Detroit: Syncopating an Urban Landscape

The artists, architects, and activists who are reshaping the abandoned landscapes of Detroit.

Illuminated Mural, Katie Craig. Viewable from East Grand Boulevard, a mural on the wall of a nine-story vacant building becomes a beacon in the landscape, symbolizing the action and happenings in the neighborhood. A group of young people from community and public arts programs created the mural using drips of paint that flowed down the wall and splattered. The project worked to connect artists with the building owner, creating a collaborative relationship, with the artists now using the ground floor as studio space. [Photos: DCDC]
Katie Craig, Illuminated Mural, Detroit.

Cities are ecological systems. Their populations grow and shrink. In fact, at least 374 cities worldwide have been losing population since 1950 (and incidentally, Detroit does not top this list; according to German Cultural Foundation’s study “Shrinking Cities,” it ranks 32). Currently, there are many models for urban expansion, few for urban contraction. What we need, then, are not simply patterns or plans for growing or shrinking populations; what we need are appropriate strategies for adapting to inevitable and often unpredictable changes.

Despite the many challenges facing Detroit, despite population loss and economic decline, the city has an extraordinary, perhaps unique, opportunity to craft a new paradigm based on new economic and physical realities and also on its many assets. These assets include major anchor institutions, physical infrastructure, public spaces and networks of community organizations; but at the heart are Detroit’s people and their potential for human capital exchange, creativity and innovation. These assets, and Detroit’s citizens, are my point of departure for this online exhibition of Detroit initiatives, which is centered on amplifying existing creative and alternative projects and events.

A syncopated urban landscape is not a vision of Detroit as a large park. Rather, it acknowledges that the city consists of a series of systems that interact.

The idea of a “syncopated urban landscape” reflects Detroit’s rich music history, and extends it to the city’s landscapes. In music, to syncopate means to take the stronger, more dominant notes and make them weaker, and at the same time to take the weaker notes and make them stronger. In Detroit, something akin to this process has been happening organically, over decades. The vibrant economy of the mid-20th century has been weakening — and yet it remains, and will continue to be a force in the city. And new forces are emerging. The status quo is shifting.

Taken together, the projects presented here suggest that we should work to direct this shift, and not let it simply happen. The goal of a syncopated urban landscape is to reinforce a new asset-based economy — a dynamically balanced network of diverse industries and services at different scales, from the small business to large corporation. Assets grow and change. A flexible and nimble economy grows and changes accordingly.

A syncopated urban landscape is not a vision of Detroit as a large park. Rather, it acknowledges that the city consists of a series of systems that interact and inspire each other. Throughout the United States, cities and towns have been rebranding themselves, often attempting to replace one strong asset with another. This might be helpful as a short-term tactic; but as a long-term strategy the focus on any single asset, no matter how powerful, will likely fall short — as the experience of Detroit shows too well.

The initiatives in the accompanying gallery are organized into three categories:

Productive Landscapes


Some surveys suggest that there are about 40 square miles of undesignated open space (i.e., vacant land and buildings) within the limits of Detroit. This is almost the size of San Francisco — 46.69 square miles — and twice the size of Providence, Rhode Island —18.47 square miles (U.S. Census Bureau). But to be conservative, let’s say there are 30 square miles, and divide that into 800,000 inhabitants (another potentially conservative number). The result: approximately 1,045 square feet of open, green space for each Detroiter. Which suggests that Detroit has the potential to be the greenest city in the United States — a prospect that could influence the quality of life for every resident.

Again, I am not proposing that this green space should be parkland. That notion is unsustainable, and, moreover, has no direct correlation to job creation (another key factor in a citizen’s quality of life). What I am suggesting is that this green space should be conceptualized as a network of “productive landscapes” — spaces that engage the public while also enabling a diverse economy of products and services. An example of a productive landscape in another post-industrial city is Steel Winds, a wind farm in Lackawanna, New York, a suburb of Buffalo. Starting in 2006, Steel Winds returned a former Bethlehem Steel mill to productive use, incorporating a wind farm and public park in the former plant. The result is a place where energy is produced, jobs are created, and people have a place to play.

Urban Ephemera


Urban environments are composites of long-term and short-term initiatives. Short-term events — major league games, fireworks displays, music festivals or art installations — may last a couple of hours, or a couple of days or weeks, but they can leave a lasting impression on residents, and often they are what attract visitors. They may also leave traces on the city’s physical and psychological landscapes.

Architectural Interventions


Some estimates suggest that from 2005 to 2009 the number of foreclosures in Detroit exceeded 50,000; as a result the number of abandoned structures might very soon rise sharply. Given the scale of the problem, few will be reinhabited, at least with their prior uses. If they are not renovated, most will be demolished. There appears to be little middle ground. And some might be left standing in limbo, slowly deteriorating — a blight on both the physical and the psychological landscape. Some of the projects shown here offer alternative strategies for reuse.

Author's Note

This list of projects is limited and incomplete. If I have omitted a significant work that fits within one of these three categories, please feel free to contact me. Thank you for taking time to view this work and perhaps reevaluate your thinking on Detroit’s urban future.

Dan Pitera, “Detroit: Syncopating an Urban Landscape,” Places Journal, July 2010. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • Belle

    07.13.2010 at 16:59

    Great post, and I'm hoping Detroit recovers from it's economic woes eventually, because what's happened over the last decade has been devastating for it's inhabitants. Living in a city where so many properties are abandoned and in disrepair has a psychological effect on it's residents that can't be underestimated.

    A photographer I know visited Detroit last year, and his shots encapsulate the beauty and heartbreak of Detroit.

  • Scott Jackson

    07.14.2010 at 21:13

    Wonderful post, Dan. Really inspiring overview on the creative action that is happening in Detroit.

    It reminds me a little bit of the situation in East Berlin after German reunification. Loads of derelict spaces provided artists and architects with a field-day scenario for creating new models for urban life and vitality. I was almost jealous of the Germans for having such a cool opportunity and so many 'unfancied' spaces to work with. Now it looks like Detroit is somewhat of an East Berlin in the U.S., and that is appealing to me!

  • Henry Schneider

    07.18.2010 at 14:35

    Yes, the building in the image looks creative but for a shrinking city it is not creative enough. Many cities have vacant buildings zoned for light industrial or industrial and they are not being utilized for the tax base. Why not go towards agriculture in these buildings? The buildings zoned for light industrial should pass a load test for certain crops like oyster mushrooms for example. Even if the buildings needed the structure reinforced the revenue generated in mycology could probably pay for the renovation in less than 5 years. Polands most up to date mycology farm is producing 600,000 lbs. of agaricus a month! Just think of the revenue of a new level of farming with the most up to date technology. A shrinking economy would be regenerated. Plus edible mushrooms have compounds necessary for health such as statins so there would be a health benifit also!

  • Jason Lantagne

    07.20.2010 at 00:34

    Fantastic Article! It’s very inspiring to see these kinds of things taking place in Detroit. While I came from a city much MUCH smaller then Detroit in the Upper Peninsula, I’ve always felt a strong similarity in ideology with the people of Detroit. No matter how many people leave, how much the surroundings seem to be crumbling, or how bleak the future looks, it’s a place I will always love and fight for. Detroit has that same blue collar hard nosed resilience and then some! I spent a summer living in Royal Oak and absolutely loved it. If an opportunity ever came up for me to live near Detroit again I would do it in a heart beat.

  • Jason

    07.22.2010 at 15:43

    As a Detroit native, this is an interesting article. It is nice to see projects starting up in the community, but my issue is that so very few of them actually create any sustainable jobs. Most of these projects utilize volunteers, and let's face it: not many community art projects are adept at creating jobs for people. I am interested in the idea of urban farms and think that they could be a great starting point for revitalizing Detroit, but fail to see how scattered art projects made from scrap are going to bring the city back to life.

    A more interesting method of using art to invigorate the economy can be seen in Grand Rapids and their awesome Art Prize.