Detroit: A city of urban planning and hope

Over the past several months, a group of University of Michigan Urban and Regional Planning graduate students developed and coordinated a series of workshops to introduce high school and undergraduate students to the interdisciplinary nature of urban planning. The goals of the workshops were:

  • To improve diversity in the field of urban and regional planning 
  • To improve the climate of Taubman Urban Planning Program
  • To help support recruitment of high school students into Morehouse College
  • To support recruitment of Morehouse  College students into the urban planning field

The program aimed to develop an ongoing, collaborative relationship between Taubman College and Morehouse College. U of M students included: Allison Kappeyne van de Coppello, Sonja Karnovsky, Erika Linenfelser, Rosie Pahl Donaldson, Alex Ramirez, Bithia Ratnasamy, Frank Romo, Jermaine Ruffin, and Charisma Thapa. Morehouse College students included: Thierry Attis, Demarius Brinkley, Samuel Buchanan, Kip Darden, Robert Johnson, Lewis Miles, Ronnie Mosley, and Lutalo Sanifu. The following was written by one of the Morehouse students who visited Ann Arbor to work with U of M students, reflecting on his experience.

Samuel Buchanan, Junior Spanish Major at Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA

March 17, 2016


Samuel Buchanan, Morehouse College Junior

On March 9th, I departed from the vibrant and celebrated city of Atlanta to a city that was allegedly desolate and broken.  “You’re going to Detroit! … Why?” my peers asked me, dubious that I would find anything worthwhile.

Nevertheless, I was hopeful and had signed up for a four-day trip to the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning to learn about the city of Detroit and the field of urban planning.

Before the trip, I had little knowledge about Detroit and even less about urban planning. What is urban planning? What is an urban planner? What does an urban planner do? Likewise, the same questions permeated my mind about Detroit. What is Detroit? What does a Detroiter do?

Eager to learn the aforementioned, I set out to spend a day in Detroit with Urban Planning students from Taubman College to explore the city via urban planning. Our day began with us hosting a workshop for students at Cass Tech High School. There, we introduced the students to urban planning through various hands-on activities, which comprised of the high-schoolers giving their opinion on ‘What makes a good city?’, drawing a map of their neighborhoods and constructing a safe space in their community where they could engage in political activism.  

The workshop was both a rewarding and an informative experience. In the workshop, we saw how aware the students were of their communities and their sense of solidarity. One of the students told us how the people in her neighborhood united to build a community garden where there was once an abandoned home.  Another student mentioned how the people in his community got together to prevent violence from entering their neighborhood.


Morehouse College students, Samuel Buchanan & Demarius Brinkley, lead urban planning workshops at Cass Technical High School in Detroit, MI

These stories showed us how united and engaged many Detroit citizens are in bettering their environment (how they affect their environment).

Likewise, we also learned the inverse. We learned of the food deserts that exist in many neighborhoods, how most of those neighborhoods have houses that are abandoned and burned down and how many street corners are occupied by liquor stores (how their environment affects them). The lack of equity and resources demonstrated the need for good urban planning in many Detroit communities.

After the workshop, we walked around the city of Detroit along Woodward Street towards downtown. Many blocks stood out for their excess of abandoned and demolished buildings. On the contrary, there was Detroit’s downtown area. Upon entering downtown Detroit, I was shocked by the immediate shift. The abandoned buildings no longer occupied every block. Instead, the streets were filled with businesses, occupied buildings, and gentrification. It surprised me how quickly the racial and economic identity of the area shifted, within a matter of blocks.

In the downtown area, there was a high concentration of businesses, wealth and employment. However, the majority of the individuals who occupied downtown Detroit did not represent the majority of Detroit. According to, 82% of people who live in Detroit are black, (whereas the individuals seen downtown are not that). This phenomenon of opportunity and wealth being displaced from urban communities where there is a higher concentration of low-income families and minority groups to more lucrative and gentrified communities explains some of the issues that many Detroit citizens are facing right now.



University of Michigan Professor, June Manning Thomas, leads a downtown Detroit, MI tour for Morehouse College students

Dr. June Manning Thomas, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning speaks on the issue of employment in Detroit. When asked what she believes is the biggest problem that Detroit is facing in regards to urban planning, Dr. Thomas mentioned, Having jobs. If people don’t have jobs to support themselves and their families, they cannot pay their taxes; thus, they can’t support their community.

Overall, I learned a lot about Detroit and urban planning. I learned how sensitive Detroit citizens are to their environment, which explains their need to unite and better their community. I also learned about initiatives that some urban planners have started to better the community (e.g. the Detroit Training Center). However, I still do not fully understand the current circumstance of Detroit and the role of urban planner in a city. Therefore, I want to hear from you:

  • What do you believe is the biggest problem that Detroit is facing in regards to urban planning?
  • How can urban planners work with the citizens of Detroit to better the condition of the city?
  • What role does urban planning play in the issue in Flint, Michigan?
  • How can one get involved in urban planning in their own city?
  • What made you choose to get involved in urban planning?
michigan morehouse

University of Michigan and Morehouse College students. Top Row L to R: Sonja, Allison, Ronnie, Thierry, Erika, Kip. Bottom Row L to R: Lutalo, Alex, Samuel, Demarius, Frank, Lewis, Rosie, Robert.

morehouse group

Morehouse College students at University of Michigan for their spring break trip: Demarius, Lutalo, Robert, Samuel, Ronnie, Thierry, Lewis, Kip.

Note: Photos taken by Lewis Miles & Allison Kappeyne van de Coppello


One thought on “Detroit: A city of urban planning and hope

  1. Samuel Buchanan from Morehouse College, posed some questions for the Urban Planning Master Students at Michigan. He asked the following:
    -What do you believe is the biggest problem that Detroit is facing in regards to urban planning?
    -How can urban planners work with the citizens of Detroit to better the condition of the city?
    -What role does urban planning play in the issue in Flint, Michigan?
    -How can one get involved in urban planning in their own city?
    -What made you choose to get involved in urban planning?

    First-year, Russell Pildes, is concentrating in Transportation Planning and naturally responds to these questions from an economic approach:

    “The world is run by those who show up.” I try to keep myself away from thinking of planning as a separate activity from regular citizenship. Planners are professionals with expert skills, true, but planning is one way of looking at the social, political, environmental, and economic choices we each make every day. These choices are as banal as the coffee you drink in the morning: purchasing an 8oz cup of coffee commands a multi-billion dollar transnational supply chain which produced thousands of tons of CO2 emissions and used millions of gallons of water. The number of people ordering fairly vs. unfairly traded coffee in the US helps determine the wages of millions of people who harvest the beans, and the relative wealth of those workers can feed into political processes which produce oppressive autocracy or support liberated democracy. This holds in local choices too: choosing to spend money in your own community raises revenues to fund schools and fix infrastructure, and thereby (re)enfranchises you and your neighbors. Choosing to take the bus, walk, ride your bike instead of drive alone reduces greenhouse gas emissions all along the chain of production of gasoline and cars, which mitigates habitat loss due to climate change so the coffee growers retain their livelihood, not to mention that it signals the need for more alternative transportation.

    Something deliberate enabled each of these actions to take place, starting with personal choices. The land use regulations which allowed for a neighborhood coffeeshop and other new industries to take root were voted on by an elected city council. The community which can exist around neighborhood institutions like a coffeeshop is created through use. The relationship between the US and Peru for the coffee beans was enabled through trade policies set by the federal departments directed by the presidents and congresses. The tax policy which collects and allocates revenues to pay for teachers and textbooks in Detroit is created by elected officials in local and state government.

    Our representatives chart the course, but since we select them, we get to pick the course. That we believe in a better “course” is the rationale for planning. I believe that because we get to choose, the planners and the people are not separate.

    So while I think the question, “how can planners work with people” is important, I believe the question, “how can people mobilize planners and planning toward their needs” is just as important. I believe that the situation in Flint, in Detroit, and (based on the discourse of the current presidential election) in the US broadly has occurred because somewhere along the line the people became disconnected from planning their places. Perhaps they weren’t connected to begin with. But planning affects us whether we show up or not, and so it becomes our duty to start owning that process in our daily lives. How can we better the condition of Detroit? Planners need to return to the people, absolutely. But the people need to demand specifics from planners. The DPS teachers’ sick-out earlier this year is an example of choosing to call attention to problems, and negotiating for a solution. Get to know your neighbors. Play in the street. Read the newspaper and follow what’s happening in your place and in other places, too. Go to the public meetings, and require they hold one you can attend. Listen. Vote for your neighbor who is running for neighborhood commissioner, or run yourself. Organize, mobilize, persist, suggest improvements, and while we should keep our critical edge, don’t fear costs outright. If positive change is what we want and need, we need to dive in headlong.

    Russell Pildes
    Master of Urban and Regional Planning, expected 2017


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