The metamorphosis grew from desperation. In 2008, two of the Big Three carmakers were swirling toward the sinkhole of bankruptcy. The city’s population, which peaked at 1.85 million during the post—World War II auto boom, was approaching 700,000. Tracts of wilderness, abandoned factories, and empty houses sparked a perverse fascination with Detroit’s ruins. “This whole area really bottomed out,” William Clay “Bill” Ford Jr., Ford’s chairman and a great-grandson of the automotive company’s founder, says.
But then something powerful and unexpected happened: Visionaries and ordinary citizens, tired of living in a crumbling city, decided to quit waiting for someone to fix it. “I think there was a realization by everybody in this region, not just in Detroit, that the way we were doing things was a broken model,” Ford says. “At Ford we had to completely reinvent ourselves.”
The reinvention was aided by the group that Ford’s great-grandfather had resisted so viciously, the United Auto Workers (UAW). “When things were the bleakest,” Ford says, “UAW president Ron Gettelfinger and the union took concessions that allowed Ford to survive and ultimately thrive. Ron said to me, ‘Look, we’ve got to get out of this together.’ If you can take entrenched institutions like the auto companies and the UAW and completely redefine the relationship, then it should be possible for the city of Detroit to do it too.”
That was Bill Ford’s epiphany; other Detroiters had their own. People with foresight and guts began investing in the city again. Detroit natives who had fled their broken hometown trickled back, joined by pioneering young people who saw past the city’s blight. Instead, they saw available buildings, cheap rents, and a welcome mat for innovators. They saw an iron work ethic and fierce energy. And in a landscape ravaged by depopulation and decay, some bright people saw a blank canvas on which to paint a new urban model.
Reemerging waterways and feral forests claim land left open by sharp population decline. Detroit goes green with planning that takes advantage of the city’s unique ecology.
The daylighting, or unearthing, of Bloody Run and other creeks makes water key to a core redevelopment of 3500 acres.
Renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and biofuel production from urban forests greatly reduce dependence on an aging power grid.
CONNECT & BUILD
Waterside paths and parks are used not only for play but also for commuting. They link neighborhoods and promote business development.
Agriculture becomes a small industry for Detroit. Farms export produce to surrounding areas and support a thriving locavore movement.
The water-based redevelopment of Detroit leads to the construction of new bridges, the repair of old ones, and the refurbishing of adjacent streets.
This is so strange. It’s opening day of the 2025 baseball season, but you’re not downtown at the Tigers game. You’re outside the previously derelict Packard Plant, now a retail and rec center with an outdoor theater. At dusk people will gather here for a Detroit Film Festival offering.
You can hear the whoosh of traffic on the Edsel Ford Freeway as you settle into a kayak on a large pond known as the Headwaters. This is the source of the pristine creek called Bloody Run that will carry you 3 miles to the Detroit River. The creek once flowed through a pipe buried beneath a cityscape of stamping plants, car factories, and dense residential neighborhoods. That aboveground world is gone, replaced by this and other liberated creeks snaking through America’s greenest city.
On this future day the sun shines on Bloody Run Creek because of an effort to help nature reassert itself in Detroit. Restoring, or daylighting, city waterways has revived parts of London, Seoul, Zurich, and even Kalamazoo, Mich. In Detroit it was part of a plan devised by landscape architect Stephen Vogel and the Detroit Collaborative Design Center at the University of Detroit Mercy. The Bloody Run Creek Greenway Redevelopment Project, announced in 2011, has been a big factor in making Detroit the world’s first city to turn the theory of landscape urbanism into a reality.
The term landscape urbanism describes city planning that starts with parkland and natural features, not with a grid of streets and buildings. But it was largely notional until Vogel and others—notably, Michael Van Valkenburgh, whose Brooklyn-based firm designed the much-awarded Brooklyn Bridge Park as well as the transformative St. Louis riverfront park—saw the decimation of Detroit as the chance for a paradigm shift.
At Van Valkenburgh’s firm, associate principal Gullivar Shepard led the team that devised a landscape-first plan. “It’s about finding a new urban form,” Shepard says.
“The proposed solutions of the 1970s and ’80s, where government was suggesting spending huge sums of money to revive Detroit, won’t work,” Van Valkenburgh says. “We have to go about it in scrappier ways. You clear a piece of land and natural growth occurs there; our premise in Detroit is about intervening in that process of revegetation—in effect, editing that process. The major scripting is going to happen on its own. Landscape architecture requires patience.”
Thirteen years after Van Valkenburgh makes those remarks, the city is dotted with mixed residential, commercial, and industrial clusters; these are linked by wilderness and barbered green spaces, including farms and forests grown for biomass to feed neighborhood-based gasification units that reduce reliance on the city’s energy grid. As proposed by Van Valkenburgh’s team, city buses double as people movers and transportation for pop-up markets to sell local produce.
Meanwhile, individual residents and nonprofits have planted tens of thousands of trees, and a public—private partnership has turned more than 5 miles of neglected riverfront into the park where Bloody Run joins the Detroit River. Rid of its blighted buildings, its population rebounding, its economy no longer wholly dependent on the auto industry—Detroit has fundamentally changed. Case in point is the waterway on which you’ve been kayaking, which exists because of $4 billion invested in the Bloody Run project.
Richard Baron put up a lot of that money. Born and raised in Detroit, he moved to St. Louis, got rich in real estate, then felt compelled to help his hometown’s comeback. He staked much of his personal fortune on the vision of the likes of Vogel and Van Valkenburgh.
“The wheel has been reinvented,” Baron says. “This new landscape has become so attractive to residential, office, and retail that it has brought in suppliers, small companies, and startups. It has created new jobs and been a magnet to draw a new generation of CEOs who, rather than locating in the suburbs or fringe industrial parks, have come into the center city.”
Stephen Vogel first envisioned this Detroit long before 2025, and the city has become what he foresaw: a model 21st-century metropolis unlike any other in the world.