About the city

Lessons learned from YLAI part 2

The Spirit of Detroit

Detroit is the largest city of the state of Michigan, I was placed here randomly but at the same time it feels like it was very much planned. The “Motor city” is developed by the concept of the ideal, perfect and wealthy city since its early occupation by the french in the XVI century. In 1805 a fire destroys a big part of the city, event from which the city’s motto comes from “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus.”, latin for “from the ashes we will rise, we hope for better things”, and it really did, several times.

In 1887 it was devastated by the Civil War, in 1930 abandoned by the Great Depression, in 1950 it had a population of more than 1 500 000 and after the economic crisis in 2008 the population fell to 600 000 people in 2013. And it keeps going, a city that has its own institution to deal with abandonment, resilient and that reinvents itself every time, that’s the spirit of Detroit.

The Spirit of Detroit. Coleman A. Young Municipal Center. A place where I spent a lot of time.

And that’s what I found, a growing and thriving city, but may traces of abandonment, gentrification, low population and a lot of urban development, so far from what I expected. I found a city “in progress”, not at all perfect, but perfect for me that had so much desire to learn how to start with very little.

I worked with Downtown Detroit Partnership , a non-profit foundation that works in agreement with the City of Detroit to manage public spaces in the downtown area. I spent a lot of time in these parks, meeting with different types of stakeholders, talking about public spaces but mostly about how to manage the different driving forces of the urban space. From the cultural to the economic and political aspect, the downtown is the representation of the new Detroit, all the good and all the bad.

The city is a territory of always contrasting forces

No matter the amount of resources available, the city will always be the reflection of someone’s power, that someone could be the collective society or the one wealthy individual.

Managing public spaces and the city's dynamics means to manage those power relations and in this context, the agency of planners, architects, urbanists and others has be defined in a way that makes those power relationships abandon their oppressive qualities and become methods towards inclusion and equality.

How is the city and the public spaces that we want?

Most people who work around the subject already know this but, how do we represent that? What are we looking for? How do we communicate it? Knowing this will help us understand and measure project impact.

Information really is power

The world moves around numbers and results, but those numbers and their representation will change according to our point of view. In urban life, the stakeholders who have the information about how everything works and also analyze it to create predictions are already one step ahead.

Our objective should be to get that information to the people and democratize data driven decision making.

Information comes from unexpected places

And as public space agents we have the responsibility to constantly diversify our sources of information. Our agency should be defined by a combination of research and first hand experience, qualitative and quantitative, ethnography and mathematics, hard data and thick data.

In our global context, numbers matter and in public space numbers usually mean the increase or decrease of someone else's property economic or even emotional value.

What we do with the information is what defines us.

Ask the right questions

Creating the right questions to start an urban project will create a bridge between practice and theory. Communities are the most prepared and experience collective to create those questions and not always urbanists, planners or designers.

Design vs. experience, translating our thoughts

Working in the public space realm means that we should also have the capability to communicate in the diverse qualities inherent to such context. Academic language, urban research and planification bureaucracy standardizes an environment where we all very diverse and learning how to translate ourselves is an education process.

Nothing is impossible

In Detroit, as well as in San José, the small groups such as collectives, NGOs, community committees or cultural groups are the ones who have shaped our current urban culture.

We have learn how to create change in light of our global economic context, this doesn't mean we should sacrifice our values or visions about the city, instead we should PROVE that our ideals and methodologies have a larger impact than the current model.

DIA plaza participatory design process. An incredible learning experience

Some lessons were beyond my professional and academic imagination and really reached my way of thinking about the things I do and why I do it.

My group called me SofiMaps

I know my way around in a city, but also now I walk confidently because I am sure if I get lost I can find my way around that too.

I am not a title and even less a piece of paper.

I became highly aware of the experience I’ve had through the years with Semillas and that will come across in any challenge or uncertainty.

Consistency and discipline are very important, they translate to compromise. But something even more important is confidence, in the team, in the community and in myself.

Overall the YLAI experience became a space of change and from this I will move stronger and more confident.

Detroit fellows. From left to right: Jose (Venezuela) Rory (Jamaica), Nyus (Saint Lucia), Mónica (Colombia), Carla (El Salvador), Ignacia (Chile), Sirius (Colombia), Charity (Saint Marteen), Me, Kyle (Bleize), Alex (México) and Ricardo (Nicaragua)
Thank you Detroit