In the New Motor City, It’s Walking Boosting the Local Economy

On the heels of its 2013 bankruptcy, Detroit turned to an innovative urban-planning model to conquer outsized problems—sustainably.

April 14, 2023

By 2013, fewer than 700,000 people lived in Detroit, a city built for 1.8 million. Many vital services faltered or shut their doors altogether. From most neighborhoods within city limits, shopping for food or seeing a doctor could require a drive of 30 minutes or longer. Submerged by debt, Detroit fell into bankruptcy.

But the city’s residents are revitalizing the city with an urban planning model known as the “20-minute neighborhood.” The concept, championed by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, is remarkably simple: to organize the city into densely populated, self-reliant communities where restaurants, green spaces, doctors’ offices, gyms, and retailers are all—sustainably—within a 20-minute walk or bike ride from every resident’s front door.

It’s a model that has a particular resonance for longtime residents of Detroit, because it evokes the city they grew up in. “Folks remember these commercial corridors when Black neighborhoods were booming in Detroit where they got their hair done, they did grocery shopping, they did clothes shopping, they saw their lawyer or insurance agent; they were able to get all of their needs met within walking distance of their residence,” says Jermaine Ruffin, Program Manager at Invest Detroit, a local Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that offers training and technical assistance to small business owners, and taps into philanthropic funding to offer loans of up to $750,000.

In 2016, Invest Detroit, alongside city leaders and investment partners including JPMorgan Chase, joined forces to launch the Strategic Neighborhood Fund (SNF) to bring back the neighborhood model long-time residents remember growing up around. With $42 million in funding, SNF –  which connects community developers with private, philanthropic, and public capital – would help create three 20-minute neighborhoods in the city. “We recognized early on that Detroit would not fully come back if we did not invest in areas beyond downtown and busy commercial corridors,” says Peter Scher, Vice Chairman at JPMorgan Chase, who led the firm’s larger investment of $200 million in Detroit’s economic comeback. The $17 million investment in SNF helped make it possible for the organization to support neighborhood improvements, like park space, bike lanes, and murals; the emerging developers who carry out those improvements; and the small-business owners who provide essential neighborhood services.

A pilot 20-minute neighborhood was chosen: Livernois, the major thoroughfare in northwest Detroit once known as “the Avenue of Fashion.” Detroiters used to come here to shop at big department stores, dine at restaurants, and frequent jazz clubs like Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, where Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat “King” Cole performed. By the late 1960s, Detroit’s population decline was well underway, and there was a stark disinvestment in Livernois. But it never lost what made it a community: its devoted residents, historic character, cultural significance, and strong anchor institutions.

The process in Livernois relied on the direct involvement of residents from its inception, says Ruffin. Invest Detroit conducted some 300 meetings to take the neighborhood’s pulse, gather input, and build consensus. The meetings ranged from town halls at local community centers to ad hoc get-togethers at local parks or even on a neighbor’s front porch. “During our conversations, one thing became central: the importance of enabling communities to build their own neighborhoods on a foundation of equity,” says Jason Tinsley, Michigan Market Manager for J.P. Morgan Private Bank.

Even with the community’s deep involvement, there were still skeptics. “For us, who created the change was far more important than how it changed,” says retailer, restauranteur and developer Rufus Bartell, who has been involved with the Livernois blueprint for more than 18 years and was a founding member of the Independent Business Association. “There was a lot of pain before the pleasure we see in Livernois today. No one believed we could pull this off. Now, everyone wants to replicate what we’ve done.”

For example, Ruffin recalls groups of residents striking a compromise enabling parking spaces to coexist with a bike trail, since many residents rely on “bus and bike.” “They were able to vote to identify the streetscape that worked best for their neighborhood. Not what the city wanted, or what other partners wanted—what the residents wanted,” says Ruffin. “That led to a corridor where, one, residents feel safe; and two, everybody understands ‘we were a part of this.’”

Phase one of revitalizing the area entailed clearing 140 lots, completing the Ella Fitzgerald Park, creating a half-mile-long greenway, and rehabilitating thirteen houses. Brilliant Detroit, an early-child and family center, opened in a renovated 2,000-square home on Prairie Street.

Phase two, in progress, involves the commercial development of the 7300 and 7400 blocks of McNichols Avenue, where Black developers with roots in Detroit are transforming a boarded-up stretch of commercial real estate into mixed-use and residential space. At 7303 McNichols, SNF is providing critical capital for a $9.7 million, 30,000-square-foot renovation that will include four commercial retail spaces and 38 residential units. The developers estimate the project will create 128 jobs. It will be the neighborhood’s first new apartment building in more than 50 years.

One block down the avenue is 7400 West McNichols, a gut rehab of an 8,000-square-foot building by two other local developers; its anchor tenant will be 734 Brewing Company, a Black-owned craft beer maker.

A $5 million JPMorgan Chase philanthropic commitment supported the creation of the Detroit Strategic Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI), a partnership of Invest Detroit, the Detroit Development Fund, and Opportunity Resource Fund. DSNI would oversee development in Livernois and two other neighborhoods seen as “tipping points” in revitalization—Southwest/West Vernor and Islandview/Greater Villages.

As these new projects take shape, the street itself has been transformed. Community-development organizations have partnered with the city to build new, inviting streetscapes, with generous sidewalks for outdoor cafe seating. Livernois is once again a shopping avenue, with a new dedicated shuttle that transports shoppers along its length.

Of the United States’ 50 most populous cities, Detroit has the highest percentage of black-owned businesses—77 percent. “Meeting the needs of these entrepreneurs,” says Scher of JPMorgan Chase, “has been vital in unleashing their power as drivers of opportunity and local economic growth.” Small businesses such as those newly opened in Livernois provide more than 60 percent of Detroit’s employment, according to a 2019 study published by the urban development research organization ICIC and sponsored in part by JPMorgan Chase.

Livernois is thriving now, with a promising future that looks a lot like its heyday. “We’re excited about retailers who are opening up there,” Ruffin says. “They are restoring storefronts on the avenue as clothing and shoe shops. Everything you need to be ‘fly’ in the city of Detroit, you can find on Livernois.” The 20-minute neighborhood model has become the basis of JPMorgan Chase’s Annual Challenge, and has inspired similar projects in cities around the globe, from Chicago to the suburbs of Paris.

To date, JPMorgan Chase has committed a total of $200 million in support of organizations that are leading the city’s revitalization, including Invest Detroit. The local lending ecosystem has taken note, Ruffin says. “I think JPMorgan Chase has challenged other organizations to say, ‘How can we be involved in revitalizing the city?’”

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