Creative Vitality in Detroit: The Detroit Cultural Asset Mapping Project

Few cities in the world symbolize the challenges confronting cities due to economic restructuring and associated issues of social and economic stratification and urban decline as Detroit. Between 2000 and 2010, the city’s population fell by 25 percent, the largest drop of any city over 100,000 in the United States. At the height of the recent recession, Detroit’s level of unemployment was 10.2 percent.

Richard Florida has been tracking trends in Detroit. One of his conclusions is that progress and change is occurring less as a result of direct government intervention “and much more a story of the organic efforts of the entrepreneurs and artists, designers and musicians who have chosen to live in Detroit and be stewards of is resurgence.”

The Kresge Foundation is a $3.1 billion private, national foundation headquartered in Metropolitan Detroit. The Foundation has a range of national programs that invest in cities across the United States. One of these national programs is the Arts and Culture. The Foundation also funds place-based projects. One such project is a $40 million integrated regeneration project entitled Reimagining Detroit.

As one component of Reimagining Detroit in 2012 The Kresge Foundation commissioned MDB Insight to undertake the Detroit Cultural Asset Mapping Project. The project’s final report entitled Creative Vitality in Detroit: The Detroit Cultural Asset Mapping Project has three components.

  • The Creative Cultural Economy – a detailed statistical analysis of demographic trends and the cultural economy in Detroit and the surrounding area
  • Detroit’s Cultural Assets – findings from mapping over 1800 cultural asset and examining current conditions and important trends related to cultural these assets in Detroit
  • Detroit’s Stories – a collection of success stories illustrating the powerful role of artists and creative cultural enterprises in generating the social as well as economic capital needed to sustain revitalization

Among the key findings were the following.

  • Creative cultural occupations were among the most resilient jobs through the economic downturn
  • Creative cultural occupations in Detroit have a higher median income ($42,682) than the overall workforce ($23,397)
  • After a city-wide mapping and spatial analysis of cultural resources concentrations of cultural assets in specific areas were identified. The overall dominance of the Woodward Corridor as Detroit’s creative cultural hub was no surprise. However, one district studied, a neighbourhood facing some serious challenges, was not felt to be home to any significant concentration of cultural assets. This opened up opportunities for a ‘second look’ and a deeper analysis of the area by planners.

The addition of community stories – or intangible cultural resources – added a strong additional element to the project. The value of stories was that they helped bring data and analysis to life through concrete examples. Many are stories related to the reclaiming of significant heritage buildings threatened with ‘demolition by neglect’ bringing to mind Jane Jacob’s famous adage that ‘new ideas need old buildings.’

Cultural mapping is increasingly being accepted by municipalities in Canada and internationally as an essential planning and economic development tool. The Detroit Cultural Asset Mapping Project reinforces and provides further evidence of the need for local government to undertake cultural mapping and to build sustainable mapping systems capable of being continuously updated and broadened over time.