Drawing on Detroit Research Project


The Center Launches New Research Project on Detroit’s Contributions to the Next Generation of Urban Policy and Practice

Few cities have been hit as hard by a confluence of major economic, social, fiscal and political headwinds as Detroit. From long-term economic decline to social unrest, Detroit was already impacted by a series of challenges when the nationwide economic downturn began in 2007. In the eight years that have elapsed since then, a period that included Detroit’s bankruptcy declaration in 2013, civic leaders have stepped up in new ways as the traditional boundaries between the public, private and philanthropic sectors are being reconfigured and recalibrated in an era of federal retrenchment and state and municipal austerity.

With support from The Kresge Foundation, the USC Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy is conducting an inquiry on the lessons learned from Detroit’s recent experience and new approaches that are emerging which may hold the potential to drive a next-generation approach to philanthropy and public policy. A fundamental premise of the research is that Detroit is emblematic of other American cities. While the particular circumstances in Detroit may seem exceptional, they differ from those of other urban areas only in degree. How problems are tackled in Detroit, then, can be a helpful starting point for a broader discussion of urban practice and policy across the country.

These new approaches do not necessarily reject conventional practice. While some may be innovative, many are simply smart and creative. But they all apply a “torque” to conventional practice: pivoting around entrenched assumptions or viewing problems from a slightly different angle. They suggest problem-solving pathways that shift traditional boundaries, define new civic roles, and frame new narratives about how positive change can take place in American cities.

This inquiry will focus on five narratives that have been embraced in Detroit and are also being explored in other cities around the country, creating mutual cross-city learning opportunities:

  1. Philanthropy, rather than merely compensating for public sector shortfalls, can directly negotiate and partner with city governments. (Roundtable 1 – Mobilizing Philanthropy)
  1. Arts and culture, typically marginalized as a luxury, can drive broader socio-economic development; (Roundtable 2 – Capitalizing on Cultural Assets)
  1. Urban revitalization, which often focuses on either downtown business districts or residential neighborhoods, can strengthen connections between the two; (Roundtable 3 – Spatial Planning and Development)
  1. Economic development, which often prioritizes major industry attraction and retention, can be driven by small business and entrepreneurship strategies. (Roundtable 4 – Restarting Economic Growth)
  1. Civic leadership, which often relies on leadership development channels, can be found across all sectors and may include those seen as “outsiders.” (Roundtable 5 – New Forms of Urban Leadership)

The Center will lead roundtable discussions on each of the five approaches in January 2016, hold a national forum on the implications of these ideas for American cities in May 2016, and facilitate city-to-city exchanges around strategies of shared interest in the summer and fall of 2016.

The inquiry is being directed by James Ferris, The Emery Evans Olson Chair in Nonprofit Entrepreneurship and Public Policy, and the Director of The USC Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy and Elwood Hopkins, Managing Director of Emerging Markets, Inc. The project is informed by a national advisory board of national thought leaders on philanthropy, business, and government who focused on revitalizing cities. They include:

Jamie Bennett
Executive Director
ArtPlace America

Jennifer Bradley
Founding Director
Center for Urban Innovation
The Aspen Institute

Paul C. Brophy
Brophy and Reilly, LLC

Henry Cisneros
Founder and Chairman

Phillip Clay
Professor, City Planning

Carol Coletta
Senior Fellow
The Kresge Foundation

Stephen Goldsmith
Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government
Director, Innovations in American Government Program
Harvard Kennedy School of Government

Carol Goss
Advanced Leadership Initiative Program
Harvard University

Ben Hecht
President and CEO
Living Cities

Bruce Katz
Vice President and Founding Director
Metropolitan Policy Program
The Brookings Institution

Marc Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League

Lata Reddy
VP, Corporate Social Responsibility
Prudential Financial
The Prudential Foundation

Tamar Shapiro
President and CEO
Center for Community Progress

Julia Stasch
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur

Darren Walker
Ford Foundation

Dalila Wilson-Scott
Senior Vice President of Community
Investment and President
Comcast Foundation

The Center will bring together leaders working on these new narratives and others eager to learn from them. The aim is to elevate everyone’s thinking, transfer learnings across cities, and contribute to a next generation of thinking about the role of philanthropy and public policy in creating new opportunities in American cities.

For more information:

Please contact Nick Williams, Associate Director, The Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy at [email protected] or 213 740 8557.