Frost: Detroit’s growth must be inclusive

Bradford Frost

In January, I wrote in The Detroit News that “Detroit’s growth must be inclusive,” arguing that, in the context of both high poverty and ongoing population decline, the idea of “gentrification” in Detroit is premature. And, perhaps most importantly, that Detroit’s economic development efforts must be intentional in addressing racial equity and inclusion for the city’s long-term prosperity.

Clearly, Detroit is beginning to see rapid redevelopment in the greater downtown and expanded investment interest in areas beyond the city’s core.

Yet, these efforts won’t be enough if we’re not urgent about three things: Detroit’s development priorities, processes and results.

Embedded in Detroit’s gentrification construct is anxiety that our redevelopment efforts aren’t inclusive enough. I agree. We must do more in Detroit to bridge these anxieties, whether in the form of hard development practices, like codifying inclusive housing policies, exploring community benefits agreements, or driving investment to underserved or historically marginalized neighborhoods and developers. But, if we firmly establish our priorities to meet those demands, then focused and inclusive development is possible for Detroit in the next decade and beyond.

Beyond those concrete activities, Detroit must be equally attuned to community planning processes as the city’s growth gains pace. We’re now at a place where investment for investments sake isn’t sufficient in Detroit. The ends won’t justify the means without an inclusive approach. How? First, Detroit must focus intently on the results we’re collectively aspiring to achieve. We must name our long-term goals.

Foremost among these must be developing a city that deconcentrates poverty. Not through displacement or relocation, but not with a blind eye either. Concentrated poverty is the most egregious factor perpetuating intergenerational disadvantage in Detroit. Only a development strategy that aims at economic integration and uplifting household well being can make it possible for all Detroit residents to access opportunity pathways towards a better future for themselves and their families.

This is Detroit’s equal opportunity imperative. It’s the notion that a Detroit home address won’t limit your shot at the American dream any more or less than if you choose to live in Grosse Pointe, Dearborn or Pontiac. And yet, we all know we have so much further to go to realize that ambition.

A start, however, is leveraging the data-rich knowledge emerging on the neighborhood conditions that best foster economic mobility for low-income populations.

With my colleague, Elizabeth Luther, and our partners in the Detroit Corridor Initiative, we’ve been wrestling with what to do over the last year and are pleased to share a new study that takes a sober look at demographic trends in Detroit since 2000.

The report, “Towards Inclusive Growth: Density & Income Mix Strategies for Detroit’s Mixed Use Corridors” is just the latest step in a long-term process for unlocking investment potential in Detroit, and, as we see development taking root, defining the priorities, processes and results we’ll need to truly achieve inclusive growth for all.

Although the Inclusive Growth report does not explicitly break down data by race in Detroit’s corridor areas, it’s important to reiterate that any overarching economic development strategy in Detroit that doesn’t explicitly aim to bridge racial inequities and provide acceleration strategies for low-income or other disadvantaged populations is a profound mistake.

It’s time to reframe the Detroit revitalization debate. Can development that achieves strategic density, healthy income mix and mobility pathways at the neighborhood scale be our shared priority?

Success on all these fronts has long been elusive in Detroit. But, as a practitioner, I’m optimistic that, with long-term commitments from the city and its community development sector that our tenacious pursuit of these inclusive growth imperatives for Detroit, its people and its future is possible. The good news: we can nurture these development priorities through strategic partnerships, planning, policies and real estate development. The better news: the choice is ours.

Bradford Frost is director of the Community Corridor Initiative.