Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What is ‘city’? A call to RESPOND!

As a planner, Detroit is challenging. I’m not talking about the challenge of coming up with solutions for a city riddled with meager infrastructure and social services, a shrinking population, little investment, and the skeletons of racism and numerous social injustices—though these are, without a doubt, urgent needs to address.

At its core, Detroit challenges our notion of what a city is. Mama Sandra from the Hush House posed this question to us on our first night in Detroit. She asked, “What is ‘city’?” What does it mean? What is it to you? To be honest, we were stumped. We are planners—students and lovers of the city—and yet, we could not easily articulate what our sense of ‘city’ is. Is it a human community of a certain size? Is it defined by the density of interactions it contains? Does it account for the ecological systems that support our human social and economic networks of survival?

Detroit is a city that, on the surface, contains elements of the non-city. Standing on a street corner with one or two lone homes in sight, the soft hush of grassy fields, and the quiet chirping of birds in the distance, Detroit often feels rural. Driving around Detroit, I constantly feel that I am approaching a city—I see the suburban indicators that a city is about to appear as I turn every corner. It rarely does. This is actually the most incomprehensible part of visiting Detroit: expecting to see the gaping holes in what was, I instead find it difficult to imagine what has been lost. Either way, my mind is blown not by visible and visceral signs of decay, but by the seeming incomprehensibility of contradictions. This may be because I am an outsider without a rich understanding of Detroit’s history, or it could be a wonderful tool of seeing what is as the fabric on which many possibilities can be built.

Why were we stumped?? Have we been so immersed in learning how to plan that we have forgotten—or forgotten how to articulate—just what we are planning for? Or, do we have a deeper understanding of what the city is, such that we can no longer use the flat and empty (academic) language we have been taught to describe the depth, complexity, and beauty of that which we recognize yet cannot name? Is defining less about the definition and more about the process of searching and reaching? If so, it is not important whether we agree or not. It is more significant that we can agree to engage in that process. This process of articulation—and the dialogue that accompanies it—is especially crucial in Detroit, whose future depends very much on how our notions of the city are stretched, pushed, defined, and unearthed. Only then can we understand what it means for a city to “die” or to “fail,” or even to “shrink,” all things commonly said about Detroit.

So, readers: What is your sense of ‘city’? How would you describe what it is, and what it isn’t? Post your comments here!


  1. Hey there, sounds like you're having an exciting trip. I'm not sure I have an answer for your question, but reading your blog has definitely given me some things to think about as well.

    (okay, and so I also wrote about your trip in the blog I write in at work)

    Hope the trip continues to go well, look forward to reading about the next city!

  2. Your questions are all well reasoned and articulated. The surface definitions seem not to be adaquate for a city such as Detroit that has been eviscerated by the myriad things you cited.

    Nevertheless, Detroit's situation begs some questions as to its origin, and I bet there might be some surprising insights to be had through an investigation of its maps as compared to the development of the automobile. As you indicate, Detroit is virtually devoid of any tranit infrastructure, which also lends to this sense of rural. I do not know Detroit's history but I suspect that its early development was tied closely to the water, while its spread was tied to its economic bread-and-butter, the car.

    Perhaps this is all self-evident. It seems eerily coincidental that the "ring-roads"(six-, seven-, and, yes, Eminem's eight-mile roads) radiate outward from the epicenter, like the rings of a blast zone (I heard that roads like these were created by the Eisenhower administration as ways of dispersing infrastructure just in case of nuclear attack. Does anyone know if this is true?). What's interesting about this is a homogeneity of almost-urban conditions that you cite in your post. The center is no longer the "center," except in a historical sense, and instead there is a decentralized network of strip malls and gas stations.

    Anyway, I know I have avoided answering your question, buit the specifics of Detroit, in terms of resident mobiltiy and infrastructure, make it an interesting case study.

    Pardon my rambling and keep up the good work!