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A Tale of Two Cities: urban development strategies in Detroit, Michigan & Naples, Italy

Posted by Natalie in Environment | Places | Society - 20 November 2012

Detroit, Michigan and Naples, Italy are two very different cities with diverse challenges in urban regeneration. Yet remarkable parallels can be drawn between their development strategies – and what’s more, they seem to be working.

Lafayette Greens urban gardens, Detroit

At first glance, the cities of Detroit, Michigan and Naples, Italy could not seem more different. The former, a chilly high-rise metropolis flush with the Canadian border in America’s lacustrine midwest; the latter, an ancient coastal city with UNESCO heritage status, lapped by the balmy Mediterranean. Look a little closer, however, and similarities begin to emerge. Thanks to a truly globalised economy, these two disparate cities sit at the bleeding edge of their respective countries’ social and financial crises, poster children of our post-capitalist discontent.

Detroit’s Deputy Mayor, Kirk Lewis, and Mayor Luigi de Magistris of Naples both outlined their myriad challenges and working solutions at the Urban Energies Congress in Berlin last month. Organised by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development, the Congress marked five years since the Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities, and aimed to not only take stock of the last half decade’s progress but also draw learnings from wider global scenarios.

Michigan’s largest metropolis, Detroit has a shrinking population. In 1950, at the height of its success as capital of the US automobile industry and heartland of Motown Records, the city had a population density of 21 people per acre. In 2010, that figure had reduced to just eight. Foreclosures are rife, with one in 30 homes repossessed, leaving over 80 thousand domestic vacant lots, in addition to the 105 thousand abandoned industrial spaces.

A perfect storm of soaring unemployment (the inhabitant to job ratio is 4:1), a struggling education system (125 schools have closed since 2007) and stagnant public services has further contributed to mass migration from the former boomtown, leaving Mayor Dave Bing’s administration with a gaping hole in their tax revenue. Exacerbated by this deficit, along with the global financial crisis that is both its cause and effect, a feedback loop ensues, dragging Detroit into a downward spiral; its citizens’ morale at an all-time low.

From one motor city to another: just over 4500 miles away at the foot of Italy’s mighty Mount Vesuvius, Naples is the country’s third largest municipality. Despite its standing as one of the Mediterranean’s most important ports, as well as a popular tourist destination, Naples continues to battle with heavily congested streets, unemployment and – most famously – organised crime. Hard hit by Italy’s Eurozone debts, the city itself is home to just under one million people, around a quarter of whom are jobless.

Faced with these undeniably dire urban development challenges, the Mayor’s Office of both metropolises made similar decisions, a fact which stands to reason: in the absence of a substantial monetary budget, they looked at other available assets and seized upon the one piece of capital to hand – public land.

66,000 of Detroit’s vacant industrial lots are publicly owned, which adds up to a significant amount of land. Though some of the space was auctioned off last year as part of a revenue generation strategy by Wayne County, much of the remainder presents what the administration sees as a tremendous opportunity.

After tearing down the dilapidated buildings, public land is being used to encourage growth through “community cohesion areas”. Detroit has seen new industries in urban agriculture and community gardening emerge and succeed on plots that used to house factories and processing plants. Providing not only employment but also affordable, locally produced, healthy food, Detroit’s urban agriculture movement has proved exemplary, drawing attention from across America as a pragmatic solution to a multifaceted problem.

In addition, land conversion has led to successful projects such as the Dequindre Cut, a former railway line turned urban recreation path; the Eastern Market, a local food market of over 250 independent vendors (many selling produce from the urban agriculture projects); and Belle Isle Park, a 982-acre island in the Detroit River with a nature centre and swimming beach.

Of course, this reinvigoration of public land comprises only a small part of the Bing administration’s necessarily complex urban development strategy, yet its scope is surprisingly wide – not least due to its potential for positive social interaction, which in turn leads to a sense of pride and place, increasing morale and finally putting that negative feedback loop into reverse. As Deputy Mayor Lewis himself points out, “Transforming Detroit will only work if everyone is involved”.

Mayor de Magistris of Naples is similarly enthusiastic about how the reinvention of public space can harness human capital, which can then be effectively employed to combat challenges that money alone has previously tried – and failed – to overcome. Frustrated by the dominance of motor vehicles on the streets of an already overcrowded city with an outdated infrastructure, de Magistris decided to temporarily pedestrianise Via Caracciolo, 5km of Naples’ most valuable but most congested coastline – a move which provoked powerful opposition from local businesses and Camorra bosses.

Naples' new cycle path

At the same time, the Neapolitan administration installed a 27km-long cycle path along the coastline as part of a wider sustainable mobility network. De Magistris believes that the creative use of public space can even be used to combat criminality, by strengthening civil society. In his words, “Cities become safe when people are out on the streets; crime is overcome by culture”.

Though some may accuse the Mayor – who was elected in summer 2011 – of idealism, no one is more surprised than he at the transformative power of developing public spaces. “I was a judge for 15 years, and could never have imagined something like this as a solution”, he said. Indeed, Via Caracciolo is now permanently pedestrianised, creating the longed-for Lungomare, or seafront promenade, essential for any serious Italian coastal city. Revenue from tourism has increased by 10 percent, silencing the complaints of previously oppositional factions, and vindicating the Mayor’s refusal to bow to intimidation tactics. Purchase of bikes has increased since the cycle path path was installed, with delighted citizens reporting savings of up to €500 per month in petrol.

Problems persist, of course, in Naples as in Detroit, and it is clear that there is no silver bullet for sustainable urban development. What is true, however, is that public access to beautiful spaces can and does act as a catalyst to economic development, provoking the pride of current inhabitants and the interest of potential investors, both residential and industrial. The lack of economic capital, though undoubtedly damaging, has encouraged the emergence of creative solutions based on human capital, encouraging a return to local, decentralised modes of production that also happen to be key elements of a sustainable urban lifestyle.

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