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Detroit: the 21st Century Challenge History can repeat itself; Detroit’s lessons are ones Portland should take to heart

Recap from: Detroit: the 21st Century Challenge - a test of equity, vitality, and sustainability 


The event included a moderated discussion with Dr. Ellen Bassett of the Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning and a panel of speakers including Dr. Robin Boyle of Wayne State University in Detroit; Ms. Linda Thomas of the Detroit community development corporation U-SNAP-BAC; and Ms Michelle Rudd, a partner at Stoel Rives and member of the City of Portland’s Planning and Sustainability Commission.

What might the Motor City and the Rose City – Motown and Stumptown – have in common? Not much comes to mind, at least initially, when hunting for similarities between Detroit and Portland.

Not so fast, say experts at Portland State University.

Police brutality cases, housing foreclosures, unemployment, a lack of jobs, broken families – Portland is trying to cope with skyrocketing numbers in each of these categories, social ills Detroit has been tackling for years.

A desire to analyze Detroit’s urban problems, how the city is moving forward and relevant lessons for Portland as the city plans its future led to "Detroit: the 21st Century Challenge – A test of equity, vitality, and sustainability," a public symposium hosted by PSU’s College of Urban and Public Affairs on Dec. 9.

The event – a panel discussion with experts representing Detroit and Portland – was co-sponsored by the Nohad A. Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning, the Coalition for a Livable Future, and supported by the Ernie Bonner Equity Planning Endowed Scholarship. Nearly 140 attended; Dr. Ellen Bassett, a Toulan School professor – and native of Detroit – moderated the discussion.

In kicking off the symposium, PSU President Wim Wiewel stressed that Portland "needs research, knowledge, deep thinking and learning from other places" as the city attempts to create a blueprint for its future.

Panelist Robin Boyle, an urban studies and planning professor at Detroit's Wayne State University, highlighted how the word, "Detroit," conjures up a complicated set of images and ideas.

"The city's name represents a place, an industry, a genre of music – and negative change, including decay and depression," he said.

A shift occurred after the race riots of 1967, he said, that left more than 40 people dead; the white population left Detroit in droves, headed to the suburbs, and the city became home for a predominantly black population. This demographic "divide" was both race and class-oriented – a chasm that continues to separate economics, capitol, wealth and opportunity.

Panelist Linda Smith is the executive director of U-SNAP-BAC, a community development corporation in Detroit. She addressed the complexity of securing affordable housing for clients on now vacant land in the midst of rampant political corruption and mistrust of the government by residents.

"We hold community meetings, to listen to what Detroit's residents want, what they don't want – and they come out with a load of issues," she said. That frustration, coupled with government that resembles the game "Musical Chairs" – Detroit recently had four mayors in one year – makes the operational part of Smith's job challenging.

Things may be looking up for Detroit, though. With such measures as the New Economy Initiative, Mid-Town Anchor Strategy, M1-Rail and Detroit Works under way, Detroit could be on the road to resurrecting itself from near collapse.

So what can Portland learn from Detroit's history and current condition, as this post-industrial city attempts to reinvigorate its urban areas?

Panelist Michelle Rudd, a partner at Portland's Stoel Rives law firm and member of Portland's Planning and Sustainability Commission, highlighted PSU's recent report demonstrating that access in Portland isn't even across the board – that people of color get the short end of the stick when it comes to equity. She noted that now is the time for Portland to determine what equity means and how to ensure it for Portland's residents.

"There's the argument that we should let the market drive the system, drive the neighborhoods," she said. "But if that affects, say, school districts, and access to good school districts is prevented for some depending on where they live, then aren't we contributing to holding back [this part of the population] long-term?"

A team of nearly 50 Portland-based business and civic leaders – including Jonathan Fink, vice president for research and strategic partnerships at PSU – visited Detroit this fall, in part to learn whether Portland is prepared to lead the nation in making transportation, particularly in cities, more sustainable. The fact-finding trip prompted the Toulan School to create the Detroit panel discussion.

"By hosting reflective opportunities such as 'Detroit: the 21st Century Challenge,' we assist in this learning process," said Connie Ozawa, Toulan School director. "Our students, staff and faculty benefit from the exchange of ideas, and hopefully, Portland is the ultimate beneficiary."

Established in 1959, the Nohad A. Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University offers the nation's oldest continuously operating instructional program in urban studies. Its mission is to assist in the development of healthy communities through an interdisciplinary program of teaching, research and public service. Housed within the university's College of Urban and Public Affairs, the school offers an undergraduate major in community development, a professional Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree, a Master of Urban Studies and a Ph.D. in Urban Studies. For more information, visit


Related: Read about Assistant Professor Greg Schrock's recent visit to Detroit in the Portland Mercury