Economics must serve place and people

neil strelka photo 1For placemakers, economics should be central. For me, placemaking which solely focusses on design and forgets the economics is not actually placemaking – it’s just decoration!

Three weeks ago, in Detroit, I attended the inaugural US Placemaking Leadership conference. This was an apt background to thinking about how economics is central to placemaking. Detroit is famed as an exporter of two components of human ingenuity: automobiles and Motown music. However, Detroit has been in a long and deep decline. Detroit tells us that economics underpins place, and economies are far from permanent. Placemaking cannot ignore the fragility of these underpinnings.

In their stunning photography book The Ruins of Detroit, Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre cast a camera onto the ruined buildings and places in Detroit, highlighting the fragility and vulnerability of the economy which built them. They say: ‘The state of ruin is essentially a temporary situation that happens at some point, the volatile result of change of era and the fall of empires. This fragility, the time elapsed but even so running fast, lead us to watch them one very last time: being dismayed, or admire, making us wondering about the permanence of things.’

Therefore, because the economy of a place is not everlasting and indubitable, placemaking, must both engage with economics and seek to build economic resilience. A key aspect of this is building resilience through diversity in our cities economies. So when one sector falters, others can fill the gap.

Detroit was an industrial city, in which human life and social interaction was underpinned by an economy, singularly centred around the big three car producers of Ford, Chrysler and General Motors. Historically, with access to Canada and the Great Lakes, Detroit became an ideal base. However, with expansion of highways and globalisation, the city’s geography became less important and its singular economic focus made it vulnerable to competition and any slump in motor production

Thus Detroit now has a population of 700,000, whereas in the 1950’s its population was two million. Post-second world war, Detroit was America’s fifth-largest city. Today, it ranks 18th. Detroit is a big place. The city boundary is around 140 sq miles and the city could accommodate Boston, San Francisco and Manhattan within its limits. Vast areas teeming with life are now returning to prairie. Factories have closed, downtown tower blocks have been abandoned, the city is in huge debt.  A third of the city’s 140 square miles are vacant or derelict. This economy, as it has turned out, lacked resilience. It was brittle.

The thing which was especially unhelpful to Detroit was an economy which lacked a human scale and failed to care enough about its people. This was evident even when Detroit was buzzing.  The city had been plagued with racial disturbance and the  sprawl was matched by endemic racial and economic segregation.

This failure of integration meant that there was a lack of socio-economic mixing. Thus, when economic decline occurred, whole neighbourhoods suffered simultaneously. Detroit got into a downward spiral. Car plants left, whole neighbourhoods of workers were left unemployed, local services sector declined, tax revenues went through the floor. If residential patterns had been more mixed, population exit would not have been so catastrophic, businesses may have been retained, and public services would have maintained a tax base.

Detroit’s future today must be and is much more about a human scale economy. And this is where the makings of a good story now begin. While Detroit has much dereliction and abandonment, it also is a place of hope and opportunity. In this we are starting to see a new type of people-centred economy and the seeds of a revival. In the last 10 years Detroit has seen an increase in the number of college-educated residents moving to its downtown to live and work in new information-based industries. There is also a busy artistic renaissance in Detroit (such as the Heidelberg project -below), and a growth of urban farms.Capture

Detroit warns us urbanists, planners and placemakers that we can’t allow placemaking to be just about design and mere decoration for an economy.

Placemaking is not just about merely ‘fitting in’ with the economics of place.

Placemaking cannot be narrowly confined to just creating an environment which is good for business.

Placemaking must not merely serve a prevailing economics.

No. Placemaking must shape and bend the economics of place. Placemaking must shape an economy which serves place and people.


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Jeff Mowatt
Jeff Mowatt
10 years ago

‘It is widely believed that it is the duty of the oppressed to struggle against oppression. Hence the admiration for Spartacus and his successors. But there is no moral law that the struggle against oppression, in whatever realm, must be carried on only by the oppressed, nor any historical analysis that holds that the struggling oppressed, on their own, must succeed in ending their oppression.

The direct route to the end of oppression is for the oppressors themselves to work with the oppressed to end it. It is also the moral responsibility of those keeping the gate of educational opportunity closed to join hands with those behind it, to work together to remove that barrier to the fulfillment of the promise of emancipation.’

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