Detroit: Urban Renewal and the Great Recession

Photo by ifmuth -

The recession that began in 2007 technically ended in 2009, but you wouldn’t know it from visiting Detroit. The capital of U.S. auto manufacturing has been hit particularly hard, and stories of its plight during the economic downturn abound. Less reported, though, are the ideas and proposals put forth to return this city to its former glory. The urban renewal projects proposed are some of the latest in a long line of design projects that attempt to bring renewed prosperity and well being to the downtrodden sections of cities throughout the world. More on urban renewal and Detroit after the break.

© Jet Lowe / Wikimedia Commons

Urban renewal began as programs of reconstruction during the late 19th century, and was at its most intense during the period directly after the Second World War. It is primarily used to describe land redevelopment programs, and is often touted as an effective means to develop communities. Urban renewal projects are often undertaken to reclaim unused or downtrodden land within a city, land that could be valuable to its residents if redeveloped. These projects are normally backed by the government, and usually involve, among others, architects and urban planners. The value of urban renewal projects is often debated, as it can sometimes lead to gentrification and displacement of the poor. But when successful, they can be powerful examples of how good design can have a positive effect on a city.

© John O'Neil / Wikimedia Commons

One of the first successful urban renewal projects this century came in Pittsburgh during the 1950’s. Beforehand, the city had a reputation as being unclean and poor, a place that had boomed during the Industrial Revolution but was now left by the wayside for more prosperous and inviting places. With the influence of R.K. Mellon, of Carnegie-Mellon University, the city undertook a large urban renewal program for its downtown area. This included demolishing many old buildings to build modern office towers, a sports arena, public parks and promenades. This new Golden Triangle, at the confluence of the Alleghany and Monongahela, became the new riverfront destination for Pittsburgh’s residents. This city, which was formerly known chiefly for its urban blight, became a successful example of the transformative nature of urban renewal.

Photo by DeathByBokeh -

An even more ambitious and extensive urban renewal project is currently being undertaken in Hamburg, Germany. This project, called HafenCity, began in the 2000, and by the time it is completed in 2025 it will increase the city center area of Hamburg by 40%. The projects within include residential, commercial, mixed-use, and public buildings, all contained within one master plan.

© MissyWegner / Wikimedia Commons

The area that HafenCity occupies now and in the future was a former fringe zone for the dockyards in Hamburg, an area that was overgrown and overlooked for decades. In bringing architects and urban designers such as Herzog & de Meuron, Spengler Wiescholek, and Behnisch Architekten, to rebuild and renew this section of the city, Hamburg is creating a new destination for its residents and visitors.

© Kevin Gerrity

The city that most clearly needs an influx of new ideas and new money to help renew and redevelop is Detroit. After reaping the benefits of the automobile boom in the 1950’s and 60’s, the city has recently become the prime example of urban blight and neglect. But this also means that Detroit has many potential areas for ambitious urban renewal projects, projects that provide hope to the city’s residents. The most successful of these projects has been the redevelopment of the downtown area. With the building of a new sports stadium and new residential and commercial buildings, the downtown of Detroit has seen revitalization efforts that benefit the citizens of the city. One of the more far-reaching of the urban renewal proposals involves demolishing thousands of empty houses within the city, in an effort to reduce the crime and revitalize the neighborhoods. And while no concrete plans have been put in motion to rebuild on these now-empty plots of land, they have the potential for renewal that can reinvigorate the city.

Photo by buckshot.jones -

In all, urban renewal can be a beneficial strategy to redevelop land within a city for positive gain. It helps to transform areas that have been an eyesore, and brings renewed prosperity to the residents. Most important of all, urban renewal gives cities like Detroit hope that things can change for the better. That even though they are in the midst of tough economic times, new projects are being proposed that show just how much people are invested in their city.

Photographs: Flickr: ifmuth, buckshot.jones, DeathByBokeh, Wikimedia: MissyWegner, John O’Neil, Jet Lowe
References: Stateline, Chicago History, New York Times

Cite: Gerrity, Kevin. "Detroit: Urban Renewal and the Great Recession" 30 Aug 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed 18 Sep 2014. <>


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    Those urban renewal projects in Detroit are like putting expensive make-up on a person in a coma.

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    Detroit has its problems but it’s still a region of over 5 million people, with a GDP about the same as Toronto’s. Obviously Detroit isn’t Toronto, but the point is that even after its decline, Detroit still has a lot of stuff going on, and improving it is worthwhile.

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      Jason, in case you haven’t noticed – the article and my comment are about the _city_ of Detroit and its downtown – not the Detroit region, not the Metro area, not the Greater Detroit, not the Tri-County. The city has a 700,000+ population, out of which 34% live below the poverty line – one of the highest percentages in the country. On the other hand in the region you mention are some of the most affluent cities in the States – Bloomfield Hills, the Grosse Pointe’s (all 5 of them),Royal Oak, etc. The striking contrast between adjacent poverty and wealth, between urban blight and urban luxury is probably unique in the US. As long as this abnormality exists, no urban renewal project will actually succeed.
      As I said – Detroit is like a person in coma, surrounded by people, having the party of their lives.

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        BlogHouse, you speak as you know a bit about the city. But I’d like to reiterate Jason’s point: ‘Detroit still has a lot of stuff going on, and improving it is worthwhile’.

        Just because the improvements don’t look like any of the rich suburbs, doesn’t mean things aren’t happening. If you take a closer look at what is happening, and understand the obstacles of inertia in urban development, you should be that much more impressed.

        In response to this article, I don’t think anything at the scale the author has in mind could or should happen. A development (‘renewal’ has a bad history in this city that I think the author may be unaware of) like this is unsustainable, in the social and economic sense in that the critical mass necessary to enable the scope envisioned here is not in place. Possibly at some point in the future, but until then ‘renewal’ will continue on at the appropriate scale of single buildings and possibly blocks, no bigger.

        A discussion about the appropriate urban theory applicable to the situation would have been a better story here. Large physical interventions are just impractical in the conditions existing here. Projects inspired and underpinned by ‘everyday urbanism’ are appropriate, even if they don’t evoke the desired awe factor that it seems like the practice is seeking.

        And to bring this back to you BlogHouse, these are the projects that are and have been successfully going on here in the ‘city’ proper, even if they pale in comparison to other cities. Which makes it worthwhile to continue the efforts.

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