Wattrick: Writing On The Blank Slate -- Dave Bing Unveils Detroit Works 'Framework'

On Wednesday Mayor Dave Bing will unveil the Detroit Works Project long-term framework, or in layman’s terms, the most comprehensive Detroit-based grad school project in history.

Perhaps that’s unfair. When Detroit Works-niks talk about projecting what economic sectors will see job growth over the next decade and how Detroiters can be prepared for those jobs, one can see the value of this work.

When they talk about investing in modern environmental systems that can reduce the amount of storm water that needs to be processed in waste water system, DWP is offering practical ideas for a better-run city.

However, to get to all of that you have to unpack layers of jargon and abstract visioning that, frankly, are a big part of the reason Detroit Works has been so controversial. Everyday Detroiters haven’t the first clue what this will mean to their lives and their communities. Every time someone tries to explain it, they drown in polysyllabic quicksand.

“It is a framework, not a vision plan or master plan,” DWP’s planning guru Toni Griffith told reporters at a media briefing Tuesday.

The distinction between those things may be significant for planning professionals. For the average person who wants a city with working streetlights and responsive police, she may as well as speak in Klingon.

Reporters also learned Tuesday, for example, that Detroit should move from Euclidean zoning to "complete neighborhood typography" zoning. The departure from Euclidean zoning is something Detroiters have long hoped for, said no one ever.

Is it any wonder the Detroit Works efforts has been branded in the minds of many Detroiters as something akin to the genocidal removal of the Cherokee from their ancestral land. No one has ever defeated a demagogue with a lot of $10 words about leveraging things and shifting paradigms and creating processes. Truth only wins out when spoken plainly.

Plainly and truthfully, the work of Detroit Works is vital. The plan, err, framework, attempts to project Detroit’s land use and commercial needs over the next 20-50 years and offer ways to better manage a city that is expected to see its population bottom out at 600,000 around 2030.

As a political matter, a group of planners from the government and outside foundations talking about altering the nature of neighborhoods is a tough sell in a city that has seen vibrant communities like Paradise Valley and Poletown demolished for "progress" that actually diminished the city.

Based on Tuesday’s briefing, DWP staff isn’t comfortable talking about policies required to implement their vision. Absent a political strategy for implementing policy reforms, the Detroit Works Project is an academic exercise—good ideas, expressed in verbose language, left to collect dust on a shelf.

If the lack of a political solution is simply the result of a project managed to this point primarily by academics and wonks, then Bing’s announcement must be the beginning of a full-throated advocacy for using DWP to change the city for the better. 

Given the Bing Administration’s unfocused track record, and the general lack of political urgency to do anything in this town save building ballparks and incinerators, there’s no guarantee we will see the sort of significant political push necessary to win the hearts and minds of Detroit's remaining residents. 

Unless and until someone is willing to talk, plainly and practically, about implementing DWP’s framework, this entire effort was a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Graphic by Lauren Ann Davies and Jeff Wattrick

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