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Reclaimed in Detroit

Detroit's ~100K vacant lots are a reinvention opportunity. Could some be salvaged for community centers; others cleared for urban farming; & old building materials reused for furniture? Could "Reclaimed in Detroit" become a mark of Motor City pride?

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Detroit has a huge abandoned building issue (almost 100K vacant homes/lots). Some can be renovated for new purposes like art/community centers & new businesses. However, with the drop in Detroit’s population from almost 2 million in 1950 to a little over 700K now, driven by permanent shifts like the decline of the traditional auto industry, not everything can be used/maintained (not enough people to move into houses, no one will invest say $100K to renovate something that will only be worth $50K afterwards, shrinking tax base for supporting infrastructure, etc.). And if they’re just left standing as depressing eyesores, broken window theory & experience shows the blight can create more problems like crime, as dramatically manifested during Devil’s Night (hundreds of arson fires started in Detroit shortly before Halloween) each year.


However, this abandoned building problem is also a huge opportunity. By rightsizing & clearing away excess unusable/unmaintainable buildings, as Detroit is currently doing, a blank canvas is opened for reinvention. In fact, Detroit could leapfrog to become a sustainable city that’s a model for the US and the world.

For instance, look at what Greensburg, Kansas did after a >200 miles/hour tornado in 2007 completely destroyed 95% of it and left the remaining 5% severely damaged. It rebuilt around sustainable living, and now generates wind, solar, & geothermal energy for itself and nearby communities (pre-Tornado, oil/gas was a primary economic base), has the most LEED Platinum buildings per capita & per sq. ft. in the world (green roofs, water re-use, LED lighting, reclaimed materials, etc.), and been recognized with various sustainability awards such as the 2011 United Nations Global Green City Award (

Detroit is already moving in the direction of a sustainable city, with its continued development of public light rail transit, bike paths, & walkability. Now, imagine if Detroit’s 40 square miles of vacant land were utilized for initiatives like urban farming, which are already cropping up on a grassroots (many linked Detroit Urban Farming inspirations on right) & large-scale level. With its abundance of available space, rare for a large city, Detroit could become the 1st city to produce all of its food locally in beautiful farms that provide fresh food security/access, air quality, natural pleasure, etc.


What becomes of the buildings that are cleared away? Well, in keeping with sustainability, and to recover the most value, building material should be reused when possible, recycled/composted otherwise, and only disposed as a last resort.

For instance, imagine having a uniquely crafted coffee table, made from reclaimed old building material, with the character of the Motor City? These unique pieces are created by skilled & creative craftspeople, many with experience in auto manufacturing & building construction, and youth apprentices. Could "RECLAIMED IN DETROIT" become a sought out badge for furniture? Would people from Michigan and beyond buy and cherish these pieces for their homes? Could this contribute to sustainable revitalization in Detroit, economic & otherwise?


What else could building materials be reclaimed into? Could the beautiful history & materials from a building relegated for demolition, be reused & preserved in the renovation of another building for revitalization? Could materials from cleared buildings in turn be used to create raised planting beds to kickstart urban agriculture?

What else in Detroit is ripe for reclamation? Community heritage, Skilled Craftsmanship....?

Image Attributions: , , , ,

What resources (money, time, people, technology, etc) will your concept need to be successful?

The Detroit government can help jumpstart this “Reclaimed in Detroit” initiative by 1) giving entrepreneurs/artists/cooperatives easy access to old building materials in areas designated for "rightsizing" (maybe mobile workshops could even be setup to follow the rightsizing work?), and 2) commissioning Sustainable Motor City pieces for community-revitalizing public works projects such as park benches, communal coffee tables ( , & even neighborhood swings ( ) ! And I’m sure challenge sponsor Steelcase, with its premier reputation & experience in workplace furniture, can find ways to get involved ;). For example, Steelcase could step in through its community support programs ( ) of employee volunteering (furniture design, manufacturing, marketing expert advisory & training/apprenticeships), cash/in-kind donations (furniture building machines/tools, joint Reclaimed in Detroit/Steelcase promotional campaign funding), etc. This could be a great fit, given Steelcase's contribution focus on programs that: "encourage community growth, promote life-long learning, harbor cultural acceptance, advance arts and cultural heritage, and create positive environmental contributions. In fact, Steelcase is currently a community partner for the "West Michigan Center for Arts & Technology" which provides art education and technical skill development for youth & adults. For more suggestions on how Steelcase could get even more involved, see the "My Virtual Team" section called "STEELCASE SOARS TO SUPER SPONSOR".

What steps could you take to implement this idea today?

Anybody—government or individual, business or nonprofit—can begin Reclaiming today! It's a simple statement, but becomes powerful through people's participation. I've just learned (on 1/30/2012) that Dylan Box of the University of Michigan Art & Design School, has already begun making this idea a reality! He plans to move to Detroit and setup a studio/workshop/skillshare to pursue this. Check out what he's done so far (furniture designs, prototypes, strategy development, deconstruction research, etc.) at . And he's seeking collaborators, so I'm sure he'd love to hear from you: , .

How can your idea be scaled so that it's implemented in cities around the world?

The name/rep of "Reclaimed in Detroit" cannot easily be transplanted away, as it's inextricably intertwined with Detroit's unique history, cultural identity, & specific situation. "Reclaimed in Detroit" will ultimately draw its strength from and contribute to the vibrancy of Detroit in a virtuous cycle. However, other cities can certainly benefit from an approach of reinventing around sustainability, building on heritage, & strategic consideration of assets. Perhaps a guidebook could be established to help anyone reclaim locally anywhere, spreading the action, spirit, & values of reclaiming far & wide. Wherever you are, there's much to be reclaimed!

My Virtual Team

Here's an overview of the great insights/builds made & inspired by y'all. Please see the comments at the bottom for the full lively discussion! *IT'S ALREADY WORKING IN BUFFALO: Buffalo's population declined by almost 40%, with 23K unwanted structures, 10K planned to be demolished by the government. Buffalo Re-Use/ReUse Action ( , ) , founded by Echoing Green Fellow Micahel Gainer, uses creative deconstruction/construction to divert old building materials from the landfill & lower disposal costs, reclaim into furniture & new buildings/renovations, sell low-cost materials for people to improve their homes, create community gardens/parks, and provide youth job training. Primary income for sustainability is already coming from sales, rather than government/foundation grants or individual donations. -Team: Gemma Bulos ( ) , Michael Gainer ( ) *DEMAND FOR "RECLAIMED IN DETROIT": besides local Detroit residents, the surrounding Michigan area, and people beyond who have an affinity for Detroit's history & culture, there are broader design & sustainability markets for "Reclaimed" products. For example, it only makes sense for a sustainable house to have sustainable furniture (aesthetically & ethically). People are seeking what is sustainable, local, & unique. -Team: Susannah Ware ( ), Ken Thomas ( ), Yen Chiang ( ) *POWER OF STORIES: A Brand is only as strong as the stories around it. Wil Kristin, April Deibert, & Meredith Stevenson did an amazing job of articulating some additional things that "Reclaimed in Detroit" can convey. Search for their comments below to see what I mean. To give you a quick preview: from Wil, "Reclaimed in Detroit is about leveraging the city's...core...& tweaking it dramatically for modern times"; from April, "they are creating things that are meant to be marketed and sold around the U.S. and the world as part of history in the making--the rise of the people to rebuild their livelihoods to live the American Dream. This is the type of story my whole family would watch on a show like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." These comments also point to the potential power of "Reclaimed in Detroit" both internally for the Detroit community & externally for fans around the world. -Team: Wil Kristin ( ), April Deibert ( ), Meredith Stevenson ( ) *INVOLVING LOCAL COMMUNITY AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE FOR MULTIPLIER EFFECTS: Consider local employment for everything from furniture design to carpentry, marketing to web development. Opportunities for apprenticeships/mentorships/training involving youth, skilled adults, & young professionals. Involving & benefiting the local community is naturally important to remain true to the spirit of "Reclaimed IN DETROIT". Could even have design challenges/contests, workshopes, etc. in coordination with nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity or local companies like Steelcase. -Team: Leila Bozorg ( ), Wil Kristin ( ), Shannon Randolph ( ) , Scott Boylston ( ) *STEELCASE SOARS TO SUPER SPONSOR: Samuel Hamner had some great suggestions on how Steelcase could really scale their sponsorship to a super level. He put it so well, will just copy-paste his ideas here. I could imagine Steelcase participating in one of three ways: (1) Providing training for local artists and artisans to design and produce their own reclaimed furniture. The program could encourage small businesses and entrepreneurship or it could target low income or at risk youth and provide them with vocational skills. (2) Steelcase could market, sell, and distribute a limited line of reclaimed furniture from Detroit manufactured in it's existing plants, with a portion of the proceeds going back to the community. (3) Steelcase could establish small scale manufacturing in Detroit to employ local workers, and then market, sell, and distribute the furniture through it's existing channels. -Team: Samuel Hamner ( ) *BRAND STEWARDSHIP:  Detroit city government or a trusted nonprofit may be a natural steward for the "Reclaimed in Detroit brand".  I.e., the "Reclaimed in Detroit" steward would protect the name (trademark, domain name); ensure it was only used for things that were truly reclaimed in Detroit (i.e. % of reclaimed material, labor, etc. in Detroit); and provide ways for the "Reclaimed in Detroit" community to connect & collaborate on promoting the brand, Detroit, and the concept of Reclaiming (online directory, meetups, etc.). -Team: OpenIDEO/Steelcase/Advisory Panel *RECLAIMING TO INFINITY & BEYOND: Old building material can be reclaimed for purposes beyond furniture (for example, Brad Leibin's brilliant build/idea to preserve the beautiful history & materials from buildings in areas relegated for demolition, in the renovation of buildings in other areas selected for revitalization. Or raised gardening beds—nice synergy with Detroit's urban farming—as suggested by Erica Stephan & Paul Reader). Many things can be reclaimed besides building materials ( community heritage, people's experience/knowledge/skills, etc. ). And many places beyond Detroit can benefit and have benefited by Reclaiming, whether disaster struck ( like Katrina Furniture Project , 5200 Dauphine ), in the midst of economic turmoil, undergoing population decline, or simply trying to be more sustainable. And Paul Reader pointed out the possibilities of "Reclaimed in XXX", in terms of category & place extension potential. Also Yen Chiang proposed the possibility for a guidebook that could help anyone reclaim locally, spreading the action, spirit, & values of reclaiming far & wide. So many opportunities to move from "waste to wealth", as Scott Boylston demonstrated with his organization's ( Emergent Structures ) projects. -Team: Brad Leibin ( ) , Kelly Heyer ( ), Scott Boylston ( ), Mike McDearmon ( ), Yahayra Rosario Cora ( ), Erica Stephan ( ), Paul Reader ( ), Wil Kristin ( ), Yen Chiang ( ), Robert Gradoville ( )
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Photo of Vincent Cheng

I've just learned (on 1/30/2012) that Dylan Box of the University of Michigan Art & Design School, has already begun making this idea a reality! He plans to move to Detroit and setup a studio/workshop/skillshare to pursue this. Check out what he's done so far (furniture designs, prototypes, strategy development, deconstruction research, etc.) at . And he's seeking collaborators, so I'm sure he'd love to hear from you: , .

Photo of Ashley Jablow

Isn't this terrific news!? We've also been in touch with Dylan and hope to hear all of his great updates as he works toward implementation in Detroit.

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