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Planning, Delivering & Implementing, with Maurice Cox

Planning, Delivering & Implementing, with Maurice Cox

Maurice Cox

To meet such a forward-thinking and clear-minded architect, whose career is defined by the ability to get involved both in academic speculations and ‘muddy politics,’ is rare, unique, and makes us wonder about the potential impact of these practices. Maurice Cox is the Director of the Planning and Development Department for the City of Detroit.[1] His transdisciplinary way of understanding the city, informed by what feels like a contemporary humanistic approach, is breaking some of the eroded conceptual grounds of urbanism. 

Meeting Maurice Cox, Director Of The Planning And Development Department

PABLO GERSON I would like to ask you briefly about your background, your training, and your position at the Planning and Development Department.

MAURICE COX I was educated as an architect at the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at The Cooper Union in New York and I spent ten years living and practicing in Florence, Italy.

I am not only coming from an intense urban environment like New York, but I also happen to have experience in urbanism in Europe, which is pretty singular. I think that formed who I am, relative to my belief in the significance of history, the importance of the public realm, the importance of architecture in its cultural contribution, and the role of an architect: more public citizens, very entrepreneurial, hosting workshops, public debates, publications … It is a much more entrepreneurial framing of the architect as compared to the American architect, who has a more market-driven notion of practice.

It was also the first time that I met a planning director of a major city: Massimo Carmassi, who is an architect. I was in my twenties and something that really surprised me back then is that an architect could be the director of an entire city. I stored that memory away and when I got the call from Mike Duggan, it was not so strange to me that they were asking an architect to be the city’s planning director.

When I came back to the USA from Italy and settled in Charlottesville, Virginia, I immediately got immersed in the cultural life of that city and found myself elected to public office. I served on the city council for six years. Soon after, I was elected mayor of the city. The entire time, I was teaching architecture and urbanism at the University of Virginia. I began to see the city in a much more complex way and understand the strategic role of the academy—using the city as a living laboratory. That is an important connection because often people who operate in the academy do not really like the rough-and-tumble of politics, but I was doing both simultaneously and I think that formed me. I subsequently became the Design Director for the National Endowment for the Arts, which gave me a national platform.

I also ran a program called the Mayors’ Institute on City Design[1] that educated mayors on the power of their position to influence urban design—the urban form of the cities. I literally personally tutored over two hundred mayors over the three-year period.

After that, I went down to New Orleans to work as Social Dean for Community Engagement for Tulane University and ran a nonprofit design center that basically helped nonprofit organizations in their aspirations to rebuild the city better, post-Katrina.

That is when Mayor Mike Duggan, here in Detroit, found me. He called really kind of out of the blue and recruited me for this job. That kind of trajectory is fairly important because I think the fact that I was a former mayor, that I had basically walked in his shoes, that I knew, not only the importance of planning, but also the importance of delivering and implementing—I  guess I was the right person for the task. So, I left a ten-year position at Tulane to take a political appointment that could have been a two-year ride, and Mike Duggan is now up for reelection in November,[2] so hopefully we will get four more years to work this out.

Urban Fabric And Vacant Land

PG You mentioned the importance of history. How do you understand Detroit and its role in the nation over the last century? How do you see that process developing, from the early 1900s?

MC Detroit was subject to an astronomical population growth, filled by the re-imagining of the auto industry where hundreds of thousands of people, in very short order, moved to Detroit in search of the American Dream and employment. If we saw that kind of population growth today, we would say that it is totally unsustainable. And yet, it happened here in the first half of the twentieth century. In the second half, the transformation of the auto industry went through another cycle: this time, instead of building factories vertically in the city, they built them horizontally in the suburbs because they were in search of space.

…design is the ultimate political act of intention and to design in the public interest is where you can have the greatest impact.

– Maurice Cox

Really, already from the fifties, the population began to decline; it went from 1,800,000 to today, just under 700,000. But at the same time, the physical square mileage of the city did not shrink, just its population. Imagine a city where 1,100,000 people upped and left, and left their houses, their churches, their schools, the stores, empty! Imagine a city with a tax base that shrank so quickly over a fifty-year period that they were unable to provide basic services, neglecting all of those buildings.

Here we are today, with one of the largest inventories of historic structures left vacant in the nation. Here we are today, with more square miles of vacant land, publicly owned. It is about 24 square miles, which is larger than the island of Manhattan, and it is all under a single ownership, the Land Bank Authority.[3] That represents an unprecedented opportunity to rethink the American City, and in some very profound ways, because the pattern of vacancy is not contiguous in the way that Central Park public land is. For example, the island in Detroit called Belle Isle Park is larger than Central Park. How do you create or rethink a city without a specific pattern of land use? That is part of the challenge.

How do you create areas of density in a city that was built around the single-family house that symbolizes the American Dream? You have to remember that 80% of the housing stock in Detroit was built before 1960, which means that they were largely single-family units. Since the sixties, the city has been managing population decline. So, a lot of the urban housing and the urban innovations that have happened over the past sixty years kind of passed over Detroit.

Ph. Pablo Gerson

And that also represents an unusual opportunity: how do you build dense urban centers that are medium density, that can sit in the context of single-family houses? How do you connect those places to the other amenities that people have when they think of urban neighborhoods: parks, schools, libraries, shopping districts? How do you connect all of that, through a network of greenways, that are not like Central Park? These are those greenways where people still live. They are maybe half a dozen houses on a block but they are surrounded by vacant land. How do you create an urban experience? How do you create, within a rural context, or how do you create a rural context within an urban city? Those are some of the challenges. I would argue that there are only two or three precedents: first ring suburbs, at the beginning of twentieth century, kind of City Beautiful where there are these beautiful little villages and very leafy green environments served usually by street cars; there is the American suburb which sprawls in big lots and which is almost all auto-oriented. Then, you have rural lands, where the land is productive, the density is very low, but one would argue that there is an economic model that makes some sense and is quite beautiful.

That is what we are exploring: how to create a variety of ways of living in the city. If you want to live in a rural environment you can live in a rural environment, get on an express bus and get downtown in 15 minutes. Or, if you live in an urban environment, you can walk within 20 minutes to all those services that you might normally expect in an urban environment.

I think it is interesting, while there are several precedents and existing typologies, we get to pilot this idea on 139 square miles.

Bottom Up Strategies

PG Detroit has been going through all of those development processes you described since the fifties. What do you think about participative urbanism?

MC Part of the reason why I took the job is because Detroit has a history of incredible resilience and a bottom-up problem solving. Basically, nobody was coming to the rescue here. The government was not coming to the rescue, local government did not work as it should, and people just basically took the recovery into their own hands and built a set of skills to take over and work the land. If your neighbors have left, you start growing things in the vacant land, or, if your block is empty, you start mowing the grass on the land near your house. People have really found ways to keep a level of regeneration going, and very often it is not coordinated, it does not have the benefit of synergy, and certainly does not have the benefit of what the government can do, which is much more systems based, which can amplify the work. The Heidelberg Project[4] which is a well-known art installation, has been going on for thirty years by artists in Detroit neighborhoods, originally transforming houses through art as a way to bring attention to blight. And it became a really important tourist destination. Now, the city, through my office, is entering into a memorandum of understanding with that organization to try to help them to become a community developer of that area. Lift up a local culture and provide them with the partnership that government can provide. I could tell you dozens of organizations that the city could partner with as a way to return those neighborhoods to their authentic identity, but also with the idea of bringing a level of technical resource that could transform neighborhoods. Again, there are many examples of this nationally; what Detroit has is an opportunity to do it on a large scale and to do it many times over. I think that is when you start to get a collective identity through these specific interventions, with art and culture as a main center.


PG There is a radical change in our time regarding the approaches to the problematic of postindustrial cities that need new planning strategies. In that sense, Detroit could work as a model within the United States. What is the role of planning in this specific context?

MC I think that planning today has no other choice but to use the resources of those who are already there to collectively solve problems. I don’t think that planners, professionally, whether they be landscape architects, architects, city planners, or urbanists, can do this without the people who are there. Mainly because, who are you planning for? And if you are a planner, if you are not planning for some mythical demographic sect that is going to come and save your city, then you are planning for the people who are there, who have stuck it out with your city. In the particular case of Detroit, it is even more pronounced. Detroit has an unusual situation where around 700,000 people who are here, are really the hard-core group that would not go.

You have a group of people, when I call a community meeting, who have been in their homes for forty, fifty, sixty years. Clearly, they are the ones who know the identity of their neighborhoods, they are the ones who can remember a time where their neighborhoods were healthy, and they are the ones who are not going anywhere. It helps our work tremendously to have people who have lived a very long time in a place; they are also the first ones to welcome new people. It is part of the regeneration. On the other hand, you need an infusion in the new neighborhoods that are not growing, generally perceived to be, “If you are not growing, are you dying? Are you stagnant?” I think there are different notions of growth because, how do you grow a neighborhood when you are not going to build another single-family house?

We have a couple of these urban neighborhood laboratories and we are trying to come up with strategies to regenerate those neighborhoods without building a single new structure.

Ph. Pablo Gerson

In one case, we have 160 acres, or a quarter square mile, where there are about 600 families that still live there. There are about 135 vacant houses and there are about 200 vacant lots in these 25 acres of vacant land. What if we could rid that quarter square mile and demolish the houses that cannot be recuperated, we will renovate every single one of the houses that are vacant, which number about 115, and then we can plant gardens on every vacant lot in the neighborhood. We will take some of those vacant lands and see if we can make a very intentional multi-eco park. We will take other pieces of those vacant parcels and string them together, with the idea that they can form a greenway, with walking and biking gardens through the neighborhoods; we will develop a typology of different ways for vacant lots to be activated in order to be productive and we will ask a single community developer to work on the whole thing and employ people who are in the neighborhoods to install and maintain these gardens. That project is on the way, it was approved and even the framework has won several awards for the landscape architects that brought it together for us. We are going to break ground on this park by the end of 2017.

I think that planning today has no other choice than to use the resources of those who are already there to collectively solve problems. I don’t think that planners, professionally, whether they be landscape architects, architects, city planners, or urbanists, can do this without the people who are there

–Maurice Cox

This is the kind of question I am talking about on regeneration, that is a very unconventional way of thinking about how to grow a neighborhood, but is what we have to do. In order to get to a point to operate at that scale, we have to bring along an entire neighborhood. What was dozens and dozens of meetings with residents trying to figure this out, trying to get them to understand that planting a garden is another form of regeneration. That if we can’t provide a new house for a family with children, we can rehab a house and put a family with children there, or we can build a house on a vacant parcel. We can also bring in a neighborhood-friendly land-based business that will help create a neighborhood. When we realized that we could make this ‘make sense financially’ and that the developer could actually make a profit, we put it out for a request proposal and we got a very unconventional developer who said “yeah, I can do this.”

And now, if you can do it in this neighborhood, could you do it in another one?

We have now found at least three other neighborhoods with a similar house/vacant land ratio. We are going to be putting that out for 2017 and early 2018. And what is important here is that I could not go to another city and say: we have a city, renovated with over 100 homes and planted 20 hectares of gardens, it just doesn’t exist. We had to make this up.

Getting back to the issue of design excellence and impact: the design of this strategy was done by an Australian landscape architect, Elizabeth Mossop, partnering with a local architecture firm, Loeb Fellow Dan Pitera.[5]

Before we went out to look for the developer and his potential idea, we actually commissioned the framework, designed it in this entirety, priced it out, and then we sent it out to the developer and asked, “Can you implement this?”

It ended up being a very proactive way of not just looking to developers to give us the answer, but conceiving the answer collectively with residents, with some of the best design professionals possible, and then asking the developers to implement the strategy. I am trying to illustrate to you how important the engagement was, and the proactive vision of the city and the planning department was, before the developer was called to come in and share their expertise.

Unruled Rules For Equity

PG Going back to what you said before, why do you think architects haven’t built a disciplinary field that is engaged in decision-making, like you are doing here?

MC European architects have historically been engaged in politics or been part of a public discourse about the built environment, but I think that the architectural education in America has been, at times, sort of apolitical. There was a time in the sixties when architects were out there trying to solve problems and responding to the urban crises. At a certain point, they parted ways, and you saw the emergence of the academic architect, the star architect who can only operate if they have millions and millions of dollars and they are designing a museum; there was a movement away from architects being problem solvers, of architects being combiners.

When I came back to the USA, within three years I ran for public office, largely because I thought I had an expertise that was of value or could be of value to the city. I did not have a platform; my opinion was no more valuable than a shop owner down the street. I just thought that I could do something about that—I am going to get into a position where I am not just responding to the rules, I am writing the rules.

There has always been a kind of an activist streak in designers, but they love to design, they are not all of these other tangential issues that impact design. They would rather not bother with those. And you can understand, they come from a creative place and they just want to make beautiful stuff.

I think that is a fairly naive approach, because design is the ultimate political act of intention and to design in the public interest is where you can have the greatest impact. I have pretty much come to believe that access to healthy—socially, economically—vibrant environments should be a birthright for someone born in a democratic country. It is no different, in my mind, than access to good public education, or, the expectation of access to good public health. It is a right. Living in a socially, economically, environmentally, healthy neighborhood, it’s a right!

If that is the case, it colors everything that I do relative to design as a question of equity. Why should only wealthy neighborhoods have access to quality streetscapes, quality shopping districts, or housing options? Shouldn’t all parts of our city aspire to that?

I believe that Detroit is the kind of place where we can pull that off.

[1] The Planning and Development Department of the City of Detroit is split up into three strategical design regions, each lead by a Design Director. The Central Zone is piloted by Steven Lewis, the East Zone by Esther Yang and the West Zone by David Walker. The Design Directors provide planning, design leadership, and coordination, with the goal of achieving neighborhood stabilization, revitalization, and supporting the growth of population and jobs.

[2] The Mayors’ Institute on City Design (MICD) is a leadership initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the United States Conference of Mayors. Since 1986, the Mayors’ Institute has helped transform communities through design by preparing mayors to be the chief urban designers of their cities.

[3] Incumbent Mike Duggan won re-election to a second term on November 7th 2017, which will end in 2021.

[4] The Detroit Land Bank Authority is an agency that has acquired tens of thousands of city-owned properties, vacant lands, and abandoned properties, with the aim to redevelop. The city-led program is a rehabilitation or demolition through blight elimination program.

[5] The Heidelberg Project is an outdoor art environment in the heart of an urban area; it is a Detroit-based community organization with a mission to improve neighborhoods and the lives of the people that live there, through art.

[6] Dan Pitera is an architect and political and social activist. He is now the Executive Director of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture. He was a Loeb Fellow  (2005) at Harvard University, as Maurice Cox (2005), and Steven Lewis (2007).

Learn more about Detroit here or in NESS #1.

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