PROJECTStrong Cities, Strong Communities

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  • Detroit, Michigan

    Strong Cities, Strong Communities City Profile 

    Janae Ladet and Joseph Schilling
    May 2018

    Local Dynamics and Program Overview

    In its October 2009 issue, Time magazine chronicled Detroit’s decline, starting in the 1960s with the globalization of the auto industry and the racial disturbances of 1967.1 Deindustrialization led to a decline in population growth and to job loss that triggered decades of property abandonment, crime, failing schools, and high concentrations of poverty.

    The 2007–09 mortgage foreclosure and subprime lending crisis led to further property blight and abandonment and the decimation of middle-income African American neighborhoods. Detroit’s political instability also contributed to the city’s decline, highlighted by the 2008 resignation and later conviction of former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. These challenges took a toll on the city government’s capabilities to equitably provide core services, made it difficult for Detroit to effectively use federal resources, and set the stage for the launch of Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) in 2011.

    By 2012, Detroit had lost more than 50 percent of its population since 1950, when its population hovered around 1.8 million. Detroit is now the nation’s 23rd-largest city, but in 1950, it was the 5th largest.2 In 2012, the unemployment rate hovered around 14 percent, and roughly 33 percent of Detroit families lived below the federal poverty level.3 Detroit also struggled with high crime rates. In 2012, the city had 379 murders, up 10 percent from 2011. The city had a homicide rate of 53 per 100,000 residents, the second highest for a city with more than 200,000 residents, behind New Orleans.4

    Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013, and an emergency manager was appointed to run the city,5 forcing SC2 to adjust project plans and navigate political, policy, and program changes. SC2’s partnerships began under Mayor Dave Bing’s administration but shifted in 2014 when Mayor Mike Duggan took office. The Detroit Community Solutions Team’s priorities of reducing crime and improving jobs and infrastructure remained constant. The capacity the Detroit Community Solutions Team and SC2 fellows provided helped stabilize Detroit during a critical juncture in its recovery and helped set the stage within and outside city hall for Detroit’s recent transformation.

    Philanthropy, educational institutions, and strategic private investments have paved the way for the city’s current renaissance in downtown and midtown neighborhoods. The Kresge Foundation invested millions of dollars to craft the Detroit Future City Framework Plan and stand up the local nonprofit Detroit Future City (DFC) to implement the plan’s comprehensive vision. Businessman and mortgage magnate Dan Gilbert relocated the national headquarters of Quicken Loans and launched a portfolio of private redevelopment entities and projects. Wayne State University, the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Mercy Hurst College, Oakland University, and other colleges have leveraged Detroit’s distress as a living laboratory for applied research and community and economic development service projects. The top industry in Detroit remains educational services.

    The SC2 fellows and teams helped with many initiatives. One SC2 fellow helped with the strategic alignment of Detroit Future City, a nonprofit independent think tank, policy advocate, and innovation engine focused on the city’s future and strategies that advance the recommendations laid out in the DFC Strategic Framework (DFC 2013).6

    Projects and Initiatives

    The Detroit Community Solutions Team and SC2 fellows engaged in capacity-building and technical assistance activities to strengthen federal and local government relationships. By aligning federal resources with the mayors’ identified priorities, Detroit’s SC2 engagements were designed to facilitate economic growth within constrained local governments. These federal-local collaborations involved trainings, workshops, consultations, and policy and development projects with guidance and assistance from the Community Solutions Teams, federal agencies, and resources. Each activity helped establish stronger partnerships between the city and the federal government and provided the city additional short-term capacities. The following are projects and products from the SC2 initiative in Detroit.

    • Expansion of the Detroit Public Transit, M-1 Woodward Avenue Light Rail. SC2 team members provided indirect technical support to help the city apply for $25 million in funding through the Department of Transportation to expand Detroit’s public transit by building the “M-1” Woodward Avenue Light Rail line, a streetcar line connecting the Detroit People Mover network with Amtrak’s Southeast Michigan Council of Governments’ commuter rail (Abt Associates 2014). M-1 Rail is a consortium of Detroit-area corporate business ventures, foundations, and public and private institutions committing more than $100 million to build and operate a 3.3-mile modern streetcar system on Woodward Avenue, the region’s primary north-south thoroughfare.
    • Establishment of a regional transit authority. SC2 team members helped establish a regional transit authority, reviewing the region’s transportation planning process. Additionally, SC2 fellows helped with a citywide grants management system and created a special unit within city government to monitor grants related to health, transportation, and city planning.
    • Creation of the Youth Violence Prevention Forum. Working with city and community leaders, SC2 team members convened groups to hold the Youth Violence Prevention Forum. The city started concentrating its board-up and blight-removal efforts in areas where students frequently travel to school, improving safety along those routes (Abt Associates 2014). The city was awarded a $1.5 million grant through the CeaseFire projects through the Community-Based Violence Prevention program (HUD 2014).
    • Also, in the criminal justice space, Department of Justice SC2 team members could determine a way to repurpose a Community-Oriented Policing Services grant to retain 120 police officers, maintaining public safety as a top priority and preventing layoffs.
    • SC2 teams also worked with the Department of Justice to repurpose funds under a Community-Oriented Policing Services grant to retain 108 officers for the city.
    • Demolition of Douglass Homes. Team members identified a way to repurpose HUD funding to demolish Douglass Homes, a dilapidated former public housing project that was a major blight on the city’s skyline.
    • Launch of Text My Bus. SC2 team members worked with the Knight Foundation, Code for America, Detroit’s Department of Transportation, the Federal Transit Administration, the US Department of Justice, and the US Department of Education to create a service to let riders know when the next bus would arrive.7
    • Rolling rapid transit. SC2 team members from the Department of Transportation supported convening senators, the mayor, and investors to discuss the best route for rapid rail transit.
    • German Marshall Fund, SC2 boot camps. In partnership with Surdna Foundation, the German Marshall Fund of the United States hosted boot camps in each SC2 city. 

    Box 1

    Reports and Media


    1. Daniel Okrent, “Detroit: The Death—and Possible Life—of a Great City,” Time, September 24, 2009.

    2. “New Figures Show Detroit’s Population Continues to Decline,” US News and World Report, May 25, 2017; US Census Bureau American Fact Finder 2010 and 2016 population estimates.

    3. “QuickFacts: Detroit City, Michigan,” US Census Bureau, accessed February 23, 2018.

    4. “Detroit Murder Rate Increases 10 Percent in 2012,” Huffington Post, December 31, 2012.

    5. Anna Clark, “5 Revelations about Detroit’s Bankruptcy Story,” Next City, April 20, 2016.

    6. “About Us,” Detroit Future City, accessed February 2, 2018.

    7. See the website for the Detroit Department of Transportation’s Text My Bus feature at


    Abt Associates. 2014. Evaluation of the Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) Teams Pilot. Bethesda, MD: Abt Associates.

    DFC (Detroit Future City). 2013. 2012 Detroit Strategic Framework Plan. Detroit: Inland Press.

    HUD (US Department of Housing and Urban Development). 2014. “White House Council on Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) Accomplishments in Detroit.” Washington, DC: HUD.

    Research Areas Neighborhoods, cities, and metros
    Policy Centers Research to Action Lab
    States Michigan
    Cities Detroit-Warren-Dearborn, MI