Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Detroit School of Urban Studies?

Ooh, sounds cool, what is it?
A week ago I attended a forum at the University of Michigan on the question of whether it makes sense to establish a Detroit School of urban studies. First of all, that’s pretty damn fancy. Second, everybody in that room was geeking out over cities, which I found delightful.

photo by Carolyn Lusch--that's me
One panel member made the theoretical case for the new School—planning has traditionally been seen as managing growth, but Detroit is not growing. How does one use planning to manage shrinking or decline?

Another panelist added that Detroit is not on a path of returning the past; rather, the creation of something completely new. We all know that manufacturing in Detroit will never be what it was. Thus, revitalizing is not an appropriate word.

Ok, I’m with you for all that.

But what about…?
Something one of the members of the audience mentioned: it is a mistake to study Detroit in isolation from its surrounding areas. Being right in southeast Michigan makes us myopic—we see the area of interest as being forty miles away, when really it contains us.

photo by Ann Lusch
The word laboratory should never be used to describe a city (UW-Milwaukee, watch that). UM must avoid sending students into Detroit and letting them return (a few hours later or a semester later) thinking they’ve left the lab and gone home to an irrelevant, disconnected, insulated space.

We must care about the patterns of migration and transportation that encompass the whole region. We must concern ourselves with the inner ring suburbs whose residents are baffled by the recent demographic changes and influx of poverty. And please, let’s care about the almost hard to fathom rift between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti (more on this later).

Do it right
So, UM folks, do create a Detroit school. Bring a lot of smart people here to work on it. But start in Ann Arbor and work inwards. Ask why most Ann Arbor residents don’t consider themselves part of metro Detroit, and how we can move forward as a region when that’s the case. Consider the racial and socioeconomic tensions in Washtenaw County and look at how they fit into those same tensions regionally.

Be sensitive to your geographical baggage. Realize that you’re studying a living, breathing, incredibly complex system—and you are a part of it.


  1. You have some great points. And even the thought of a bunch of people sitting in Ann Arbor talking about a "school of Urban Studies" in Detroit in itself makes me feel a little ooky, especially when people in Ann Arbor are deciding that Detroit is not growing and not being revitalized... just because I am there every day and I see it growing and I see it being revitalized. (Then again, I'm still commuting out there from Ypsi... for now.) I'd love to see this program taught by people who live in Detroit, or who are from Detroit... and why not encourage your students to live out there during the program? (Because seriously, that commute is hell anyway.)

    1. Hey, couldn't have said it better myself! I think the "school," or whatever it is, might be most helpful by illuminating how representative metro Detroit is. One Wayne State prof claims Detroit is the "most American" region in the country, and while the nation encompasses a lot more things than capital flight, cars and spatially distributed inequality, I think that case could be made, at least for the past century.

      By the way, Saracita, do you see that growth as the dominant trend in Detroit? No doubt there's things going on downtown, but I'm not certain that's how most Detroiters are experiencing things. Just my two cents as another commuter!

    2. Sara, ooky is the word, alright! There is a program at UM in which students live in Detroit for a semester--but I'm skeptical of it, among other reasons, because it still seems to emphasize the separation between the two areas.

      Anyway, your blog is gorgeous! I love the pictures you've taken. How is teaching going? We should get together sometime. I'm in Ypsi so much for work.

  2. I think your conclusion is related to the comments offered at the event by Professors Lassiter and Campbell -- that a school of study that limits itself to a single municipality's boundaries is not valid. Chicago and LA are regions whose cultural and economic identities happen to be based in the core city by that name; similarly, a Detroit school must treat the core city as a namesake, rather than the sole limits of study.

    Certainly, part of the regional scope of a Detroit school of study must be the "raging localists" of Ann Arbor that you reference in an earlier post, as well as the "Oakland County denial" that Campbell offered, and the false-growth ring at the edge of the metro area that Lassiter referred to.