Planners learn lessons for Charlotte from Detroit

By: Scott Baughman//April 17, 2018//

Planners learn lessons for Charlotte from Detroit

By: Scott Baughman//April 17, 2018//

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Planners from across the region met at CPCC to discuss partnerships. Photo by Scott Baughman
Planners from across the region met at CPCC to discuss partnerships. Photo by Scott Baughman


What can the Queen City learn from the recovery of the Motor City? It turns out quite a bit as a result of the Centralina Council of Governments Creative Solutions for Thriving Communities conference.

CCOG officials gathered regional planners from Mecklenburg County and the surrounding areas to meet with dozens of experts in the urban planning, transportation and environmental fields earlier this month at the Harris Campus of Central Piedmont Community College.

The keynote speaker for the first session was Rip Rapson, CEO of the Kresege Foundation and one of the architects of the recovery being experienced by Detroit only a few years after that city filed for one of the largest bankruptcies in American history.

“Perhaps no other place in America evokes images of darkness than Detroit. For the last 100 years the city’s identity has been linked with the automotive industry. But that economy has slowly and inexorably declined over the last 30 years shedding 300,000-400,000 jobs, leading to white and black residents flight from the city and eviscerating the tax base,” Rapson said in his opening remarks to a crowd of about 200 urban officials.

He went on to emphasize just how much economic – and in some cases physical – devastation plagued Detroit in those dark days.

Detroit’s already fragile ecosystem was battered by the 2008 economic crisis. The city’s debt was estimated at $18 billion and it entered bankruptcy in 2013. The chance of total municipal collapse was a real possibility for the first time in America. “We emerged from the bankruptcy at light speed in 2014 – just one year later. We transformed our industrially abused riverfront into Detroit Riverwalk and installed a light rail line,” Rapson said. “We’ve developed a comprehensive land use plan and we birthed a very different narrative of Detroit and marshaled investments from the public, private and non-profit sectors.”

Rapson’s main point was about accelerating opportunities for cities through partnerships.

One attendee, Alyssa Nelson, urban design planner for the City of Salisbury, was eager to hear Rapson’s comments.

“I’m hoping to get some things to spark new ideas to take back to a city smaller than Charlotte. Salisbury has its own situations to work within,” she said.

Rapson highlighted three ways Detroit was using partnerships to make a recovery:

First, he said it is at the local level that the nation will unearth the preconditions for rebirth. The Federal government and state resources can help but the revitalization of America’s cities will be spawned locally.

Second, municipal problem solving capacities are not part of an edict from city hall, but in partnerships with leadership networks. “Detroit recognized that shared problem solving had to be the order of the day,” he said.

Third, Detroit is spending every energy to make sure the benefits of its recovery are shared by all residents.

“How to crack the code of realizing economic growth that benefits the many and not the few has eluded every city in America,” Rapson said. “Detroit is using multi sector investment platforms to spread the revitalization to a variety of neighborhoods and opening access to high quality food and technology.”

And Rapson said in many ways other city’s are jealous of Charlotte’s ability to grow in a managed way and attract millennials.

“From the perch of an outside observer, CMECK has built a region that would be the envy of any city,” he said. “You’ve made powerful improvements to stadiums, light rail lines and museum. You’ve emerged as a significant immigration hub and your ability to appeal to millennials is very annoying to other cities let me tell you. But your region has also lost many jobs with the textile collapse and even though the area is well-managed the legacy of segregation could be a problem. But the good news is you know all this and you are working on these issues.”

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