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


Planning & Education Tough Talk

Thanks so much to everyone that came out for the Planners Network Tough Talk on Planning & Education on Tuesday! It was a great turnout with students from multiple disciplines: urban planning, education, social work, business, and public policy. We learned a lot from all of you and definitely want to keep the collaboration and exchange between urban planning and other disciplines going.

To that end, we’ve created a Google Drive folder (available here) where we invite attendees to post insightful/important research related to education reform. We hope to keep this conversation going, envisioning further ways planning students and professionals can collaborate with practitioners in other fields to create better schools for the communities we work in.

Michigan Planners Network volunteers in Flint

Flint water crisis

Flint resident LeeAnne Walters shows water samples from her home from January 15 and 21, 2015. Source.

On Sunday, February 14 a group of urban planning students (and one architect!) spent our Valentine’s Day volunteering in Flint. There has been a flurry of activity and conversation on campus around the Flint water crisis since the story began making headlines last year. The School of Public Health and School of Natural Resources in particular have been active in organizing educational opportunities to inform students, faculty, and the larger Ann Arbor community of the crisis and its implications. Planners Network also felt compelled to show our solidarity with Flint through service.

We spent the bitterly cold February afternoon canvassing with a collective of community organizers in a campaign called Flint Rising. This group is an impressive grassroots coalition of social workers, residents, and otherwise passionate individuals that got together to identify immediate needs as a result of the poisoned water and address them. Block by block, Flint Rising is sending canvassers to every door in the city, triaging, collecting information, and encouraging residents to come out to community meetings to have their voices heard.

Our job was to knock on doors and assess urgent needs–Do you have bottled water? Do you know where to get it? Do you have a water filter? Are you homebound? Are there any pregnant or breastfeeding women in the home?–and relay the information back to a rapid response team of social workers that would address the issues in a timely fashion.

We were humbled by the incredible spirit of the leaders organizing this effort. The city has been ignored and abused by people in power and local community members have stepped in to take care of one another. It’s a beautiful thing and we don’t think we could have spent our Valentine’s Day in a more loving way.


We know it can be overwhelming to know how to make an impact on top of an already brimming schedule, but there are still many ways to get involved if you are interested!

  • Flint Rising needs canvassers and people for data entry each weekend. You can sign up here to get on their email list for more details on helping out. Planners Network is also planning to canvass again, likely in March. Contact if you’d like to join us.
  • Students from the Architectural Representative Committee (ARC) at Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning are organizing a Habitat for Humanity project in Flint in the month of March. Contact ARC at to sign up.
  • A coalition of graduate students is planning a Teach-In for Flint later this semester bringing together a variety of disciplines to educate the larger University community on the water crisis. Contact Teona Williams at if you’d like to get involved in the planning process.

Hi from your new 2016-17 Steering Committee!

Hey everyone!

We’re super excited to be your Planners Network Steering Committee for 2016-17. Here’s a bit about us:


Cassie Hackel (Chair) is a first-year Master of Urban Planning student with a BA in Urban Studies from Vassar College. As an undergraduate, she first became interested in how the built environment shapes lives, and how citizens can be more involved and have a voice in the creation of urban spaces. She is passionate about the intersection of people and place, and is particularly interested in using urban planning to advance social equity. Cassie also works as a Sociospatial Analyst at PLASTARC, Inc., helping to create human-centered workplaces around the country.


Allison Kappeyne van de Coppello is a master of urban planning student passionate about social equity, community development and environmental justice. Prior to her time at Michigan, Allison was involved with YouthCARE a Minneapolis, MN based nonprofit organization that promotes multicultural and leadership opportunities for a diverse group 13-18 years olds. She wants to foster further awareness of diversity and inclusivity on and off campus. She understands that we are all continually learning and have different lived experiences, herself included, and hopes to advocate for racial equity and disparity awareness amongst her Michigan peers. Allison holds a Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies Sustainable Design from Macalester College.


Julianna Tschirhart is a first year Master of Urban Planning student hailing from Metro Detroit. Growing up in one of the most segregated metro areas in the country made her aware from a young age of the profound way race and place can shape identity and opportunity. She pursued these interests at Middlebury College in Vermont where she majored in Sociology & Anthropology. Before coming to Taubman, she worked in community development in Boston at the Mel King Institute for Community Building and at a transportation consulting firm in Detroit. She hopes to utilize the skills she gains in the planning program to bridge the socioeconomic, racial, and oftentimes psychological divide between the suburbs and the city of Detroit.