In a city with 20 square miles of vacant land, roughly the size of Manhattan, it’s tough to find consensus on how to best repurpose this land and appropriately prepare for the future of a less-populated Detroit. Some wealthy individuals have their own plans for programs to reuse vacant space. For example, John Hantz is on a mission to buy abandoned, blighted lots on Detroit’s east side and fill them with trees and grass, and so far his project has planted over 20,000 trees on close to 2,000 vacant lots (source). Meanwhile, other initiatives such as Recovery Park Farm take a more community-based approach by hiring individuals facing barriers to employment to remove blight, grow produce, and generally revitalize the green spaces of Detroit’s lower east side. Meanwhile, the city has their own policies and plans for future land use.
The issue of land use in Detroit raises questions about the interactions between a small number of wealthy, white businessmen and the rest of the city. While some proponents of his plan trust Hantz to follow through on his promises and provide much-needed cash to the city while assisting in its blight removal project, others are less supportive of his plan. Criticisms include attacking Hantz for using volunteer labor to plant trees and his private property, and ironically “sympathizing” with the inability of the super-rich to always buy the land they want at the price they want it.
Dan Gilbert, likely the highest-profile businessman in Detroit, has done tremendous revitalization work downtown but is often criticized for expanding the holdings of “Gilbertville” while paying little attention to the struggles of the people outside of downtown Detroit’s 7.2 square miles. It is easy to praise Gilbert and Hantz for their work, but also easy to slot them into a “white savior complex.” With questions of race and class and considerations about the history of Detroit all swirling around together, it’s no easy task to decide on the best route to take.
Speaking as an outsider working in Detroit for the summer, it seems like a number of parties must work collaboratively to combat the issue of vacant land in Detroit. When investors, developers, community movements and the city government are all at odds in their attempts to remake this space, it inhibits progress. Still, this is a huge problem to tackle and raises issues both of best practices for use of space in the 21st century and of ownership of the space. Considering the wide range of interests surrounding Detroit's revitalization in the coming years, the way the city moves forwards to remake its unused space can either negate or highlight the disparity between who the city belongs to and who has control.
Joe Squillace is a junior at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He is a summer intern at the Corktown Economic Development Corporation and is interested in cities, energy, and computational sustainability.