We sat down with Maurice Cox, Planning and Development Director, City of Detroit, and discussed design practice in urban planning, building strategies in suburban realms, and the role of civic engagement in cities faced with natural and economic recovery. Cox is a nationally acclaimed community designer and leader of the public interest design movement. He is widely respected for his ability to incorporate active citizen participation into the urban design and planning process. Cox has a reputation for developing bold — yet achievable — plans that become tools for civic discourse and empowerment, embraced by diverse sectors of the community. Before moving to Detroit, Cox served as associate dean for community engagement at Tulane University’s School of Architecture and director of the Tulane City Center, a university-affiliated practice operating at the intersection of design, urban research, and civic engagement throughout New Orleans. He also served as design director of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) from 2007-2010, where he led the NEA’s Your Town Rural Institute, the Governors’ Institute on Community Design, the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, and oversaw grants to the design community across the United States.
How has Detroit relied on architects or collaborated with them? Where do you find the most successful partnerships between city and architect?
Well, at various levels. First of all, it’s a planning department…We actually have more architects in the planning department then we do city planners, and we have more landscape architects and urban designers, then we have planners. So, what the planning department in Detroit has evolved into, and it was a part of my original vision, was a public interest design practice embedded in city hall that was able to address all of the facets of the built and natural environment that make up the public realm…Clearly, when you have all of those disciplines in the conversation at all times, you get a much more complex and nuanced response to building the city… I really think it’s at the intersection of disciplines where innovation resides.
In recent interviews, you talked about the idea of “smooth growth.” Did this theoretical idea become a building strategy? Can a similar strategy be applied to urban sprawl and in suburban realms? For example, places like Dallas, Houston, and even Austin are facing rapid growth, which often leads to vacant lots in a developing area.
I would argue that the design discipline has a set of strategies that apply to areas where there are market pressures, and it’s usually by making buildings. They could be contextually sensitive buildings excreta, but they’re still responding to a market that wants to build. In Detroit out of our 139 square miles, ten square miles fit in that category…The challenge for Detroit is what to do with the other 129 square miles where there is no pressure currently to grow and has faced periods of de-population. The profession has not focused on areas where growth is flat or even negative growth. So, the smooth growth concept gave me–and it was Marshall Brown who now teaches at Princeton that coined this concept– a lens that addresses the options for no growth.
Your question was the application to the suburban challenge that we’re facing, which again if you think about the kind of congress for the new urbanism principles, it’s all about growth and infill. So, a lot of our inner suburbs are now the place where growth is stagnant, and you have a preponderance of land. I think that those kinds of suburbs are a prime place to explore options for a smooth growth that is not reliant on building new things but repurposing old open space. I think that’s the new frontier. And, I really stress that all of the urbanization I’ve seen of the suburb has been about adding greater density, building new stuff, adding a low-density shopping centers, adding housing. It’s all add, add, add. So, in those first few suburbs that don’t have the economic demand there, the question becomes what do you do that prepares the ground for future investment that changes the quality of life right now. Another theory that we use is landscape urbanism. The best way to organize cities may be through the design of their landscapes rather than the design of their buildings. And, I would argue the suburban ring around urban areas is an enormous canvas for landscape provision.
Last year, Hurricane Harvey left significant damage in its wake here in Texas, given your experience in Post-Katrina New Orleans and in Post-Great Recession Detroit, how can urban planners and architects signal to people living with the devastation that the city is committed to recovery? Where does recovery begin for a city, in your experience, and what role does an urban planner and architect play in that process?
Detroit is experiencing a heightened civic engagement in the conversation about how the city will grow not that the population decline has all but subsided, and how we can grow inclusively. The biggest signal a city can make to residence is their willingness to invest in their planning of their city, and that doesn’t mean hiring high-priced consultants to come in and tell you what your city should be, but investing in the infrastructure of planning, which means having planners that can do mega planning, who are about listening and about interpreting community’s desires into a real public spaces, real landscape, and real building assets. The thing that people are most surprised by in Detroit is how much the city planners are there to listen to them and value the assets those communities have…A great example is we’ve got dozens and dozens of schools in Detroit that are empty. After a while, those buildings have become a nuisance to residents, and they want to tear down those buildings. Even though their memories are locked in those buildings their need to eliminate the blight gets them to dismantle their own memories. And, so we come back and say, well, is it possible to partially activate that asset? We don’t have enough resources, enough program, or enough people to fill 200,000 square feet of a high school but do we have enough to activate the auditorium. What kind of use could we put in there that would make an attractor and a destination for young people? So, we tackle that by converting the old auditorium of a high school into an indoor youth skate park while the rest of the asset is walled-off for another day. We call this tactical preservation. It’s that whole process of engaging people, meeting them where they are and trying to move incrementally to another place that allows them to imagine things that they never thought were possible.