Urban Thoughts

“Why is Detroit the absolutely coolest city on earth?  The world is vibrating with excitement for Detroit!  The word is out to young people.  Government has stepped back and allowed young people to act.  Nothing is going to stop Detroit from success!”  ~Andres Duany,   

Andres Duany - 2013 ConventionSay what?!  Yes, these inspiring words spoken by Andres Duany, founding member of the Congress of New Urbanism were shared with several hundred local officials at the Michigan Municipal League’s Annual convention during the Colloquium keynote.  Duany is passionate, inspirational, and at times combative, and with a rich vernacular, he pushes the envelope with ideas and thoughts, and never disappoints.

Describing his five and a half hour tour of Detroit that he had taken that morning, he stated that it was “eating his brain and blowing his mind”.  And he meant that in a good way!  Although acknowledging the enormous challenges that Detroit faces, hearing that from one of the great urbanists in the world was music to the listener’s ears.  To top that off, he said that when you compare Detroit to good cities like Atlanta and Raleigh, “Detroit blows the doors off the other places – bigger and cooler, quite amazing”.  He goes on to question what we are measuring when it comes to taking the temperature of a city’s health.  He poses, that “if Detroit is so miserable, are we looking at the right statistics”?

To set the stage, Duany talks about why so many U.S. cities have failed.  He gave 3 reasons:

  • The Interstate highway system which allowed people to move to the suburbs and drive back to the cities for cultural events.
  • VA and FHA Loans – These were designated only for new construction, not for rehabbing old houses, and new construction was happening in the suburbs.
  • Racism, Blockbusting, Redlining – The problem is not with poverty (we will always have it, he says), but the congregation of poverty.  (He said that the car helped separate the rich from the poor.

He continued on to say that for too long, cities have seen themselves competing with their own suburbs, rather than with other cities.   Cities are at a tremendous disadvantage, Duany says, with serious challenges in overcoming the obstacles to build and invest in urban living.  Living styles in cities and suburbs are polar opposites.  Suburbs provide a good back yard, but lousy fronts; cities have no yard but wonderful street life out front.  Speaking about his own field of planning, Duany provides insight to the role that planners have played in fostering the estranged relationship between cities and suburbs.

With up to 60% of Americans preferring urban living, what do we need to do to get competitive cities back?  We need less government bureaucracy – what he calls Lean Urbanism ; Tactical Urbanism small-scale interventions characterized by their community-focus and realistic goals; and less red tape (pink codes) and more flexibility.  Duany states that we need to clean out the building codes for the next generation so that real urban buildings are allowed to be built.

The market response to every revitalized place has been pioneered by young people, artists, and gays, Duany states.  They don’t ask permission to do things or bother to get permits, they just do it.  He goes on to espouse the fact that municipal bureaucracy killed risk adverse activity with their codes and permits.  With so many codes in the past 30 years, “government has exterminated the risk oblivious”.

Take a few minutes to listen to Duany himself.  Following his keynote presentation, he held a breakout session with standing room only. This clearly demonstrated that his message was relevant and resonating with many of our local officials.  Understanding what’s happened in the past, can help clear the path for the future if we are going to build strong urban places that will thrive for the long-term.  Despite the size of our community, it is important to understand the economic connectedness that we all share when our larger urban core areas are pulsating with energy, growth, and vitality.  Duany gives us plenty to think about.

Please share your thoughts and reactions!