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K880 Emerging City Champions: From Toronto to Detroit

This post is part two of a series written by some of Detroit’s Emerging City Champions. To become the Emerging City Champions representing Detroit, young people in the Metro Detroit area presented their ideas for community revitalization in Detroit to judges from 8 80 Cities and The Knight Foundation. Posts will follow the City Champions and share their experience as they seek to make Detroit a better place to live, work, and play. 

The Emerging City Champions application process began in April of this year. Each applicant was asked to share an idea—any idea—that would improve social and physical connections in their city, particularly among low-income and high-needs communities. Of the 25 fellows selected for the K880 Emerging City Champions, Detroit had the highest number of champions represented, with six fellows. And we represented hard!

Last month, the six of us–Kyle Bartell (Sit on it Detroit) Orlando Bailey (C.O.D.E. on Mack), Cornetta Lane (Detroit Dialogues), Chad Rochkind (Corktown Parklet), Ciarra Ross (Heal Detroit), and myself–Margarita Barry (Block x Block), participated in a 5-day Studio in Toronto where we were given guided tours and interactive workshops, and worked together with other city Champions to refine our project plans. The Studio gave us the opportunity to collaborate and establish a local network of support to make use of back in Detroit. Here’s some of the lessons we took away from our experience that hit home:


Detroit should be less insular

Too often in Detroit, we think “how can we possibly solve these challenges?”, when other cities already have the answer for us. We can get really insular here, or we think that all solutions must be Detroit solutions, because everything has to be “Detroit enough” to succeed in this city or something, and that’s just a really silly habit of ours and it’s holding us back. Also, seeing the way that public investment in public space creates a climate for growth and happiness was a nice reminder that we can do a lot better with how we spend public dollars in Detroit and in Michigan more broadly. We tend to think that if we put public dollars into private investments such as casinos and stadiums, then those things will be the silver bullets that turn everything around. But a city is like a garden, and gardens need good soil to thrive. In cities, the soil that allows us to thrive is public space: parks, sidewalks, bike lanes, etc. –Chad Rochkind


Public spaces are the keys to vibrant cities

People naturally gathered at the public places in Toronto. At Regent Park a group of people assembled around Bengali drumming circle and food. I don’t see that often in Detroit. I walked away from the scene thinking, “how can we create spaces where people gather regardless of race and creed and how long you lived in Detroit?” I’m still thinking about it because I believe cross cultural experiences are needed to develop connectivity in communities that are different from your own.  –Cornetta Lane

In Toronto I’ve learned that public space should be a place of quality and equality and that collectively we can work together and build stronger sustainable cities. –Kyle Bartell


Revitalization efforts in Detroit should be inclusive

One of the most important takeaways from the trip for me was understanding the various ideas of “revitalization” and how that differs across race, class, experience and other social factors. Everyone came to the table with a passion for reactivating their cities in powerful and inspiring ways. I think one of most important insights we received is to challenge our assumptions about the communities we plan to serve and to engage with all of the ways we are a part of the community. –Ciarra Ross

I continue to be blown away by the openness, passion, and creativity of Detroit’s young black leaders. There were six champions from Detroit, and five of them were black. I’m a white guy, trying my best to make Detroit a better place for all, and that means my neighbors no matter what color they are. And yes, I like craft cocktails, and farm to table food, and all the other stereotypical millennial fascinations, but I also want Detroit to be a model for inclusive growth. That’s really the opportunity we have here that no other city has. The whole world is grappling with how do you grow and also include all types of people. To me, it means listening a lot, and learning from the great wealth of wisdom that existed in this city long before I showed up on the scene. It also means investing in affordable housing, so that we can get the benefits of economic development without the negative impacts of displacement. The way the whole Detroit cohort clicked gave me hope that we, as a city, will figure these questions out first, and that will be a huge gift to the world. So, please tell Nolan Finley to read this blog if he’s wondering where the black people are.  –Chad Rochkind


Real change can start at the neighborhood level

We should all feel a sense of ownership when it comes to our community’s land and how it’s used. Gil Penalosa and the rest of the 8 80 Cities team live by the ethos that “if you build a city that is great for an eight-year-old and an eighty-year-old, then you build a city that is going to be great for everybody”. It’s time for Detroiters to play a more active role in making our neighborhoods great for eight-year-olds and eighty-year-olds. How can we, as citizens, help ensure that our neighborhoods aren’t left behind in the midst of revitalization efforts? By becoming urban planners ourselves. –Margarita Barry

One of the greatest activities that we were tasked to do was to go in neighborhood called Yorkville and talk to residents, commuters, and business owners to hear their ideas of what would make Yorkville better. We were given some chalk, tape and reclaimed wood to take a stab at making some of the feedback a reality. Small things like creating a hop scotch course with sidewalk chalk got lots of attention from parents enjoying a day with their children. Another cool thing that we did was create a raceway up a rock hill with sidewalk chalk and people raced up the hill! It was a great exercise that promoted placemaking, community and fun! –Orlando Bailey

Jason Roberts from Better Block opened my eyes to how you make the future real for people at the neighborhood level. For some reason, people just have a really hard time seeing a potential different future than what they have in front of them. Jason basically creates neighborhood block parties that add all of the pedestrian infrastructure that’s needed on a temporary basis. People are then able to see and touch the future in real life. It also helps dispel all the expected criticisms about traffic congestion or a slowdown of retail sales, because the reality is that everytime human-scale infrastructure has been introduced to cites, the traffic flows better and retail sales increase. By creating a living example that people can point to, you are able to better advocate for more long-term infrastructure changes. –Chad Rochkind