Urban planner discusses future of Detroit

New York-based urban planner Toni Griffin has never seen a traffic jam in the city of Detroit.

In a Thursday lecture at the School of Architecture, Griffin discussed the large number of unoccupied buildings present in Detroit compared to other similarly-sized cities in the country. In 2010, Griffin helped develop the “Detroit Future City” project, a long-term strategic planning initiative aimed to transform Detroit by restructuring the way the city allots building space.

She spoke to a full auditorium in Hastings Hall, having been invited to Yale to deliver the thirteenth annual Eero Saarinen ARC ’34 lecture, named after a notable alumnus of the school known for adapting his designs to the demands of the projects he worked on.

“The Saarinen lecture is meant to bring someone to the school who has an impact on architecture, but is not necessarily an architect,” said School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65.

In her opening lines, Griffin admitted that she “masquerades” as a planner, but identifies as an architect.

Over the past 50 years, Detroit has lost 60 percent of its population, which has shrunk from 1.8 million people in 1950 to roughly 771,000. But unlike in other cities, Griffin explained, the vacancies spurred by the shift in population numbers are spread throughout Detroit as opposed to being concentrated in certain neighborhoods, making it difficult for urban planners to foster a high population density. Given its steep population decline and urban sprawl, Detroit has accumulated enough vacant land to fill the island of Manhattan, she said.

“Detroit is perhaps the sickest city today,” Stern said. “And for that reason, it is of great interest to us as architects.”

While urban planners often aim to create cities with an equally high population density in all their neighborhoods, Griffin urged urban planners in Detroit to diffuse the city’s population density into several centers.

Griffin cited Detroit’s economic fragility — most Detroit residents work outside city limits or are unemployed — as the most pressing problem for urban planners.

Despite its particularity, Griffin said she thinks the city offers universal lessons for urban planners. She said all urban planning should rest on a solid foundation of data — about the city’s population, economy and history — which the Detroit Future Works team took months to accumulate before proposing the project. For cities suffering from population losses, Griffin encouraged a realistic outlook when it comes to urban planning designs, adding that urban planners need to use an interdisciplinary approach if they are to understand the city and propose effective solutions.

“These cities are not going to grow back, and they should not keep planning as if they will,” she said.

Griffin is the director of the J. Max Bond Center for Architecture at the Spitzer School of Architecture at City College in New York City.

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