A place to call home
Amazon eliminated Detroit as a contender for their second headquarters despite our status as ‘the renaissance city.’ While our city leaders rallied together to create a knockout proposal, we fell short in two key areas: transit and talent. As some scratch their heads to determine Amazon’s ‘why,’ the answer is as plain as the nose on our face.
The ‘#Amazon20’ all have one thing in common: strategic placemaking efforts led by their city and regional municipalities. The Project for Public Spaces defines placemaking as “the process of creating quality places that people want to live, work, play and learn in.”
The twenty cities and regions chosen by Amazon all have dedicated human and financial capital in their efforts to create ‘place.’ In plain language, the ‘#Amazon20’ can successfully measure their quality of life, the same way we measure our corporate tax breaks.
In 2015, the Detroit Free Press commissioned a post-bankruptcy poll assessing quality of life in the city. The results: 65% of city residents say that Detroit is headed in the right direction, yet 43% said “they’d still leave the city if they could afford to move.” It’s why the narrative of ‘Two Detroits’ persists: Despite our resurgence, a large swath of Detroiters remain unconvinced. It seems that Amazon agrees.
In one of my favorite books about the city, Heart Soul Detroit, Detroiter Don Was remarked: “Detroiters are genuine people, and they spare you the bull.”
Detroit, I am here to spare you the bull: we will continue to be recognized — yet not selected — if we don’t address these issues.
A true renaissance for Detroit must include her citizens in the planning process. Research organizations, affiliate groups, and private entities have led the way; but Crain’s Detroit Business has gone on record stating that despite these gains, placemaking in Detroit is a “work in progress.” Additionally, existing placemaking efforts are nothing more than experiential marketing campaigns executed by major corporations.
Built on the Jane Jacobs model of urbanism, Wikipedia explains that “placemaking capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, with the intention of creating public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and well being.”
Therefore, I am proposing a vital, new role for Detroit’s city government: Director of Placemaking.
The City of Detroit’s Director of Placemaking would capitalize on our assets: Detroit’s people. (See Detroit Future City’s 139 Square Miles report.) Detroit’s chief placemaker will lead a measurable program that expands and supports the practice of placemaking in key organizational initiatives in our communities. Placemaking will improve accessibility, nurture and define a sense of community, promote health and wellness, and most of all, build and support the local economy.
Naysayers will say that we must ‘cut the fat’ in city government, but I say that we must make the investment and measure the ROI of social capital. Strategic placemaking is the key to asking the right questions and receiving the honest answers to Detroit’s quality of life concerns.
As Mary Kramer of Crain’s put it: The “new, old Detroit must combine to become ‘now’ Detroit.”
So, to all the cities disappointed about not making it to Amazon’s final 20, perhaps you already received your “golden ticket” and just didn’t know it. Perhaps this spirit of collaboration, initiated by a corporate bid, will turn out to be the start of the supportive network needed to build the entrepreneurial ecosystems of the future. — Steve Case: A Memo to the Cities Amazon Passed Over