Recapping: BUILD 2017, Detroit, and fieldwork in New England

So I’m back from a fantastically busy and productive ten days in the United States.

Following a very short stop in Connecticut, I flew to Detroit, Michigan for the BUILD (Bilbao Urban Innovation Leadership Dialogues) conference, which was held by the German Marshall Fund.

I grew up in the New York tri-state area (high density urban development), after which I moved to New England (dispersed low density/rural development), and I now live in Europe (concentrated high density urban development). Flying into Detroit was therefore a surreal experience for me. Approaching from the east, you fly over thousands and thousands (and thousands!) of regularly laid out and more or less equally-sized “postage stamp” lots, each with an individual house. On our approach to the city, we must have flown over low density development like you see below for at least five minutes. As I learned later, the city of Detroit has an area of 139 square miles (360 square kilometers). Most of it looks like this.


My trip began with a tour of the downtown. Detroit is implementing place-making strategies in order to make the downtown more attractive, like this median-strip greenway.


The center of downtown is undergoing a serious facelift. What was once Section 8 (i.e. subsidized) housing, is now being converted to mid- to high-priced apartments. Here we see the last vacant building on this square undergoing renovation.


Of course, this type of shift in the makeup of downtown residents raises questions about equality. Detroit is a majority-black city (85% African American population) with majority-white suburbs, a situation which is the root of a lot of tension.

Near the end of our tour, we walked through a multi-purpose alleyway known as The Belt. In the morning, it’s full of delivery trucks. Then the pollards are raised and it is transformed into a pedestrian zone with street-side seating and plenty of street art.


Day 1 wrapped up with the BUILD 2017 opening reception at the Detroit Institute of Arts, in the fabulous Diego Rivera atrium.

Day 2 began with panel discussions and team-building exercises to get us familiarized with the topics at hand and each other. Our venue for the panel and podium discussions was the fabulous Garden Theater.


After lunch, it was off to the first breakout sessions. I was lucky enough to get a spot on the tactical urbanism breakout session, in which we brainstormed an adaptive reuse of the Cooper Creek power plant in small groups. The drive to the power plant included some of the scenes we’ve become familiar with from media representation of Detroit.


The design workshop was a fabulous experience. The energy and enthusiasm in the room was infectious. Unfortunately, we’ve been asked not to post any pictures, so I’m afraid I can’t share any visuals with you. Let’s just say that if DTE implements any of the ideas we came up with, Cooper Creek will become a new hot spot on the Detroit riverfront!

Day 2 ended with a breakout dinner at the Lincoln Street Art Park/Recycle Here, which is a combined resident-led recycling center and art park. It’s a complete commons AND an amazing example of community-led circular economy – no money ever changes hands and everything on the grounds is re-purposed out of waste. Our tour of the complex wrapped up with an amazing locally-sourced dinner in a re-purposed shipping container that is usually used for their youth outreach classes. Incredibly inspiring people and project! Many thanks to our hosts!

Day 3 began with a breakout session about co-creating the city at The Jam Handy. As you can see, we were all very enthusiastic!


The highly-diverse mix of participants made for a lively discussion about how to encourage participation and co-creation in urban contexts, who has a seat at the table, and how to reach groups that otherwise don’t get involved for whatever reason. Those topics were right up my alley!

On the second half of day 3, we regrouped at the Garden Theater for group discussions and the concluding panels. You can get a more detailed idea from the graphic recording.


My main take-home messages were: Vacancy is a resource, the problems are the same everywhere, and we have so much to learn from each other. I left incredibly inspired, both by the amazing participants and the amazing city of Detroit. The whole team from the GMF did a fabulous job – their great organization made it a flawless experience from beginning to end.


I had a few hours before my flight the next morning to get out and explore a bit. I went with a few colleagues from Germany to check out the Mies van der Rohe townhouses in Lafayette Park.


We also saw some amazing vacant properties in downtown. This abandoned early 20th century theater made the biggest impression on me.


I flew back to Connecticut inspired and ready to do some preliminary work for my new research project. I was lucky enough to get an interview with Barry Ganek of Carlisle, MA, an architect specialized in adaptive reuse in New England. He gave me a tour of one of his current projects, Abbot Mill, a former printing factory that is in the process of being transformed into housing units. The fabulous interior community spaces made the biggest impression on me – they were in use while we were there!

Finally, I was lucky enough to have a long interview with Will Wilkins, the director of Real Art Ways, a local art foundation in Hartford, CT. The discussion with him really drove home the fact that grassroots art movements face the same challenges all over. I’ll be interested to see how their situation, and the situation in Hartford in general, continues to develop.


After all that work, all that was left was to stuff myself on pie and turkey and spend a day or two with my family before heading back to Berlin.

It was a whirlwind trip, but one which has filled me with inspiration and impulses enough to get me through the short winter days here in Berlin.

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