Detroit Big Winner in Knight Contest for Innovative Civic Projects

The Knight Foundation announced the winners of its annual Knight Cities Challenge competition today, and Detroit-centered projects cleaned up. Out of the approximately 4,500 applications submitted nationwide, 767 came from Detroiters—more than any other city “by a pretty wide margin,” organizers said. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that of the 37 winners, six were from Detroit, which is also more than any other city. Out of the $5 million in total prize money dispersed nationally, $638,000 will fund Detroit-based initiatives.

The competition seeks ideas from innovators located in Knight cities—twenty-six communities where the Knight brothers once owned newspapers, including Detroit, Philadelphia, Akron, Miami, and St. Paul—that focus on talent, opportunity, and engagement. (One doesn’t have to live in a Knight city to apply, but the project must benefit a Knight city.) The goal of the Cities Challenge is to help spur civic innovation and expand economic prospects by breaking down barriers, testing ideas, and fostering new connections. The proposed ideas can be big or small, but they should have a wide impact. Each winning project in the Cities Challenge gets an 18-month grant of varying amounts.

“Knight’s mission is informed and engaged communities because that leads to more robust and democratic cities,” said Katy Locker, who directs Knight’s efforts in the Motor City and personally read every Detroit idea submitted to the contest. “There’s no place that needs it more than Detroit, and in no city is there a bigger opportunity. A lot of what’s being built out in Detroit’s downtown core is for a very specific demographic and income level, but how do we extend those opportunities to other neighborhoods? What I find affirming is that we had a remarkable number of ideas coming from all places, and this list [of winners] represents that.”

Here are the winning Detroit projects, with most descriptions supplied by Locker or the Knight Foundation:

Sensors in a Shoebox, submitted by the University of Michigan ($138,339): Trains kids to use sensors and data analytics to track environmental conditions such as traffic, noise, or temperature in city neighborhoods. The project will help students answer questions about their community and build ideas to make it better.

Locker described this project as exceptionally timely, given the recent Newsweek cover story about Southwest Detroit’s air pollution problem. “We want to see what happens when you let the youth of the community measure the impact of things like air quality,” she said. “(Project lead) Elizabeth Birr Moje is an expert in urban education, and she really thought through how to make the learning experiential.”

Detroit’s Exciting Adventure into the Pink Zone, submitted by the City of Detroit ($75,000): Develops a new tool to streamline city development regulations and engages design talent and developers to help reshape commercial districts.

The phrase “pink zone” comes out of the lean urbanism movement and refers to pre-permitting and loosening regulations in certain parts of the city that are ripe for redevelopment. (The bureaucratic red tape is lightened to pink, hence the name.) Detroit has long been known as a place where the process of obtaining building permits is maddeningly (and often needlessly) complicated, so this is quite a revolutionary project, Locker said.

“To have the city be an innovator—we never would have seen that a few years ago,” she said. “Cities have gotten so intense with planning that it’s hard for small designers to test their ideas. We have all these old buildings in Detroit; can we think about zones where we lessen regulations without lessening safety to enhance the development of that area? This is an opportunity to explore that idea.”

Give a Park, Get a Park, submitted by the City of Detroit ($75,000): Creates sustainable micro-parks in Detroit neighborhoods that are designed in response to community needs, require few resources, and are easy to maintain.

Locker said both municipal projects were submitted by Maurice Cox, the city’s director of planning. “They’re not large grants, but both projects are working to reimagine city planning,” she added. “These are things to experiment with despite a budget shortfall.”

Bike-a-logues, submitted by Cornetta Lane ($30,000): Explores Detroit’s untold history through monthly bike tours that lead participants through different areas of the city and gives residents a chance to tell the story of their neighborhoods.

The Underground Order of Tactical Urbanists, submitted by Chad Rochkind ($184,080): Creates a network of tactical urbanists who collectively select a single challenge each year and then implement quick, low-cost, creative improvements. “With Chad and Cornetta, there was no organizational structure, just ideas,” Locker said. “Neither is associated with a nonprofit or institution, and that’s really affirming.”

Dequindre Cut Market, submitted by the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy ($135,665): Creates spaces for entrepreneurs to set up shop along the Dequindre Cut, an old railroad track that has been transformed into a biking and walking path, with shipping container pop-up shops. Locker said the soon-to-open Dequindre Cut expansion ends at Eastern Market, and the idea is to bring market traffic to the pop-ups, which will be run by entrepreneurs from the Build Institute.

Locker said what’s almost more thrilling than Detroit’s banner year in the Knight Cities Challenge is the way the 21 finalists rallied around each other, even when they didn’t end up winning. “All of the finalists met each other, and it was nice to see them support one another,” she said. “I’m just excited that the community keeps showing up with all these great ideas.”

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