The proceedings of “City Portrait. Detroit” international symposium

The portrait of Detroit is a proposal to reflect upon the paradigms of growth and urban development, by exploring the recent urban history of a city that for half a century was considered the metaphor of the “american dream”. Grown around the development of the manufacturing sector, Detroit faced a seventy-year-long process of shrinkage and decline bound to the weakening of the automotive system.

The impressive processes of deindustrialization, depletion and abandoment that have affected a great percentage of the Detroit area are partly the legacy of this breakdown. This significant condition is still ongoing today, and has been interpreted as the result of the pulling back of a system that for decades designed and shaped cityscape and local society. At the same time, the combination of some federal policies side effects, and the failure of several actions fostered at the local level, seem to have contributed to influence the city present state.

This situation of deep crisis has its clear spatial evidence in the alteration of the lands of the city, after a past season of urbanization, modification and layering of meanings, uses, values, identities. It is about almost 100 square kilometers of “non-virgin” territory, of unused, deserted, unpurposed “city-not-city” (“City/not”, Herron 2007).

The queries that emerge out of the Detroit case history question many theoretical fields. On the one hand it signals the urgent need to investigate on urban systems shrinkage and degrowth, on the reuse and the recycling of the built environment. On the other hand the reflection seems to cross more general regional and urban planning matters, dealing with the management and the design of “postmetropolises” (Soja, 2000), with the treatment of contemporary urban landscapes, and with the “city-ness” condition in present times (“City-ness”, Brenner 2009).

The Detroit portrait attempts to couple theoretical reflection to practice, suggesting a discussion that crosses the fields of experience, policy-making and planning. In this sense, the suggested frame considers those situations in which the spatial characters of urban crisis seem to play a prominent role also as a generative fact. In Detroit the management, treatment and use of vacant lands have in some cases played a proactive role, providing opportunities to generate new “visions” and development occasions. The spatial perspective seems to intertwine to new concepts for built environment, the structuring of innovative forms of dialogue between local actors, the appearing of new spaces for citizenship and the invention of original urban identities.

Despite the extra ordinary bearing of the Detroit experience, the american case history seems to strongly undermine some of the typical categories reasearchers have used to interpret local systems. The call for new keywords and new paradigms to understand spatial phenomena can have more general references, specially considering the recent global crisis and the effect it is generating on cities and regions all over the world. From this perspective, this city portrait intends to walk a path that moves from the peculiarities of the Detroit vicissitudes to build a dialogue with other contexts.

For these reasons the conference programme was organized around a series of contributions that try to immerse into specifical matters bound to the michigander city as much as spreading the results of their reflection embracing a wider frame. Some lecturers will focus their attention on the roots of the urban crisis, highlighting its causes, interpreting the criticalities and potentialities of the present state. Some others will offer a more comparative perspective aimed at framing the Detroit urban processes in its relationship with other urban experiences (american and european).

The outlined issues and questions guided the second section of the conference, focused on the “operational” dimension of policies, plans and projects for the “vacant city”. The aim was the collection, the comparison and the dialogue between practices, projects and experiences related to the deindustrialization, neglection and abandonment of urban segments, opening the reflection to the manifold reality of those cities of the world facing the different bearings of this kind of processes.

This combination of “voices” was achieved through the lauching of an international call for papers focused on urban reuse and recycling. The principal keywords being the ones originated by the framing of the Detroit case history, and a particular concern being conferred to planning and design practices dealing with degrowth and innovative local development strategies. The issues explored in this section of the conference were committed to investigate the informal and temporary dimensions, and the capability of this kind of actions on the urban environment to invent new uses, to foster place-making, to generate new urban identities as far as encouraging innovative ways to engage local society.


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Pratiche, progetti e politiche per la città dismessa
Edited by Chiara Lucchini
ISBN: 978-88-8202-059-0
Politecnico di Torino
Dipartimento di Architettura e Design
settembre 2017

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