In Detroit, the statistics are jarring: The city has 26 jobs for every 100 people, 47 percent of residents are functionally illiterate, and, with 344 homicides in 2011, its violent-crime rate eclipses that of any other major U.S. city. Twenty-three percent of the housing stock is vacant, and though municipal tax rates in Detroit are 2.5 times the national average, services are spread thinly across the city’s expansive 143-square-mile footprint. As industry left town in the second half of the 20th century, the population declined steeply, leaving a city of 700,000 people to foot the bill for infrastructure designed for 2 million. The shrinking tax base, intensified by the recession and rampant foreclosures, left Detroit broke and scrambling to fend off a state takeover earlier this year.
In 2010, Mayor Dave Bing, a basketball legend turned businessman, launched the latest effort to bring the city back from the brink. Branded the Detroit Works Project, the initiative was funded primarily by private organizations—including $2.7 million from the Kresge Foundation—to inventory the city’s physical condition and economic, social, and infrastructural challenges. “Detroit is unique because of its scale and size. There really isn’t a postindustrial American city with that level of vacancy and population loss,” says Toni Griffin, an urban-planning professor at City College of New York who was tapped by Detroit Works to oversee a team of economists, designers, planners, and engineers. Detroit Works will complete its final report in late October with a series of targeted recommendations for short- and long-term renewal.