This mapping-based research and design project studies the digital divide in Detroit, focusing on Internet access in the city’s most disenfranchised neighborhoods. As investors pour money into the residential and commercial development of areas like Downtown, Midtown, and Corktown, residents in marginalized neighborhoods lack access to digital infrastructure and the necessary skills to use information effectively once connected. Indeed, despite recent development, Detroit has the lowest rate of Internet connectivity in the United States, excluding thousands of people from the opportunities for education, employment, and belonging afforded to those with the ability to get online. This condition is exacerbated by the economic precarity of many Detroiters, the high costs of individual residentially-based internet access, and uneven broadband internet service provision throughout Detroit’s neighborhoods. Referred to as “digital redlining,” some view disinvestment in digital infrastructure for less affluent, non-white communities as commensurate to discrimination. Many of those affected are school-aged kids that need the Internet to complete their homework, submit job applications, or simply socialize with their classmates. While research shows that most teens have some access to the Internet via schools, libraries, or public WiFi connections, young people remain at a severe disadvantage if their households are unable to get online. As various grassroots and political organizations work to build a robust digital ecosystem, and urban development is increasingly influenced by broadband or wireless accessibility, what kinds of egalitarian spaces emerge under this evolving techno-infrastructure? If the Internet fosters a more complex sense of belonging, how is the built environment reconfiguring to support nascent social structures and promote inclusion? How does access (or lack thereof) to these virtual networks challenge conventional understandings of public and private space? How do teenagers in the iGeneration occupy or navigate a metropolis that is significantly offline? If citizens are emboldened by access to digital technologies, how might a community-driven network architecture breakdown certain hierarchies and power structures commonly found in the city?
To address these questions, this project combines publicly available spatial data in G.I.S. with information gathered from interviews of high school students in the city in order to map detailed geographies of digital access and exclusion across Detroit’s neighborhoods. The project identifies latent opportunities to reimagine Detroit’s disinvested neighborhoods in ways that enable public assembly and internet connectivity, proposing urban design scenarios that are rich with innovative ways to connect physically and virtually. Among other outcomes, the project results in detailed maps that articulate what would be necessary in order to develop strong community mesh networks across Detroit for internet access. By visualizing these invisible networks, this project hopes to create a heightened sense of community, empower citizens to create new spaces for public discourse in their neighborhoods, and redefine what digital access and equity could look like in the urban environment.
Support for this project was provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant, Egalitarian Metropolis.