The People First Project

This road is too damn wide.

There can be no doubt that something is rotten in the state of our cities. After the global urban revolutions of 2011 — which stretched from Tahrir Square to Zuccatti Park and ignited the imagination of a whole generation — we find, five years later, that the crust of reaction as hardened, and a general sentiment of public resignation has settled over the body politic. The most energetic amongst us are militant in their nostalgia, not in their dreaming.

But what, friends, of hope? What of that most vital and precious human attributes that enables, in fact forces, all civilizational progress?

The People First Project was designed to be an expression of hope — an act of defiance and camaraderie in the face of traumatic history and inhuman bureaucracy. It’s based on a simple premise: give 12 people resources to build living examples of a more human-centered future in the heart of the Motor City. Rather than picketing and arming ourselves with protest signs, we instead built places, windows into possible worlds we could move toward if we so chose. The aim was to create public lust for a city that put people first. We asserted, through both philosophy and deed, that another way is possible.

All of this effort was centered on reshaping a single, physical urban challenge: the width of Michigan Avenue in Corktown. But beyond that, these 12 projects were designed and executed to bring one question to the forefront of our thinking around the development of the city:

“What is the city but the people?”

It’s a question posed in 1609 by Shakespeare in Coriolanus, but its just as relevant now as ever. After decades of Modernist planning that took the city to be a massive machine with its component parts divided by type and function, and made the automobile the ultimate unit of planning, we are left, in many American cities, with places devoid of human life. Go to Corktown on any given night, and this so-called gentrifying, hipster, revitalizing neighborhood looks like a ghost town, despite the success of its small business resurgence. The energy that exists in private space does not spill over into public life.

This is a direct result of the devastation wrought by the expansion of Michigan Avenue in the late 1930s — a harbinger of the style of urban development that would come to dominate cities and discriminate against minority communities, a style most famous for the efforts of New York City’s Robert Moses, but whose impact stretched far beyond the Five Burroughs.

For decades, an alternative vision for urban life has been brewing — one that takes the city to be more like a garden, an ecosystem that thrives on interconnectedness, that literally emerges from the ground up, is sprinkled with a bit of wildness, and whose premise is that the human-scale is the central purpose of planning. This view was pioneered by twin giants: Jane Jacobs in North America and Jan Gehl in Europe.

Jane Jacobs famously said, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only, when they are created by everybody.”

And yet across most of the urban world we have completely professionalized the city building process — making it an inaccessible practice to everybody. In a place like Detroit, which many around the globe see as a site ripe for unleashing the urban imagination, we are still left with a mammoth bureaucratic regime that stifles experimentation by asserting its authority above all else while the city crumbles and burns. What’s worse is that this regime views the people who are experimenting with new forms of living in their neighborhoods as the enemy. Rather than embrace the urban farmer as a vital tool in a city with rampant vacancy — the city prefers to leave them in a precarious state of limbo while awaiting the payoff of large-scale development. The tactical urbanist, rather than being viewed as an asset in a city stretched for services, is instead viewed as a deviant.

So the challenges of 21st Century Detroit, and in much of the urban world, are challenges not only of space, form, and geography, but also of governance.

Western democracies are beset by a crisis of representation, a sentiment of public alienation from the decision making process. And while many point to cities as the antidote to this crisis within the context of national sovereignty — the same sense of alienation exists at the city-scale — made all the worse because the social gaps between governing and governed are not so great, and yet the gaps of power remain much the same as the do at every scale.

What needs to be determined over the next few decades is who has decision-making power and at what scale? This is an urgent matter, because cities will account for 75% of the world’s population by 2050. If we want a better future for the next generation, then we need to solve issues of jurisdiction quickly.

For instance, on Michigan Avenue, which was the subject of our small experiment in the name of a human-scale urban future, we run up against an onslaught of disembodied, distant authority. While most residents, visitors, and small business owners would consider Michigan Avenue to be Corktown’s main street (which was its historic purpose when the road was built in the first place), legally it falls under the state jurisdiction of the Michigan Department of Transportation — an entity with a very different view of the function of the street. To them, the purpose of Michigan Avenue is to get commuters from nearby Dearborn to Downtown Detroit as quickly as possible. There is no space for thinking about how to get people from one side of the street to the other, or to have people linger at sidewalk cafes. Cars are the sole purpose of the right-of-way from building façade to building façade, and everything else is ancillary.

And beyond state authority, Michigan Avenue is part of the National Highway System, leaving our neighborhood’s ability to thrive in the hands of federal authority.

The People First Project posits that people should have dominion over their everyday environment, and that encroaching on this right by cars or outside authority should come only in the face of overwhelming need. Instead, the scene we are faced with today is just the opposite: humans have to justify their presence in car-centered space. In fact, MDOT officials have a stated goal of achieving zero pedestrian fatalities. What’s their solution for this? It isn’t to curb the presence of automobiles, whose accidents are the leading unnatural cause of death, killing 1.3 million people globally per year, compared to 378,000 who die in war annually. Rather the solution is to remove people from the street all-together.

And so we get ghost town streets, and human frogger.

Amongst traffic engineers and other authorities, there is a prevailing belief that streets are designed for cars, but this is patently false. As elements of urban design, streets are as old as our oldest cities. Since ancient times, streets have been the site of meeting, and play, and protest. Streets are for people, first.

As public space continues to diminish to the pressures of development, or gets privatized by the powers that be, let us never forget that our streets are our most abundant public lands. We must reclaim them and rebalance the scales.

The People First Project was also an experiment in tactical urbanism, or what some call urban acupuncture — the notion that small interventions can help change how city systems function. We wanted to test the outer limits of what this type of development could achieve by coordinating a campaign of interventions targeted at a single, sticky issue. We wanted to ask:

Does tactical urbanism represent the emergence of a new form of city making?

On that front, I’m torn. Tactical urbanism certainly brings the power to shape the environment back into the hands of the people. It is also quite useful in opening up the public to new concepts, to helping them think through and experience new possibilities. But the reality is that our entire policy framework stands in opposition to tactical urbanism. All of tactical urbanism’s successes are the result of exploiting loopholes, or carving out exemptions. It is rarely the outcome of bureaucratic inertia or institutional muscle memory. In some cases, it is frankly illegal.

In order for tactical urbanism to achieve its full potential, it must be paired with a whole new policy framework. One that encourages Jane Jacobs’ inclusive form of city building. One that embodies Jan Gehl’s belief that the process of urban planning should be as follows: “First life, then spaces, then buildings — the other way around never works.”

The People First Project stands on the side of life, on the side of joy. It is rooted in the belief, to quote Gehl again, that “a good city is like a good party- people stay longer than really necessary, because they are enjoying themselves.”

Detroit may be the birthplace of the automobile, but it is also the home of “Dancing in the Streets”. I know which city I would rather live in.

Because if I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution.