For the past two years, the League partnered with Congress for the New Urbanism to bring their 24th international convention to our doorstep. League staffers held positions on the host committee and participated in legacy charrettes for four Metro Detroit neighborhoods, all in preparation for last week. That’s when experts in urban planning, design, architecture, and related disciplines gathered from around the globe to learn from each other and – in this case – discover the story of Detroit’s transformation.
I’m a native Detroiter and have seen the city go through some tough times, but I was truly impressed with the beauty, vibrancy, and positive energy I encountered. I was doubly-impressed when I heard the enthusiastic exclamations of CNU attendees from as far away as Ecuador and Australia. “The Opera House is gorgeous!” “I can’t wait to ride the People Mover!” “Campus Martius is so cool!” “Detroit is much nicer than I expected!”
Detroit Opera House
For four days, the schedule was jam-packed with sessions, workshops, forums, and tours. Participants could head to the beautiful Gem Theater to learn about the principles of new urbanism from Andres Duany, one of the founding members of Congress for the New Urbanism. Walk across the street to the spectacular Detroit Opera House to hear about Detroit’s history and revitalization or how new forms of transportation are changing the way people move around their cities. Or hop on a tour bus and experience the wonders of downtown Detroit architecture, America’s best small city (Ann Arbor), Birmingham’s new urban downtown, or Windsor’s Old Sandwich Towne, one of the oldest established communities in Ontario.
All the sessions were as varied in topic as they were in location, but I found that a common theme ran through many of them: putting people first. We were reminded of an important Jane Jacobs quote: “People make cities and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”
In a session on urbanism and sustainability, Kaid Benfield, senior counsel for environmental strategies at Placemakers, emphasized that we need to aspire to build places people love or they won’t be sustained. In a session on new transportation options, Russell Preston, design director of Principle Group, advised the audience that they should think about people and place first and weave transportation options around them. In a session on the revitalization of Detroit’s neighborhoods, Quincy Jones, executive director of the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance, shared that people are committed to their neighborhoods and will fight for them.
But perhaps most importantly, in a session on Detroit’s food and food justice movement, Devita Davison, marketing and communications director for FoodLab Detroit, passionately told the audience that Detroit has its problems, but Detroiters also have hope. It’s up to all of us to be the change we want to see.