UM Taubman College, Ginsberg Center, Detroit Center help lay foundation for future of Detroit

by Deborah Meyers Greene, UM Public Affairs

Through their work on the new Detroit Residential Parcel Survey (DRPS), the Ginsberg Center, the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, the university’s Detroit Center, and 26 current graduate students and recent alumni have played a foundational role in strategizing the city’s future.

Following a period of extended economic and cultural challenge that dates back to the 1950s, vast stretches of the city lay blighted or vacant.

“The harsh reality is that some areas are no longer viable neighborhoods with the population loss and financial situation our city faces,” Detroit Mayor Dave Bing said March 23 in his State of the City address. “Strengthening our city will take a long-term strategy for how we use Detroit’s 140 square miles more productively.”

DRPS data will help decision-makers identify exactly which neighborhoods are threatened by blight, which can be revived with support and which continue to thrive. This critical knowledge will help the city’s leadership determine “what areas of our city are best suited for residential use, commercial and industrial businesses, parks and green space,” Bing said.

“According to the survey, 86 percent of the city’s single-family homes are in good condition, and only about 9 percent require relatively minor repairs,” says Margaret Dewar, Ginsberg faculty director and professor of urban and regional planning at Taubman College. “This means that 95 percent of the city’s single-family housing stock should be suitable for occupancy.” The survey also found that 91,000 residential lots, or 26 percent, are vacant.

Carrying primary responsibility for fieldwork coordination, the Ginsberg Center utilized the university’s Detroit Center as a base of operations for the recruitment, training and supervision of 48 surveyors, who drove in three-person teams through every Detroit neighborhood during six weeks in August and September 2009.

Anticipating Bing’s promise that “every Detroiter has a voice and a role in this process,” at least one, and sometimes two of the three were current residents of the city. Together, they assessed and recorded the condition of approximately 343,000 residential properties housing from one to four families.

“It was an awesome experience,” says Robert Linn, a 2009 social science graduate of the Residential College, now in his first year of the Taubman College’s Master of Urban Planning Program. “I learned there’s a real debate, that there is not a singular vision for the city. Everyone has an opinion and a stake in the outcome.

“My family and friends from my old near-east-side neighborhood have one vision that people from the northwest or southwest sides don’t necessarily share,” says Linn, a native Detroiter and creator and host of the weekly “From Belle Isle to 8 Mile” jazz and soul music show, now in its fifth year on U-M student radio station WCBN.

“These are the best data ever accumulated on the city’s residential properties,” says Dewar, “and they have many uses.” One example is the 2010 U.S. census. The Census Bureau will use the data to help allocate staff who follow up with census non-respondents.

“The data also could help in decisions about where to locate city services like public safety and health resources, mass transit, garbage collection and more, like reshaping the public schools,” says Eric Dueweke, community partnerships manager at the Taubman College and overall site supervisor for the survey.

The data, which are accessible in the university’s Spatial and Numeric Data Services lab, promise to support current and future teaching and research. “We’re using the data in a class that Eric and I are co-teaching this semester,” Dewar says, “and I can see countless research applications for the future.”

DRPS was underwritten by the Detroit Economic Growth Association with funds coming from Living Cities, a philanthropic collaborative of 21 of the world’s largest foundations and financial institutions dedicated to improving the lives of low-income people in America’s urban areas.

DRPS is a project of the Detroit Data Collaborative, which includes the Detroit Office of Foreclosure Prevention and Response; Community Legal Resources, Detroit Vacant Property Campaign; Data Driven Detroit (formerly Detroit-Area Community Information System); and Living Cities.

*This article reprinted from Record Update and The University Record Online.