Environment Picture

Do I stay or do I go?

MEC’s Sandra Turner-Handy sees reason for hope in Detroit Future City recommendations
Sandra Turner-Handy's Eastside Detroit neighborhood
Living in a Detroit neighborhood devastated by vacant lots and abandoned eyesores, my chief dilemma is the same one shared by my neighbors: Do I leave the city I love, or do I stay?

That question remains to be answered, but a dynamic new set of Detroit Future City recommendations has given us hope that—if we stay—there is a real and tangible prospect of re-inventing a stronger, safer and more vibrant Detroit.

The fact that I served as a process leader and ambassador for the Detroit Works Project that produced the Future City recommendations makes it even more gratifying to see a real plan for moving Detroit forward.

Let me start from the beginning.

In 2010, Mayor Dave Bing announced the Detroit Works Project (DWP) as a means to revitalize the City of Detroit. A steering committee of community leaders was formed, along with an intra-agency workgroup and a Mayor’s Advisory Taskforce representing different entities in the city. A series of poorly planned and executed meetings resulted in hot tempers and screaming matches about crime, non-working streetlights, and the diminished capacity of other city services.

In the fall of 2011, the DWP split into two tracks. The short-term track focused on the immediate needs of improving city services and was headed by the City of Detroit.

The long-term track was split into a technical team headed by urban planners and led by New York urban planner Toni Griffin and Detroit architectural firm Hamilton & Anderson. There was a civic engagement team headed by the University of Detroit’s Detroit Collaborative Design Center and Michigan Community Resources.

Its goal was to develop a strategic framework for improving the quality of life for Detroiters in areas that include safety, health, education, prosperity and income, mobility, environment, recreation, and housing. The recommendations were to revolve around the six elements of Economic Growth, City Systems/Environment, Land Use, Public Land, Neighborhoods, and Civic Engagement.

The Civic Engagement team created three arms of engagement: process leaders, ambassadors, and the street team. Process leaders were members of non-profits who had a history of organizing in the city. The ambassadors were a group of Detroiters responsible for spreading the word about DWP. The street team was the on-the-ground, one-on-one group.

I was honored to be selected as a process leader and ambassador.

Through this work, we shaped an engagement process that was true and authentic—a process that would change the dialogue from contentious to cooperative, and reinvigorate the powers of involvement and participation. A process that was made possible by generous grants from, primarily, the Kresge Foundation whose mission includes assisting in the revitalization of Detroit, creating access and opportunity in underserved communities, and improving the health of low-income people.

For me, this positive process was important not just for the project—but on a deeply personal level. I live in one of the high vacancy areas where I can look out my back window and see four blocks over because of all the vacant land. My neighborhood has depopulated over the last 10 to 15 years, leaving vacant and uninhabitable structures. Crime is the number one employer in my neighborhood.

Working with like-minded Detroiters to shape a comprehensive vision for a better city gives me hope—a far better use of time and skills than shouting about darkened street lights and unresponsive emergency services.

Buoyed with new hope, I helped create a series of community conversations in all areas of the city. The conversations centered on assets and strengths of the neighborhoods and city. Attendance varied in each area at each meeting. Some meetings had 100+ residents; others had fewer than 50.

The citizen input at these meetings was extraordinary. Never in my lifetime had residents been given the chance to give vital input that was actually going to be used for more than window dressing.

Various engagement tactics were used. Issue-based roundtables hosted residents across the city. A roaming team gathered input from residents at bus stops, block clubs and businesses. Residents participated in a tele-Town Hall meeting and submitted thoughts through a 24/7 online gaming tool.

All told, more than 163,000 residents were engaged in the process.

The recommendations are public, and many wonder what the next steps are. Implementation plans are currently being developed. Once the alignment of projects and city services with jobs and education is completed, we may see Detroit as the Future City.

The process has included residents in decision-making and made quality of life a priority. It is up to all of us to ensure that it leads to measurable outcomes for a healthier, safer, more vibrant city.

 Lifelong Detroit resident Sandra Turner-Handy is community outreach director for the Michigan Environmental Council.

How to be involved
  • For information on how to get involved in Detroit Future City, call 313-259-4407 or stop by Home Base at 2929 Russell in the Eastern Market.
  • View the recommendations at www.detroitworksproject.com.
  • Stop by a neighborhood Detroit Public Library branch to review a copy.
  • Invite a Detroit Future City representative to your meeting.
-Sandra Turner-Handy
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