Griffin shares solutions to re-invigorate city living

Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Toni L. Griffin had less of a black-and-white view of the world than she does now: She was surrounded by African-Americans, glimpsing white culture solely through TV. She didn’t feel underprivileged, nor did she feel becoming an architect was something out of reach.

When Griffin became involved in architecture and design, however, things appeared to become more clear-cut, a topic she delved into during morning lecture Monday in the Amphitheater. In doing so, she began Week Nine’s discussion on “Creating Livable Communities.”

The spatial designs of Chicago; New York City; Newark, New Jersey; Washington, D.C.; Memphis, Tennessee; Oakland, California; and Detroit all followed similar patterns of segregation.

“All of these cities have several racial patterns of segregation, and all have similar urban conditions resulting from an impact of that segregation, consequent of people and place,” Griffin said.

A professor and director of the J. Max Bond Center on Design for the Just City at the City College of New York’s Spitzer School, and the founder of the Urban Planning & Development for the American City, Griffin had the task of identifying urban justice, or injustice, while working for the Detroit Works Project during the city’s most recent recession.

Urban conditions, resulting from elements of social and spatial justice, formed together to create urban justice, or rather, injustice. Social justice is comprised of economic human health, cultural well-being and civic elements, while the environment and its aesthetic create spatial justice.

Recognizing these conditions was essential for Griffin to approach Detroit as a city stigmatized as bankrupt and broken and create a “just city” — an idealistic city that is reached by using existing components and conditions, as coined by Griffin.

Urban injustice, Griffin said, gravitates toward three conditions: concentrated poverty, disinvestment of crime and the architecture of fear and socioeconomic divisions. These factors can be traced back to the mid-1950s, when urban sprawl — aided by transportation — and urban housing made it easier for families and businesses to flee the congested, crumbling cities for the greener pastures of the emerging suburbs.

Detroit, from as early as this point, began to dwindle. Whereas the population in the Motor City was around 1.8 million people in the 1950s, it dropped to 700,000 in 2010, resulting in approximately 80,000 vacant homes and 100,000 vacant lots.

“I’m really optimistic about cities — American cities in particular — and our collective ability to facilitate and create greater urban justice for all,” Griffin said. “I really don’t want to view my city only through black-and-white lenses.”

Griffin’s “just city” strives to include people of all generations, genders, origins and other demographics.

“I want a just city for all people, but especially for the least nonincluded people, to have equitable and inclusive access to the opportunities in schools that allow them to be productive, to strive to excel and to advance through the ranks of social and economic mobility and prosperity,” Griffin said.

To become a “just city,” equality, diversity, inclusion, participation and creative innovation are just a few of the necessary factors to encompass all aspects of a functional urban landscape, she said.

Detroit Future City was a comprehensive framework spurred by the efforts of Griffin and her cohorts to create her ideas of a just city. To do so, they took sketches from the drawing board and put them to practical use.

Griffin was able to see Detroit through five lenses from her experience: legitimizing entrepreneurial place making, expanding choices to live in the city, expanding the right to the city, expanding the option for access and mobility and demanding inclusion and decision-making.

Shinola, an upscale goods manufacturer, made Detroit its home during the recession. The company’s successes showed Detroit was more than just an automobile sector. Accessible employment could — and would — grow in accordance with new economic anchors.

“Detroit presents … a place where the weak beats of the city can be linked to the strong beats of the city, through new investments that support equitable opportunity, choice of diversity in that opportunity, and inclusion and participation and the creation of that opportunity for all,” Griffin said.

Roughly the size of San Francisco, Manhattan and Boston combined, Detroit provided Griffin with difficulties in approaching existing and deteriorating neighborhoods to make livable communities. Detroit Future City found neighborhoods that took on the characteristics of the community while also taking in affordability and location.

Access and connectivity, largely brought together by transportation, was limited by the city’s bus system. To increase mobility within Detroit, Griffin found ways to reach larger portions of the population, including looking into an abandoned rail system that would provide greater access to citizens.

Early on, Griffin faced low levels of civic engagement, but community meetings eventually turned Detroit’s skeptics around.

“When I say community, I don’t mean neighborhood, folks,” Griffin said.

The Detroit community was inclusive to all sectors, including government, faith-based, nonprofits, businesses, philanthropy and civic organizations, leading to more than 163,000 people engaged with Detroit Future City in a 22-month period.

Though nearly seven years have passed since Griffin implemented Detroit Future City and her “just city” ideals, the culture has shifted tremendously: News outlets that once plastered images of a depleted Detroit with cries for saving now embolden the progression of the city.

“Now in 2015, we have travel magazines that are encouraging us to visit Detroit,” Griffin said.

Griffin hopes the just city will become a model for other cities, but also that Detroit continues to see progress everyday.

“The fight for Detroit has started, our fight for the revival of the American city continues, and I hope our fight for the just city is just beginning,” Griffin said.