Rising From the Ashes: Why Detroit is the Only UNESCO City of Design in the United States

The Comeback City is returning to glory, thanks to the power of design.

Nathaniel Bahadursingh Nathaniel Bahadursingh

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Over the last half-century, the city of Detroit has been the enduring symbol of American urban decay. Once the bastion of American, industrial innovation and prowess, where Henry Ford debuted the first broadly affordable car, the Motor City is frozen in time, a museum whose past remains all too visible.

In the nineteen-forties, Detroit was the fourth largest city in America, with a population of 1.8 million people at its peak. This was mainly due to its booming automotive industry, which provided stable employment to thousands of workers. However, starting in the fifties, the auto industry spread beyond Detroit, and the impacts of automation and globalization caused irreparable damage to the city. Factories closed and jobs vanished, resulting in a severe socio-economic downtown and a rapid population decline.

Fewer than 700,000 residents remain.

Abandoned homes in Detroit; Photo by Patrick Gorski

Packard Automotive Plant; image via carnagenyc

The skeletons of Detroit’s long-lost grandeur are laid bare; the fossils of abandoned factories, early 20th Century homes, and theaters that have come to visually and symbolically characterize the city. There’s that saying though: “What goes up must come down”.

If this is said to be true, then it only makes sense that whatever is down must come back up at some point. In recent years, the city has held true to this statement. Detroit’s affordability, available space, access to materials and penchant for industrial and modernist design have made it an ample canvas for experimentation, entrepreneurship and urban revitalization. 

Detroit-based artist Jack Craig heats PVC water pipe in his McDougall-Hunt studio, which he purchased and made functional at a low cost; image courtesy of Jack Craig

Following the likes of Charles and Ray Eames, Florence Knoll, Eero Saarinen and Minoru Yamasaki, artists and designers out of Detroit and its surrounding areas have been slowly transforming and rejuvenating depressed neighborhoods. Design has been the driver of the city’s regeneration and serves as a significant source of economic growth as the industry employs more than 45,000 people and generates $US 2.5 billion in wages, according to UNESCO. Detroit is also home to the Detroit Design Festival, which is the largest festival of design dedicated to freelance professionals in North America.

All of this explains why, in 2015, Detroit became the only city in the United States to be designated as a UNESCO City of Design. To honor this, the city has recognized the entirety of September as Detroit’s Month of Design. Organized by Design Core Detroit, the program celebrates the work and ideas of local designers and organizations.

True North is an award-winning live-work community of prefabricated Quonset huts in Detroit designed by architect Edwin Chan; Photo by Chris Miele and courtesy of Prince Concepts

The Z by Neumann/Smith Architecture, an innovative mixed-use structure designed to revitalize the area

Furthermore, in accordance with its UNESCO City of Design designation, Detroit unveiled the Detroit City of Design Action Plan. The plan seeks to develop Detroit as a global leader in the practice of inclusive design, which considers the entire spectrum of cultural diversity and individual experiences to create solutions with a social impact. Inclusivity is key to the scope and longevity of Detroit’s revitalization. With a population that is almost 80% African American, development initiatives must ensure that economic growth is rightfully shared.

Urban revitalization and renewal are terms that are often used interchangeably, however, the latter does more to displace and erase rather than cultivate. Nonetheless, Detroit seems to be moving in a positive direction and its ability to cultivate a niche design identity is something to be celebrated.

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