serious. Moreover, we also believe that “architecture”—whatever that contested word is taken to mean—can find much more inspiration, agency, and relevance by learning from and working with communities and activists engaged in issues around inequality, sustainability, insecurity, and segregation than by claiming those engagements by little else than fiat. In the introduction to The Architectural Imagination published in the project’s catalogue, Cynthia Davidson approvingly quotes the following words of the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai: “The imagination today is a staging ground for action, and not only for escape.” If Davidson had turned the page in the book in which Appadurai wrote these words, she would have read Appadurai’s subsequent qualification of his claim: “It is important to stress here that I am speaking of the imagination now as a property of collectives, and not merely as a faculty of the gifted individual (its tacit sense since the flowering of European Romanticism).” With its celebration of the work of “visionary American architectural practices” and its tacit disregard for actually-existing communities, The Architectural Imagination advances just the model of imagination that Appadurai is writing against. We think, then, that The Architectural Imagination fails to meet its own standard for imagination. Seriously.
There is often a barrier to entry when it comes to talking about Detroit. No matter how empathetically one approaches the subject, there is the distinct possibility of being accused of insensitivity. Detroit has been through, and continues to go through, some of the most difficult urban issues in the country. And, naturally, many Detroiters are downright tired of outsiders coming in and proposing “solutions” to the city’s ills. So when it was announced that the United States Pavilion for the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale would focus on the city, it was not surprising that some would take issue.
The United States Pavilion is explicitly about Detroit. The pavilion is organized by the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and curated by Mónica Ponce de León, former dean at Michigan and current dean at Princeton University, and Cynthia Davidson, editor of the journal Log. Titled the Architectural Imagination, the two curators charged 12 design firms to speculate on four sites throughout Detroit—the former Packard Automotive Plant, the U.S. Post Office on Fort Street, and city-owned sites in Mexicantown and the Dequindre Cut. The firms range from lesser-known talent to well-known names like Stan Allen and Greg Lynn. All firms were given free rein to imagine what program and form should go on their sites. They met with city and community representatives to discuss their projects and gain a better understanding of the sites. Overall, the exhibition is fairly typical of what one might expect to see in a show about architecture, with large models and drawings filling the pavilion. (See our review of the pavilion and de León and Davidson's response.)
Before the exhibition opened, well before any of the designs were revealed, criticism was leveled against the show. Most notably this critique came from a group called Detroit Resists. Remaining anonymous, Detroit Resists released a statement linking architecture, and the institutions that generally support building, to some of the systemic issues that plague Detroit: mass water shutoffs, evictions, gentrification, and spatial racism. The group accused the organizers, and indirectly the participating firms, of political indifference.
And Detroit Resists was far from alone in its skepticism, if not in its fervor. The conversation of Detroit and its relationship to contemporary design and architecture is a popular one. The U.S. Pavilion is not the first, and will not be the last, to speculate on Detroit. The general criticism of any design proposals produced for the city is that the egoism of the designers and their lack of connection to the city mean that they could not possibly contribute to the betterment of the people of Detroit.
One could not have a conversation about the possible designs without also having a conversation about whether it was even appropriate to talk about architecture and Detroit together. Just weeks before the Biennale opening, New York’s New Museum hosted a weeklong workshop titled Ideas City in Detroit. The workshop brought together Detroiters, other Americans, and international designers and architects to discuss and think about the city. Similarly, the U.S. Pavilion participants engaged the community in conversations throughout the design process. A great deal of the conversation in that week, and in the concluding public forum, revolved around the role of outsiders in the reimagining of Detroit. Ideas City made very few proposals for the city, though. Instead, it reserved most of its actions to discussion and listening. By most accounts—from Detroiters and others—the event was productive.
Yet the skepticism of the U.S. Pavilion is not what is at issue. Rather, it is the preemptive cynicism and dismissive posture that came with that skepticism. To say that architecture, from within or from without Detroit, is inherently a negative for the city, is to negate any possibility of it being anything else. Having a serious conversation about architectural ideas means admitting that Detroit is not a war-torn wasteland, because it isn’t, and engaging with architects means accepting Detroiters as urbanites as much as any other city dwellers.
Now that the pavilion is open, we are able to look at the projects and judge whether they are doing the harm of which they have been accused. Proposals range from complex abstractions of information gathered from the community to complex postindustrial tech complexes. Others take on community gathering spaces, and yet others reimagine infrastructural amenities, such as urban farm space and material reclamation. Now is the time to carefully read the projects and decide whether they live down to the allegations of cultural insensitivity that were laid against them.
Detroit, like all cities, is inseparably linked with architecture, old and new. No matter how badly, or well, things are going, architecture is part of the city-making conversation. It will never heal the ills of any city. It is not a solution or a means to specific ends. Yet to dismiss the possibility of architecture is to close the conversation on the built environment. And though it is naive to think that architecture won’t be used for nefarious purposes, it is cynical to think that it has to be used as such. Where exactly it fits into improving the postindustrial city, or the racially segregated city, is still unclear. But there are people working on it.
The U.S. Pavilion, The Architectural Imagination, will be open from May 28 through November 27 at the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale in Venice, Italy. More information on Detroit Resists can be found at detroitresists.org