What would you do with 21 square miles of urban space? To put that in perspective, consider receiving an area roughly the size of Manhattan to build upon as you please. That vast tract is equivalent to the total amount of vacant, developable real estate available right now in Detroit, according to Data Driven Detroit (D3). If the search is widened to include parcels with vacant buildings, the plot expands to 30 square miles.
It’s a fantasy plot of land, of course, and can’t capture the complexity of urban planning and land use in Detroit. In reality, the developable land is non-contiguous and has come to be vacant through a history of blight, white flight, and government action (or inaction). Detroit also faces an historic foreclosure crisis: 26,406 properties were affected by tax foreclosures last year, according to D3, more than three times the number recorded during 2009. A Detroit News investigation earlier this year discovered that over the last decade, the number of foreclosed homes in Detroit was equivalent to the total number of homes in Buffalo, New York.
Still, amid weed-filled lots and crumbling facades, the sheer amount of land available to be turned into community space, housing, small businesses, and even urban farms is unprecedented in a modern American city. Against the backdrop of a so-called Detroit renaissance that’s attracting more development and activity, mostly in specific neighborhoods such as Midtown, scores of artists, activists, nonprofits, and urban farmers are finding creative ways to tap into the land’s potential. They’re activating vacant lots, abandoned buildings, and foreclosed homes, working in the wake of dedicated community activists who have long pushed to transform these spaces to benefit their neighborhoods. Detroit faces a thicket of challenges right now, but many see the potential of this vacant land to catalyze Detroit’s future growth.