Detroit 2025: a model of urban life

  • Opening illustration courtesy of Detroit Collaborative Design Centre and Michael van Valkenburgh Associates
  • Renowned landscape architect Michael van Valkenburgh saw opportunity in Detroit’s decline. Portrait by Sarah Shatz
  • The city wanted the 325 000 m Packard Plant removed in 2012. The Bloody Run project turned it into a retail and recreation centre.
  • Concept rendering by Vladimir Shelest
  • Andy Didorosi built the Detroit Bus Co from scratch. Portrait by Sarah Shatz
  • Jeff Sturges set up a workshop in a church basement to teach tech and other skills as job prep. Portrait by Sarah Shatz
  • Clover McFadden started her clothing business with seed money from a local non-profit. Portrait by Sarah Shatz
  • Heart of the city restored in the mid-2000s, Campus Martius Park is a centre of activity, including outdoor screenings. Image credit: Getty Images
  • Downtown comes alive after dark, with numerous restaurants, bars, and clubs. Image credit: Getty Images
  • Preserved or restored architectural gems, such as the 1928 Guardian Building, recall Detroit’s first boom. Image credit: Kevin Cooley
  • Michigan Central Station. Concept rendering by Vladimir Shelest
Date:1 November 2012 Tags:, ,

The year is 2025. Detroit, the poster child of the Great Recession, is emerging as a model of urban life. The transformation could be called a miracle but for the fact that the change was wrought by the very things that first made Detroit great: innovation, industriousness and a will to win against all odds. By Bill Morris

The metamorphosis grew from desperation. In 2008, two of the Big Three carmakers were swirling toward the sinkhole of bankruptcy. The city’s population, which peaked at 1,85 million during the post-World War II car boom, was approaching 700 000. Tracts of wilderness, abandoned factories and empty houses sparked a perverse fascination with Detroit’s ruins. “This whole area really bottomed out,” William Clay “Bill” Ford Jr, Ford’s chairman and a great-grandson of the automotive company’s founder, says.

But then something powerful and unexpected happened: visionaries and ordinary citizens, tired of living in a crumbling city, decided to quit waiting for someone to fix it. “I think there was a realisation by everybody in this region, not just in Detroit, that the way we were doing things was a broken model,” Ford says. “At Ford we had to completely reinvent ourselves.”

The reinvention was aided by the group that Ford’s great-grandfather had resisted so viciously, the United Auto Workers (UAW). “When things were the bleakest,” Ford says, “UAW president Ron Gettelfinger and the union took concessions that allowed Ford to survive and ultimately thrive. Ron said to me, ‘Look, we’ve got to get out of this together.’ If you can take entrenched institutions like the car companies and the UAW and completely redefine the relationship, then it should be possible for the city of Detroit to do it too.”

That was Bill Ford’s epiphany; other Detroiters had their own. People with foresight and guts began investing in the city again. Detroit natives who had fled their broken hometown trickled back, joined by pioneering young people who saw past the city’s blight. Instead, they saw available buildings, cheap rents and a welcome mat for innovators. They saw an iron work ethic and fierce energy. And in a landscape ravaged by depopulation and decay, some bright people saw a blank canvas on which to paint a new urban model.

This is so strange. It’s opening day of the 2025 baseball season, but you’re not downtown at the Tigers game. You’re outside the previously derelict Packard Plant, now a retail and recreation centre with an outdoor theatre. At dusk people will gather here for a Detroit Film Festival offering.

You can hear the whoosh of traffic on the Edsel Ford Freeway as you settle into a kayak on a large pond known as the Headwaters.  is is the source of the pristine creek called Bloody Run that will carry you 5 kilometres to the Detroit River. The river once  owed through a pipe buried beneath a cityscape of stamping plants, car factories and dense residential neighbourhoods.  at aboveground world is gone, replaced by this and other liberated streams snaking through America’s greenest city.

On this future day the sun shines on Bloody Run Creek because of an effort to help nature reassert itself in Detroit. Restoring, or daylighting, city waterways has revived parts of London, Seoul, Zurich and even Kalamazoo, Michigan. In Detroit it was part of a plan devised by landscape architect Stephen Vogel and the Detroit Collaborative Design Centre at the University of Detroit Mercy. The Bloody Run Creek Green way Redevelopment Project, announced in 2011, has been a big factor in making Detroit the world’s first city to turn the theory of landscape urbanism into a reality.

The term landscape urbanism describes city planning that starts with parkland and natural features, not with a grid of streets and buildings. But it was largely notional until Vogel and others – notably, Michael van Valkenburgh, whose Brooklyn-based  rm designed the much-awarded Brooklyn Bridge Park as well as the transformative St Louis riverfront park – saw the decimation of Detroit as the chance for a paradigm shift.

At Van Valkenburgh’s firm, associate principal Gullivar Shepard led the team that devised a landscape-first plan. “It’s about finding a new urban form,” Shepard says.

“The proposed solutions of the 1970s and ’80s, where government was suggesting spending huge sums of money to revive Detroit, won’t work,” Van Valkenburgh says. “We have to go about it in scrappier ways. You clear a piece of land and natural growth occurs there; our premise in Detroit is about intervening in that process of revegetation – in effect, editing that process. The major scripting is going to happen on its own. Landscape architecture requires patience.”

Thirteen years after Van Valkenburgh makes those remarks, the city is dotted with mixed residential, commercial and industrial clusters; these are linked by wilderness and barbered green spaces, including farms and forests grown for biomass to feed neighbourhood-based gasification units that reduce reliance on the city’s energy grid. As proposed by Van Valkenburgh’s team, city buses double as people movers and transportation for popup markets to sell local produce.

Meanwhile, individual residents and non-pro ts have planted tens of thousands of trees, and a public-private partnership has turned more than 8 kilometres of neglected river front into the park where Bloody Run joins the Detroit River. Rid of its blighted buildings, its population rebounding, its economy no longer wholly dependent on the automotive industry, Detroit has fundamentally changed. Case in point is the waterway on which you’ve been kayaking, which exists because of R30 billion invested in the Bloody Run project.

Richard Baron put up a lot of that money. Born and raised in Detroit, he moved to St Louis, got rich in real estate, then felt compelled to help his hometown’s comeback. He staked much of his personal fortune on the vision of the likes of Vogel and Van Valkenburgh.

“The wheel has been reinvented,” Baron says. “This new landscape has become so attractive to residential, office and retail that it has brought in suppliers, small companies and start-ups. It has created new jobs and been a magnet to draw a new generation of CEOs who, rather than locating in the suburbs or fringe industrial parks, have come into the centre city.”

Stephen Vogel first envisaged this Detroit long before 2025, and the city has become what he foresaw: a model 21st-century metropolis unlike any other in the world.

Water city

The daylighting, or unearthing, of Bloody Run and other rivers makes water key to a core redevelopment of 1 400 hectares.

Green machine

Renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and bio-fuel production from urban forests greatly reduce dependence on an ageing power grid.

Good and wet

Urban waterways and wetlands provide opportunity for water cleansing by natural means, or bioremediation; storm-runoff management; and recreation.

Connect and build

Waterside paths and parks are used not only for play, but also for commuting. They link neighbourhoods and promote business development.

Urban farming

Agriculture becomes a small industry for Detroit. Farms export produce to surrounding areas and support a thriving locavore movement.

Infrastructure

The water-based redevelopment of Detroit leads to the construction of new bridges, the repair of old ones, and the refurbishing of adjacent streets.

Detroit Industry and Ecology

Industry

1701: Fur trade and export hub.

1864: Metal foundries proliferate; iron-stove industries flourishes.

1908: Model T production begins.

1913: Michigan Central Station (MCS) opens.

1929: Ambassador Bridge completed.

1939: Half of all US carmaking jobs located in Detroit.

1953: Corvette debuts.

1959: Motown churns out pop hits.

1967: Race riots.

1978: Auto industry employment hits record level of 242 842.

1980: GM reports $762.5 million loss.

1988: MCS closes; vandalism scars building.

2009: Gm files for bankruptcy.

Turning point

2010: Quicken Loans move HQ and  4 000 workers downtown.

2011: Gains posted by Ford ($20 billion) and GM ($8 billion).

2012: New international bridge approved.

2013: DIY movement and start-ups lead grassroots economic boom.

2014: Former city airport bought as site of Detroit Autodrome motorsports and auto-testing facility.

2015: Downtown booms with 15 000 new residents; heart of city is thriving business district and tech centre.

2016: Renovation of MCS begins.

2018: Construction of new international bridge begins.

2020: MCS renovation complete; boon to midtown Detroit.

2021: Detroit Autodrome opens with first in series of Formula One races.

2023: New bridge opens.

2030: Detroit becomes key US international trade hub.

Ecology

1701-1864: Hardwood forests (hickory, oak, American elm) and creeks such as Blood Run fill land.

1864-1908: Creeks filled in as sewer system is installed.

1929-1939: Deforestation occurs as housing and automotive industries boom.

1939-1953: Domesticated planting (Norway maple, catalpa, honey locust) alters landscape.

1978-1980: Decline of landscape as auto industry peaks and population drops.

1980-1988: Feral growth – Urban wilderness of prairie, sumac, and aspens emerges.

2011: Bloody Run Creek ecological master plan produced.

2013-2014: Managed growth – Developing wild landscape maintained by non-profit workers.

2015-2016: Enriched earth – Controlled burns add biochar to city soil, aiding growth.

2018-2020: Bio-fuel produced from urban tree farms (hybrid poplar, rapeseed).

2021-2023: Reforestation – Mature trees return (persimmon, pine, red cedar, black locus).

2 The business start-up boon

Andy Didorosi had a hunch in 2010. He felt that his hometown, given up for dead, was about to start a new life. Didorosi, 23 at the time, leased an old industrial building near the city’s northern limit. He posted a notice on Craigslist, hoping people would come to his big empty building to share tools and ideas, make stuff, and maybe start a small business or two. “The response was incredible,” he says. “Overnight we had enough tenants in here for it to make financial sense.”

The 2 000-square-metre facility he named Paper Street attracted graphic artists, jewellery-makers, Web designers, carpenters, metalworkers, a music publicist, a spice-maker and a motorcycle mechanic. They paid as little as $99 (about R820) a month for a work space; Didorosi added to the rental income by  refurbishing meat slicers and other equipment from bankrupt supermarkets and selling the appliances to new businesses. The money allowed him to buy three Blue Bird buses and start a jitney service to supplement city bus routes. Now, in 2025, Didorosi runs the thriving Detroit Bus Co, and 20-plus small businesses rent space at Paper Street.

Didorosi and Paper Street are emblematic of the DIY ethic that helped bring Detroit back. “It’s about starting a creative revolution instead of an industrial revolution,” he says.

A few blocks from Paper Street, a non-profit called i3Detroit is full of new and refurbished tools and machines – a CNC mill, a plasma metal cutter, a 3D printer, an oscilloscope, welding torches, a machine shop, a woodworking shop and a video-editing studio. Members pay about R300 or R725 per month, depending on their level of use, to make furniture, solder circuit boards, build bicycles and concoct robots.  e exchange of tools and ideas, and energy, is free. “I think of us as a pre-business incubator,” says Eric Merrill, a computer programmer and i3Detroit’s CEO. “If you had an idea for a widget, you used to have to pay a machine shop $10 000 to fabricate that widget. Now, for a few hundred bucks, you can make it here and see if it works. From there it’s easier to get backing.”

In 2012, that prevailing philosophy led Inc. magazine to dub Detroit Startup City. It earned the name because of the  proliferation of small-business incubators. Among these was TechShop, a national network of member-based workshops. It was another iteration of a model created by TechTown at Detroit’s Wayne State University in 2003.

Detroit native Clover McFadden is a TechTown success story. After graduating from Renaissance High School on the city’s northwest side, she earned a degree from Howard University in Washington DC and dreamed of becoming a doctor. But on a return trip to Detroit she discovered Bizdom, which grooms aspiring entrepreneurs at TechTown. McFadden enrolled, developed a business plan, and successfully pitched investors. Her business, Circa 1837, produces and sells clothing adorned with school logos of the nation’s traditionally black universities, such as Howard.

“People told me I was crazy to start a business in Detroit, but I think the exact opposite,” McFadden says. “There are so many people here who want to see you succeed.”

John Kushigian is one of them. Like McFadden, he was born in Detroit and moved away to go to university and start a career. He had a tech-related job in San Francisco, where he also took up furniture and cabinet making. In 1990, he returned to his hometown. “I’d been wanting to do something to help Detroit, something that involved woodworking,” Kushigian says.

One spring afternoon, Kushigian visited Barry Randolph, pastor of the Church of the Messiah. Kushigian’s eyes lit up when he saw the spacious church basement, where another Detroiter, Je Sturges had already set up shop for people to work on bicycles, appliances, and computers to screen-print clothing, do Web design, and edit audio and video. Kushigian asked whether he could add carpentry to the mix. “Barry gave me a three-word answer: ‘Go for it.’”

Soon people from ages 5 to 88 were flocking to the DIY space, using the equipment Sturges and Kushigian had purchased. Today dozens of people are learning skills to prepare them for the workforce. “A couple of teenagers discovered that our computers had the GarageBand app for simple music production, and they figured it out. Then they started spending 5, 6 hours a day writing lyrics. Now a local Internet radio station is interested in their work,” Kushigian says. The young men are on their way.

“Detroit for years, during its decline, had been hoping for a corporate messiah,” Kushigian says. “The city finally gave up on that. I’m from Detroit, I escaped Detroit, and yet I came back. Why? Because there’s an energy, a lit-up, beefed-up energy, a mental aliveness to Detroit. A lot of people here have a fire burning inside. My feeling is that the messiah is us.”

People learn new skills, build prototypes, and hatch business plans at DIY collectives.

Successful pitches to non-profit venture-capital firms earn seed money, and start-ups proliferate.

3 Downtown renewal

In 1805, fire levelled downtown, making way for a building boom there decades later.

In 2010, investors began buying and renovating historic downtown buildings, attracting residents and businesses to the neighbourhood.

Here it is, 2025, and Dan Gilbert still feels a pinch of incredulity when he looks out his office window at the bustling streets of downtown Detroit. Less than 20 years ago, this part of the city was a ghost town. Now office workers fill the sidewalks during the day, and at night the walks are alive with people going to restaurants and bars, theatres and nightclubs, art galleries and sporting events. Many of these people not only work, but also live downtown. That’s all because Gilbert, founder and chairman of Quicken Loans and owner of several other businesses, teamed up with a few ambitious souls and decided to take a chance.

It was 2010. Gilbert, the son of a Detroit bar owner, had spent the previous 25 years building Quicken Loans into the USA’s largest on-line mortgage lender. The company, based in the Detroit suburbs, had more than 4 000 employees. Gilbert’s decision to move his business to downtown Detroit bucked the historical trend of city-based firms relocating to suburban office parks. Gilbert says he made the move not just out of altruism, but because it made business sense. “They were having a skyscraper sale in Detroit,” he says. He snagged a bushel of buildings, some of them historic landmarks, at rock-bottom prices, plus a parking lot and four garages.

Soon Gilbert’s office and retail space began filling up with a variety of businesses, notably tech start-ups, which were key to his strategy to turn Detroit into the Silicon Valley of the Midwest. “Wealth is created by brains today,” he says. “It’s not muscle anymore.”

His strategy is so successful that downtown living spaces fill up, and people begin spilling into adjacent neighbourhoods. “People are moving here because it’s where the action is,” Gilbert says. “The big sell is that they’re making a change in this town.”

Downtown Detroit’s vitality was presaged by the construction of the Compuware Building in 2003. Peter Karmanos Jr, the co-founder of Compuware, promptly moved 4 000 employees from the suburbs to the new 15-storey tower. This influx of talent planted Detroit’s flag as a future high-tech centre.

Companies such as GalaxE. Solutions, a healthcare-industry software developer, joined the downtown Detroit club in 2011, when CEO Tim Bryan placed his 2 000 employees in a building that had been acquired by Gilbert and his partners. Bryan tips his hat to the people and businesses who led the way. “Peter Karmanos, Mike Ilitch, Dan Gilbert, GM, the Fords – they’re the reason I chose to locate here.  ey made the investment. I came here as an outsider because of those insiders.”

4 The Detroit Autodrome

After incurring losses of more than $1 million a year, the city airport was eliminated from Detroit’s 2012-2013 budget.

The facility’s runways and other infrastructure make it ideal as an automotive proving ground and racetrack.

Nothing could be more appropriate in the motor city: take a defunct 100-hectare municipal airport and turn it into a motorsport mecca. That was the brainstorm that Larry Webster – editor-in-chief of Road & Track, a brother publication of Popular Mechanics – had in 2012.

It was natural for Webster, a racing driver long before he was a magazine editor, to see the opportunity presented by the Coleman A Young International Airport, which had its last commercial flight in 2000. Webster floated the idea to local oofficials and business leaders, and investors lined up to back the autodrome project, which hosts Formula One and other races, serves as an automotive proving ground, and feeds Detroit with a new source of revenue. Now hangars that once sheltered planes house dozens of car-related businesses, and the runways are racing lanes.

5 Michigan Central Station shuttered

The 1913 building was designed by the firms that drew the plans for New York’s Grand Central Terminal.

In 1975, MCS was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

High projected costs to raze MCS helped to save it.

In 1988 and marred by vandalism and graffiti, Michigan Central Station (MCS) once provided glaring evidence of Detroit’s lost grandeur and rococo decay. But decades of talk about razing the landmark 1913 building fell silent in 2012, and those who clung to the belief that it could be restored were proved right. In 2025, flourishing gardens, the handiwork of citizen volunteers, welcome visitors to this once-derelict train station that has morphed into a multi-purpose magnet. Tourists visit, staying in the stylish MCS W Hotel. Locals work in the building’s office space, and people of every stripe gather here for concerts on the outdoor stage, for picnics and flea markets, for the skate park, for the shops, art gallery and restaurants, and for the heart-stopping views from the rooftop dome and terrace.

Other American cities have restored landmarks like MCS.

Both St Louis and Kansas City, Missouri, transformed their stations into multi-use structures. Mass MoCA, a major contemporary and performing arts centre in North Adams, Massachusetts, was once a deserted collection of industrial buildings.

Those examples informed the remaking of MCS, but they weren’t an exact blueprint. While devising the renovation, Elisabeth Knibbe, an Ann Arbor, Mich.–based architect, insisted that a piece of the grim past remain intact. When visitors enter the station today, they can look to the right and see a portion of the building in its prerestoration state – grimy and crumbling, an intentional reminder. “It’s important to understand and remember our history,” Knibbe says of that blighted fragment of the otherwise pristine building. “It’s a symbol to everybody of how far Detroit went down – and how we came back.”

6 The bridge

In 2012 a new Detroit-Windsor crossing was approved for construction. Completed 11 years later, the bridge is a bold symbol of Detroit’s revival and the key to the city’s national leadership in international trade.

With its twin 275-metre towers and silvery steel cables, the R29 billion bridge is a striking symbol of Detroit’s rebirth. But it is something more than that. Along with a new rail tunnel and an intermodal freight-transfer hub, it’s a monument to those who knew that Detroit needed a dramatic stroke. By 2025, new transportation infrastructure has turned the city into a humming trade gateway between the American Midwest and the world. But first it had to overcome some tangled history.

Opened in 1929 to connect Detroit and Windsor, in Canada, the Ambassador Bridge became the busiest international border crossing between the US and its largest trading partner. By 2010, the rickety relic was carrying a quarter of the R4 trillion in annual trade between the US and Canada. With truck traffic expected to double by 2035, local politicians and business and labour leaders pushed hard for the new bridge. “Our company sends 600 trucks over the Ambassador Bridge every day,” Ford executive chairman Bill Ford says. “What if something happens to the bridge? Of course we need a new bridge!”

Since 1979, the Ambassador Bridge has been the private property of Manuel “Matty” Moroun, who started out working in his father’s filling station and became a billionaire by buying up all the shares of the privately financed bridge in the 1970s, then pocketing the profits from tolls, duty-free shops and fuel pumps. Forbes magazine called it “the best monopoly you never heard of”.

And Moroun fought hard to protect it through well-publicised contributions to politicians and a multi-million-dollar campaign to sway public opinion.

It was long-simmering resentment toward Moroun, in part, that ignited the charge to greenlight the new bridge project. Canada agreed to contribute R19 billion. It has not cost Michigan taxpayers a dime.

Long before the financing came together, Ted Zoli – chief bridge engineer of the HNTB Corporation and winner of the MacArthur Foundation’s coveted genius grant – was on the case. Zoli knew that the new bridge would be much more than a point-A-to-point-B proposition: it is playing a big role in jump-starting Detroit’s and Michigan’s economic engines. Achieving that goal has been helped by the fact that the bridge is publicly financed and generates public revenue. But the way the bridge itself came to be is also important.

Zoli, whose unmistakable designs now span waterways from Boston to Mumbai, built his career on a simple premise: “Cleverness in design and construction techniques can be a source of major savings in the cost of building and maintaining a bridge,” he says.

In Detroit he went against the grain. Most bridge builders today prefer prefabricated steel orthotropic decks, an advanced technology also used in shipbuilding. But Zoli opted for a simpler, somewhat old-fashioned steel-reinforced grid deck on his Detroit bridge.

“The sections of an orthotropic deck would usually be manufactured outside the United States – probably in Brazil, Korea, or China,” he says. “What worse thing could you do to Detroit?  is was an opportunity to create an American-made bridge. Plus, I’m very interested in adapting technology that’s maybe less sophisticated or less modern and reimagining what it could be.”

Although a high-tech orthotropic deck is generally more expensive than a grid deck, the latter requires more labour to fabricate and install. In job-hungry Michigan, Zoli reasoned, a vice became a virtue. Not only can the grid decking be manufactured locally, but a large crew is needed to  t together the deck plates – roughly 1 000 labourers working over a six-year period.

Zoli lightheartedly calls the technology stupidly simple, because each deck section is an identical rectangular 2,4 x 3-metre steel piece. But when the sections are put in place, each angled a fraction of a degree, a gracefully curving roadway emerges, supported by a steel superstructure. Stupidly simple? Maybe. But also brilliant, durable and expensive-looking without being expensive.

A final consideration was the site. Zoli advised positioning his bridge about 3 kilometres downriver from the Ambassador Bridge, far from downtown. “It really is a regional bridge,” Zoli says. “It doesn’t make sense to disrupt the heart of the city with all that truck traffic.”

Zoli views bridge building primarily as an act of public service, not as a way of burnishing his personal legend. He rebels against the notion of “signature” structures, a concept embraced by many brand-name architects, so-called starchitects, who flourished in those heady years before the Great Recession descended. “Signature is something I want to take o these things,” Zoli says. “ is bridge is not an architectural monument or an engineering feat. It becomes monumental only if it’s seen as something that serves the community.”

Geometry lesson

The 2,4 x 3-metre steel deck grids are rectangular; each piece is offset by a fraction of a degree, making the span curve.

Clear path

Vertical clearance of 45 metres and placement of the tower footings on land ensure the safe passage of ships.

String theory

Steel wire is the basic unit of each stay cable. Seven wires form a strand; 50 to 70 strands run parallel through the cable housing.

Employment benefits

True to a Centre for Automotive Research estimate, the bridge creates 6 000 jobs in the years after construction began.

Room to move

The 33-metre width holds six traffic lanes, two shoulders and two walking paths of 4, 3 and 2,5 metres wide each, respectively.

Tall tale

At 275 metres, the iconic towers are 90 metres taller than those of New York City’s George Washington Bridge.

Supply and demand

Canadian motor manufacturers that rely on a  ow of US parts lost up to R12 million hourly from traffic jams at the old bridge.

Training ground

Rails linking the bridge to the super-freighter port of Halifax on Canada’s Atlantic coast make Detroit a vital inland port.

Going long

In 1929, the Ambassador Bridge set a record with its 563-metre suspension span. The new bridge’s span is 670 metres.

Money matters

The new bridge helps boost trade between the US and Canada, which is projected to hit R6,5 trillion a year by 2030.

Load sharing

The cables connect to one side of each tower, but the overall symmetry of the span’s curves keeps the bridge in balance.

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