The new economy requires new modes of learning, researching, working, and generating ideas that cut across disciplines and facilitate the transfer of ideas from the classroom to the marketplace. These changes demand that institutions reconsider how they are organized and how they collaborate within their physical environments. TechTown, an emerging knowledge district anchored by three key institutions in Midtown Detroit - Wayne State University (WSU), the College for Creative Studies (CCS), and the Henry Ford Health System (HFHS) - is leading Detroit’s transition from an automotive to an innovation-based economy. Over the past several months, Midtown Detroit Inc. (MDI), along with its institutional partners, has facilitated a district planning process that leverages the unique strengths of each institution, while creating new opportunities for collaboration and investment. The district plan for TechTown articulates a long term vision, with clearly defined catalytic projects that will foster economic development and support new ways living, working, and learning. The public realm emerges as the defining feature that accelerates this change.
The character of TechTown itself is unique, featuring buildings that played an important role in the automotive innovations of an earlier era. Today, the district fosters new modes of innovation from alternative energy, to healthcare, to creative industries maintaining its legacy as a birthplace for ideas.
Goals for the District: The goals of the TechTown district directly respond to key challenges of the site. The plan aims to create a vibrant and livable neighborhood that is safe and supports activity 24/7. Today, there is a shortage of housing and retail services, and limited public space. Poorly defined street edges, large parking lots, blank walls, isolated uses and lack of ground floor transparency, and inconsistent lighting across the district discourage people from engaging the site. The creation of a vibrant neighborhood requires a combination of civic spaces and infrastructure, diverse housing options, and a variety of third spaces. Our proposal integrates these elements within a comprehensive public realm strategy.
The TechTown District Plan aims to encourage experimentation and make visible the production of ideas. Experimentation is critical to the formation of new ideas and businesses. While innovations occur daily in TechTown, experimental infrastructure is limited to specialized institutions and is not accessible to a broader audience. Co-working spaces, incubators, fabrication labs, hacker labs, and test kitchens enable experimentation. The plan for TechTown situates these spaces in central, highly visible and accessible locations that span both indoor and outdoor environments, encouraging inquiry, while activating the public realm in a thought-provoking and participatory manner.
The TechTown District Plan aims to facilitate collaboration. While new ideas are often the product of collaboration, and spontaneous conversations, institutions in TechTown largely operate as internalized siloes that rarely engage the public realm or nearby organizations. The shift toward a new innovation economy requires places for collaboration, including landing spots for planned and serendipitous meetings, ad hoc gathering spaces, and flexible and temporary spaces. The TechTown District Plan brings these elements together within a central plaza with inviting adjacent uses. Collaboration occurs in the public realm as much as in surrounding buildings.
The TechTown District Plan seeks to create a defined heart for the district. The decentralized patterns of investment and prevalence of surface parking characteristic of Detroit also define TechTown. Through a robust open space framework and urban design strategy, the plan transforms places for cars into places for people, while creating a clearly defined heart and visual identity for the district.
Analysis and Outreach:
To better understand the salient planning issues, a variety of analytical techniques were employed, including conversations with stakeholders, photographic essays of site conditions, mapping property ownership and parking patterns, site tours, precedent studies, and a “MyDistrict” survey. MyDistrict is an online graphic survey that was distributed to key employers and institutions to help understand qualitative impressions of the district. Individuals were asked to identify where ideas are formed, where they collaborate, favorite dining locations, favorite outdoor areas, unsafe areas, common pedestrian, vehicular, and bicycle routes, and perceptions of the district boundaries. Respondents placed more than 2,000 icons on the map. Their responses informed the ultimate site selection for the core plaza, and reinforced the need to address perceptions of safety through public realm and building treatments.
A robust outreach process also influenced the design strategy. At each milestone, a stakeholder committee with representatives from key institutions was consulted. Open forums in the evening provided venues for project updates, and included presentations from spotlight speakers. TechTownTalk, the project blog, was developed to document the planning process and provided another vehicle for feedback. Interactive games, such as the “Circuit Board” and the “Coin Survey” were employed during the forums to test different design alternatives and to rank preferences for where to focus initial investment. The coin survey identified streetscapes and parks as one of the preferred focus areas for the district.
The analysis and outreach process helped generate both a long term aspirational framework for the district, along with a near-term catalytic project that focuses investment around a signature core plaza. Initial investments link the proposed light rail stop to the east with a new park to the west. Strategic street closures and the transformation of existing surface parking lots create a defined heart for the district. A dense grove of trees and linear bench direct individuals from the proposed light rail stop into the plaza. A fabrication lab anchors the southern side of the plaza with fabrication tables that span both indoor and outdoor environments. Collaboration cubes—or moveable and adaptable work stations—populate the plaza and can be reconfigured and relocated to meet the specific needs of the user. These cubes create a collaborative icon for the district.
A projection screen, climbing wall, and signature shade circuit define the north side of the plaza, which includes a café with seating among an informal grove of trees. These amenities complement a nearby flexible space that can be programmed according to time of year and community needs. The plaza is home to the “maker’s fair” and “hacker challenge” in the fall. In the winter, the plaza accommodates a light installation and temporary curling lane, with collaborative campfires for warmth. Spring transforms the plaza into the epicenter of an alternative energy challenge with solar test cubes and food trucks. Colored pavers pixelate the ground plane, and create a branded identity for the heart of the district.
The plaza is regarded as the near term critical investment in the district. It serves as the nexus and collaborative common ground for all stakeholders, but requires the coordination of several landholders to realize the vision. This planning process provides the foundation for seeking funding essential to implementing this project. If realized, the core site public realm strategy has the potential to ignite innovation and drive Detroit’s transition toward a new innovation economy.