Conversations from the Commons

Q&A with Maurice Cox, Detroit’s Director of Planning and Development

Maurice Cox speaks at a Civic Commons Studio #1 event in late 2016.

Maurice Cox is nearly three years into the job as planning director for the City of Detroit — but he’s been wrestling with the challenges of urban planning for decades. When Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan first approached Cox about coming on board, Cox, who was based in New Orleans at the time, held the positions of dean at the Tulane School of Architecture and director at Tulane City Center. Prior to that, he’d been design director at the National Endowment for the Arts, mayor of Charlottesville, Va., a teacher, and private architect practicing on multiple continents, all after completing his formal architectural training at The Cooper Union in New York City. With credentials like this, it’s not surprising that Architect Magazine notes Cox “is considered to be a phenomenon within urban planning circles: smart, passionate, and inspiring.” And it’s no wonder that Mayor Duggan came knocking.

We caught up with Cox to ask him about the role of the civic commons in helping to reimagine the shape and vitality of northwest Detroit’s Fitzgerald neighborhood.

A birds-eye view of the forthcoming greenway, which will connect neighbors and neighborhood anchors.

Q: Let’s start by setting the stage. For those outside of Detroit, how do you describe the work you’re undertaking in the Fitzgerald neighborhood?

A: We are revitalizing a neighborhood through an inclusive planning and development framework, focusing on the role of public space and civic assets to create a complete, walkable, urban neighborhood, a civic commons anchored by a thriving retail main street with a community development storefront, a new park in the heart of the neighborhood, and a series of landscapes connecting the neighborhood to local institutions via greenways. In this way, we intend to rekindle civic pride and strengthen connections across the residential and university communities.

Q: And in doing so, you’re really posing the question: What is a civic asset? Most people consider parks, libraries, recreation centers, and the like, traditional civic assets. Yet the civic commons work in Detroit is starting with vacant lots, vacant homes, and vacant commercial storefronts as its initial set of assets. Can you talk about how you are redefining the very definition of civic assets through this work?

A: We are focusing on the role of public space and civic assets to create a complete, walkable, urban neighborhood. Through the activation of vacant, city-owned land and houses and a number of private or institutionally held building assets, we have the opportunity to create a new “Main Street” anchored by African-American businesses and property owners, a new open space network that supports sustainability and pedestrian mobility, and a connection of neighborhoods and residents to the communities of two institutions of higher learning. This reactivation and creation of civic assets has the potential to catalyze market recovery, while valuing mixing between students, staff and residents, as well as between neighborhoods of diverse household incomes.

Progress on McNichols: The recently opened Detroit Sip coffee shop serves as a community gathering place.

Q: What sets this work apart from other neighborhood revitalization efforts happening in cities across the country?

A: We are curating a process of attracting entrepreneurs and business owners who will activate the corridor, working with long-time residents and current business owners to uncover the history of the place, and identify the hidden greatness and talent that exists in the community. Our ambition is that these new businesses grow into community institutions, becoming the long-time anchors that create a particular sense of place, including the place where local kids from the neighborhood get their first job.

Signage for a community pop-up storytelling event in spring 2016.

Q: This holistic, community-first approach reflects the values at the heart of civic commons efforts. How has the process of reimagining the civic commons changed the way you work? And what might your peers in other planning and development departments learn from you?

A: Community engagement activities are key and will inform our future work. Initially we were interested in having a number of pop-up events and pilots (such as the Better Block events) as a way to test ideas with the community, gather real-time feedback, and make the process more accessible to those who lack familiarity with maps and drawings. These events had a number of unanticipated advantages, such as providing an even more effective form of outreach than our door-to-door and flyer campaigns as we caught more passersby who might not have come to a community meeting. This was particularly true for meetings and fairs that we held in vacant lots in the Fitzgerald neighborhood where we got a number of new participants each time. These pop-ups also helped build trust and let us break through planning fatigue; rather than just talking about what we were planning to do, people experienced a physical transformation of the neighborhood.

A rendering of HomeBase, a new community meeting and design hub coming to Fitzgerald later this year.

This has also emphasized the need for us to have a physical location in the community where there can be a more permanent area of new activity — and this is called HomeBase, which is opening later this year.

We also found that the workforce efforts, both through the recruitment of residents as well as the work of the Greening of Detroit Conservation Crews, built trust and relationships with the community. The crew members became important ambassadors for the project, since they were in the neighborhood all day for several weeks. We ended up giving them one-page flyers about the project to help spread the word in the neighborhood. We think the crews will have the potential to impact future stewardship of the community, and crew members reported that they saw residents get out their own mowers or work to clean up lots or their own private properties in reaction to the clean and clears.

The Greening of Detroit trains and employs Fitzgerald community members who help prepare, maintain and beautify the city’s green spaces.

Q: So you’re obviously forging very meaningful relationships within the community. But you’re also doing this across the city — building bridges between departments and entities that might not be used to working to together. As you know well, collaborating across departments can be hard work — and public-private collaboration can be even tougher. What is your advice to other urban leaders embarking on a collaborative project?

A: The importance of building trust cannot be overemphasized, in terms of how our team develops strong working relationships and communication with each other, as well as with residents and business and property owners. Each of our organizations (city, non-profits, CDFIs, universities) has a different relationship to the community. The phasing and prioritization of actual work on the ground with the public and media messaging around it have also created unique challenges, especially in regard to economic development, land acquisition, and public engagement in the RFP processes. We also learned that quick “wins” and physical change were hugely impactful and got us beyond talking about change, so that residents could see change actually happening.

Q: Quick wins are definitely important. But also, the work in a neighborhood like Fitzgerald is about sustainable change. With that in mind, can you talk about the importance of making sure that citizens and leaders understand the processes that support lasting change?

A: There is a huge need for education about how different processes work (development, civics, city government, real estate, taxes, property ownership) as well as around the significance of issues like environmental sustainability (bike lanes, increasing tree canopy, green storm-water infrastructure). There is a lot of skepticism and resistance to some of these elements based on past experiences (the lack of maintenance for street trees, for instance) or a lack of familiarity with additions like protected bike lanes. Addressing this education gap will have critical impact on our outcomes as it will help residents and property or business owners to best leverage and participate in change now and over time.

Part of a citywide conversation: Work in Fitzgerald highlighted at Detroit Design 139.

Q: How do you see the civic commons work informing future neighborhood revitalization in Detroit?

A: In short, by demonstrating the importance of process and planning and expansive thinking, no matter what neighborhood you’re working in, an ambitious vision is necessary to create the kind of transformative change we aim for in Fitzgerald through Reimagining the Civic Commons. We have developed numerous strategies to manage the risks involved in this type of community revitalization. A multi-layered network strategy will ensure no single asset makes or breaks the project; projects can proceed on timelines independent of one another and, in a multi-step process, move us closer to our goal, incrementally changing physical investment and perception. Each project will build on the success of prior projects and reduce the risk to subsequent projects; investment in the landscape will provide a catalytic impact and comprehensive engagement pushes and pulls to move the projects forward.

Reimagining the Civic Commons is a collaboration between The JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation and local partners.