Calling all designers: First ever competition calls on designers to help boost neighborhoods

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News
"Lasermaze" by George King Architects was located in Detroit’s Dequindre Cut during the 2015 Detroit Design Festival.

Can design — meaning everything from architecture to graphic design — be a tool for addressing some of Detroit’s biggest challenges like safety and mobility in its neighborhoods? Olga Stella thinks so.

Stella is the executive director of Design Core Detroit, a nonprofit that is all about harnessing the city’s design potential and maximizing it. It organizes the annual Detroit Month of Design each September to celebrate the city’s ever expanding and evolving design scene.

Now Design Core Detroit wants to capitalize on the city’s status as the first and only UNESCO City of Design in the United States by launching a design competition. The group is asking designers from the world’s 30 other UNESCO design cities, along with those in Metro Detroit, to come up with prototype “design solutions” for city neighborhoods that would address safety, mobility and walk-ability.

Stella says it’s about using design to have a tangible impact on Detroit’s neighborhoods.

“Design is fundamentally about using creativity to solve a problem,” she said. “You or I may think of safety and mobility from a certain lens, but a designer is going to go through a different process to come up with a solution that we may have never thought about.”

Entries for the first Detroit City of Design Competition are due April 14. Three winners will be selected and using a $300,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, prototypes will be built of each one. They’ll debut in September during the Month of Design and then be moved to one of three neighborhoods — Grandmont Rosedale, Southwest Detroit and Hope Village — for three to six months.

“We’re not just going to see things on paper,” Stella said.

In Grandmont Rosedale, where community leaders are working to make the Grand River corridor a destination to dine and shop, they’re excited to host one of the winning installations, said Sherita Smith, executive director of the Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation.

“Design is an essential part of improving safety and mobility,” said Smith. “... Having one of the winning installations here will be another impactful piece toward our vision for restoring Grand River.”

Stella said they chose the three neighborhoods based on previous relationships with groups in those communities, such as the Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation and the Southwest Detroit Business Association.

For centuries, design competitions have been a tool for soliciting and creating incredible design. The Duomo of the Florence Cathedral in in Italy is believed to be one of the first known design contests in the world, according to the blog, Filippo Brunelleschi was eventually named the winner.

Stella said they were inspired to hold the competition after seeing last fall’s Sukkah x Detroit exhibition in the city’s Capitol Park. A series of temporary structures were built to commemorate the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. And they were inspired by competitions in other UNESCO cities.

“One of the things we’ve seen in other cities is the role that design competitions can play in both supporting the local design community and lifting up the talent and innovation, but also drawing attention to specific issues,” Stella said.

But when it comes to the actual designs that will be created, it’ll depend on the designers. The size will be at least human-scale but it can’t obstruct a sidewalk. 

And it’s possible these prototypes could have applications in other cities, Stella said.

“Part of why Detroit was accepted into the (UNESCO) network is for that learning and sharing opportunity,” said Stella. “This is both about what are the things other cities can learn from us? And what can we learn from other cities? We want to be able to bring people together... Sometimes we are more alike than we are different."