The Man Behind the Civic Outreach
When you meet Dan Pitera, you can hear the hum of his live-wire energy. As the leader of the community-engagement arm of Detroit Works’ long-term planning team, he needs the charge. Pitera, who directs the Detroit Collaborative Design Center at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture, is partnering on the engagement effort with two area nonprofits, Michigan Community Resources and the Community Development Advocates of Detroit.
Extraordinary civic engagement was essential for building the legitimacy of Detroit Works after its horror of a debut. So, from their cheery Detroit Works storefront in Eastern Market, Pitera and his team organized community conversations in multiple neighborhoods, as well as a traveling “road show” and telephone town halls. They posted presentations online before they were refined and made data visualizations of public feedback. They created “Detroit 24/7,” an online game where players envision the city’s future. And they launched an oral history project fashioned as an elegant online gallery. (“It’s a myth that to have community engagement, you have to have mediocre design,” Pitera says.)
“It’s really about building relationships, not just getting information,” Pitera says. When he started with Detroit Works, he was “as critical as anyone” about the clumsy way conversations about poverty and policy happened. Pitera says he understands the cynicism of many residents. “It’s very valid,” he says, based on the mixed messages that they’ve heard so far.
Pitera is intrigued by the project’s potential not to “re-create” Detroit, but to amplify existing resources—its people, most especially, and its land. “We have a chance to create a 21st-century ecological and equitable city,” he says.
One of the many things architects have learned over the last century is that there’s no way to plan equitable spaces if the process itself is not equitable, if it does not reflect a deep and broad interaction with citizens and an honest accounting of those conversations. The civic engagement of Detroit Works is groundbreaking in its scope, reaching tens of thousands of residents. How meaningful those conversations have been will be seen in whether or not the project helps guide decision making by residents on street corners, at dinner tables, and in block clubs, to say nothing of City Hall. Poverty is a distortion of power, after all, and it is difficult to have an equitable conversation across that line.
Charity Hicks, a local health activist, describes poverty as “people who have profound capacities, but no opportunity. Poverty truncates you.” Hicks has served on a Detroit Works advisory board, but she’s critical that more “local brain cells” are not in leadership positions at Detroit Works, aside from HAA. “Find those people who are visionary and innovative, and marry them with planners,” she said. “Take a group of citizens through Planning 101. Why not?” More than just a performance of representative leadership, she argues, such an approach would have added additional depth to the many discussions about the city’s future.
Will the city merge the recommendations from the long-term plan with its short-term vision? So many strategies that the framework describes will, at some point, necessitate city participation. But Kinkead sidesteps the idea of it requiring top-down implementation, saying success depends on a “mosaic implementation, from a design perspective.”
“This is fundamentally collaborative,” Kinkead said. “Everybody, from the state to the city to the citizen, is an important decision maker. The problems [here] are too deep, too systemic, for any participant to be missing in the solution. … We need everyone to rise up to the challenge. We have to make deliberate decisions. We have to move beyond ourselves and think of the city as a whole.”
Kinkead sighs, leans back in his chair, and adds: “There’s a bit of a leap of faith in that.”