We started our morning itinerary at Campus Martius, the award-winning public space in downtown Detroit. My colleague Luke Forrest (pictured below with Christine Meyer at the Riverfront) was kind enough to meet us there and tell the fellows about Campus Martius and the Riverfront. Since it was late in the season, the ice skating rink had already been taken down. It was snowing and blustery when we were there–not a super nice day to take visitors around but they were very good-natured. We headed down to the Riverfront and to the Underground Railroad statue.

river front - luke - christine







We went to the Detroit City Council meeting, and during a lovely presentation were given “Spirit of Detroit” Awards from Council President Brenda Jones. Below, City Clerk Janice Winfrey calls us up and I introduce the fellows to the Council.

 detroit council mtg                                                                                                                 

After the council meeting the fellows took advantage of the cultural offerings in the city and visited the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Our next itinerary stop was to the Grandmont-Rosedale Development Corporation (GRDC) to talk about housing and neighborhoods and the work they are doing to stablilize the neighborhood. We were even able to go inside a house the GRDC is rehabbing. They buy homes, rehab them and resell them (well this is a portion of what they do). Grand-Rose house rehabGrand-rose house interior    




Last but not least, we drove to the Heidelberg Project. Given its name, the Heidelberg Project is known in Germany, and the German fellows were eager to see it–they wondered what it would look like in person after seeing it on TV.          I asked them and it seemed to live up to their expectations–I think it was spaced out further than they thought. Here is our photo–the yellow bag is from the city of Cottbus Germany and part of their city contest to get the bag photographed in all types of places for a photo contest.

Heidelberg Project   The fellowship was a wonderful sharing of municipal practices and the added benefit of building intercultural and international relationships. Henrik wrote this after he returned home nad received the photo of us at the Detroit City Council Meeting: Because of the ceremony our names will ever be linked to the city of Detroit and Michigan as well (and so will our hearts). What a lovely sentiment. I felt the same way about Dusseldorf, Oldenburg, Cottbus, and Munich, the four cities I was connected to during my fellowship in Germany.

The German McCloy fellows visited Michigan in late March. The League had planned a very special Detroit itinerary for them, and we were excited to get started. But first things first–we gave them an introduction to the structure of local government in Michigan. They toured the League’s Ann Arbor building after a drive through Ann Arbor for a quick tour, and specifically to see some affordable housing development in the city.

We hit the streets of Detroit Monday morning. Our contingency consisted of Heather Van Poucker, Director of Information & Policy Research, myself, and our four fellows:   

  • Dr. Christine Wilcken, Assistant Chief Executive, German Association of Cities, Berlin
  • Sandra Bohm, Head of Department, Vehicle Registration Center, City of Offenbach
  • Dr. Christine Meyer, personal assistant of the Lord Mayor of Nuremburg, City of Nuremburg and
  • Henrik Neumann, city and regional planner, City of Jena.

Our first stop: Recycle Here!. The fellows thought they were going to see a run-of-the-mill municipal recycling center. Surprise! I set the stage beforehand, but Recycle Here! is anything but run-of-the-mill, and they were rather astonished at it. The overpowering sensation is not just the art (murals on all the walls, inside and out, the fire-breathing dragon, the outside sculptures)—but the force that is Matt Naimi. He is fired up about recycling, he is fired up about art, he is fired up about community. His intent to start a recycling center in Detroit has morphed into so much more.Recycle Here



Our next site was the Green Garage & Green Alley. It is a building in Mid-town that is used as co-working space. It was a garage used to park fire trucks many,green garage 2 many years ago. It was reclaimed and rehabbed into a sustainable, energy efficient beautiful building. From there we moved on to visit the Revolve retail space around the corner. The last phase of our journey for the day was to the offices of  Michigan Community Resources for an introduction to the Detroit Future City work. We learned about the effort to include residents from all areas of Detroit into the planning process. A particulary innovative approach was through the use of online gaming to reach young people. Dan Pitera, of Detroit Collaborative Design Center led us through the start of the plan via Mayor Bing’s initiative to its current phase. It was so impressive–so comprehensive and visionary. It covers economic growth, land use, transportation and infrastructure, neighborhoods, land and bulidings, and civic engagement. Some of the imperatives from the plan are:

“We must provide residents with meaningful ways to make change in their communities and the city at large” and

“We must use innovative approaches to transorm our vacant land in ways that increase the value and productivity and promote long-term sustainability”

 We ended our day with a visit to the Guardian building to be awed by it’s beauty.

top of photo--the street level above the subway construction.

top of photo–the street level above the subway construction.

Walking through the soon-to-be subway extension

Walking through the soon-to-be subway extension

Down catwalk to the Dusseldorf subway construction site

Down catwalk to the Dusseldorf subway construction site

Sunday afternoon in front of the Cathedral in Cologne, Germany

Sunday afternoon in front of the Cathedral in Cologne, Germany

Huh, and I thought NIMBY was an American thing. When I was in Germany as part of the McCloy Fellowship in Urban Affairs, German officials cavalierly said “Germans are famous for opposing everything. Every project is met with ‘Not in my backyard’ (NIMBY).” And what is the response to citizen opposition? They proceed anyway. They said if they didn’t, they would never get anything done.

I bring this up because in Dusseldorf, I toured the most incredible building project—the construction site of a subway line extension. We went right under the existing buildings on the street level—they are only five meters above the dig site. We put on hardhats, yellow firefighter-like coats, and boots and walked over catwalks and down narrow flights of stairs to see the construction up close. The incredible part is—the city did NOT close any streets for this construction. Traffic is flowing just as before. It’s really amazing. The construction manager said “The citizens of Dusseldorf will not tolerate disruption to their transportation systems.” And, to top it off, the city is building a tunnel in conjunction with the subway. The tunnel and subway will be stacked right on top of each other. They tore down an overpass because they wanted to turn the area into a walkable, pedestrian-friendly site, and concluded that it would be less costly and more convenient to construct them both at the same time.  

            What does this have to do with Detroit? Detroit has a lot of initiatives that are driven by residents and city-lovers. There is a lot of citizen involvement. That is something that is not part of the German municipal operations. Because they have such large elected city councils (the city of Dusseldorf has 92 elected officials), they don’t have a lot of what we think of as citizen engagement and participation. Not that Germans don’t fully engage in their everyday lives—they  are out and about in droves, walking, taking public transit, visiting museums, hanging out in the public square (and in those charming cafes). I have never seen so many people on the streets here—and I don’t mean just walking to where they are going to catch a specific form of transit—but actually being out in public as a purposeful activity.

I’ve thought a lot about it, and I think the government is so efficient at getting things done, and the agenda of the political leaders is focused on sustainability and transit and education and building partnerships—that the citizens don’t need to fight for those types of things. When I asked the mayor of Oldenburg how much citizen participation his city had, he told me “citizens can come to the council meetings.”

So, what do we have that is unique and special? We have citizen engagement, participation, the city as “host” and not “the life of the party.” We have Detroit Soup, we have Recycle Here!, we have the Green Garage and the Green Alley, we have the Artist’s Village. So many great things! What a multitude! What we will show the German fellows, with their varied interests, about our largest and at times, most maligned city? Stay tuned.



When I think of Europe, I think of castles, fountains, sculptures, and people sitting at charming outdoor cafes on cobblestone streets sipping coffee or an aperitif. (What is an aperitif? I don’t know–but it fits in with my image). One thing I never would have associated with Europe is lack of reasons for people to visit or move there.

U.S. McCloy Fellows and hosts at Puckler's Castle in Cottbus

U.S. McCloy Fellows and hosts at Puckler’s Castle in Cottbus

Imagine my surprise when I was in the German city of Oldenburg in September, to hear the mayor voice his concerns over attracting talent to his city.

Oldenburg Mayor Prof. Dr. Gerd Schwandner

Oldenburg Mayor Prof. Dr. Gerd Schwandner

He is a fan of Richard Florida’s book Rise of the Creative Class on attracting talent, providing technology, and practicing tolerance. He incorporated the three “Ts” (talent, technology, and tolerance) to his vision of the city’s future. It struck me immediately that this mayor was avant garde. He wanted to get rid of the “good ol‘ boys network,” so he eradicated some previous traditions, such as changing the guest list for the opening day of a big market. He passed over mayors and other potentates in his region and in their place invited more women, more young people, and people from a mix of cultural backgrounds.

Town criers with U.S> McCloy Fellows at the opening of Kramermarkt

Town criers with U.S. McCloy Fellows at the opening of Kramermarkt

The mayor is invested in changing things in his city and making it more welcoming to people of different ethnicities. “The idea of tolerance and integration fits in perfectly with our self-conception. Oldenburg regards itself as a modern city in a modern society. We appreciate the communication and mutual exchange with people from all over the world, we seek and keep friendship with them. In return, they contribute new views and insights to our community and make our city a better place.”  The city has developed an integration pamphlet, and has a city department dedicated to integration, “The demographic development of Oldenburg shows that the city is dependent on the immigration of qualified workers from other countries.”

This went over like a ton of bricks. But he was savvy enough to realize that he couldn’t go full throttle with his vision—he needed to gently bring his citizens along with him. So, he added another “T” to the city’s motto: Tradition. The photo of the gentleman in “uniform” should clue you in on the city’s deep sense of tradition. This is the uniform of the town crier—the official who would go to the public square and announce the news of the day (like the town crier in London at the hospital announcing the birth of Prince William’s baby). The tradition is centuries old and people are not ready to chuck tradition yet.

This experience reinforced my belief in need for municipalities to think about their futures and how they are going to remain viable. Will all your young people move away and not come back? When they want to settle down and raise a family, what will draw them back to you? Will you have the amenities they desire? Because they will choose a place that offers what they want, and research shows they want technology, sustainability, walkability, a place that is welcoming to all, with art & culture. If European cities are concerned, Michigan cities should be concerned, too.

At the end of March, the League will be hosting four German fellows (through the McCloy Fellowship for Urban Affairs). Where will we take them? What will we show them? These were the questions that went through our minds. What we came up with is a behind-the scenes look at innovative projects in the city of Detroit. Detroit is crucial to a thriving Michigan, and it is getting a lot of international media coverage, and not the good kind. We are going to take this opportunity to show an international audience the Detroit that induces a passion in the people that love it—the sense of being able to make a difference, the perseverance of dogged individuals to make their city a better place.