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Detroit Collaborative Design Center

4001 W. McNichols Rd.
Detroit, Michigan 48221

Dan Pitera

By Amanda Lewan
January 17, 2014

Architecture and design have historically been something that just happens to the communities they affect, implemented from the outside and informed by an outsider's point of view. Skilled professionals would plan a building or a whole neighborhood, but not with the whole community’s input.
The Detroit Collaborative Design Center, a firm based out of the University of Detroit Mercy‘s School of Architecture, does the opposite. The firm takes an innovative approach to including the community in their design, meaning they engage everyone: all ages, backgrounds, and people. 
"The community really is the expert," says Detroit Collaborative Design Center Director Dan Pitera. "Community does mean resident, but it also means government official. It means business owners, philanthropists, and media."
Dan directs the center along with a team of eight full-time professionals, and several students studying architecture at the college. The students get real work experience. The professionals get to work on projects that help design neighborhoods in Detroit. Dan gets to guide the team with his kind but passionate drive for serving the community. Nearly all of their projects are in Detroit, though they sometimes consult for projects in L.A., Dallas, and other major U.S. cities.
Dan says that their work comes down to one main question: How do you do innovative work and have meaningful participatory processes at the same time?
When working as consultants on the Detroit Future City project, a 400-page strategic framework for designing Detroit’s future, they held conference calls that engaged the elderly, hosted community storytelling events, and brought together very focused roundtable meetings with shareholders. About 26 different community engagement tactics were used to bring in people from all over the city into the urban planning conversation.
"We didn’t want to limit the voices participating in Detroit Future City," says Dan. "We can point to almost any page in the 400-page document and we can say how the community shaped the work that went into it."
The community had a place at the table, literally: Dan’s team set up a roaming table that popped up throughout the city in different locations like schools, libraries, and bus stops, and in the end spoke with over 6,000 Detroiters through this one tactic.
"The kind of conversation you’d have at a bus stop would be different than a large community meeting," explains Dan. "And not everyone will attend meetings."
Dan himself first came to Detroit in 1998 to work for the University of Detroit Mercy as a teacher in the School of Architecture. He says he felt taken back by the city. Growing up in low income family with a single mom, Dan saw the stereotypes built around him. He knew he wanted to work to build more inclusive communities. Detroit’s divided region and declining neighborhoods seemed to need that, too.
"Detroit is an incredible place for civic engagement on neighborhood levels. Coming here and being a part of that was really wonderful for me," says Dan.
When asked about the future of the Detroit Future City framework, he politely reiterates the purpose of the document:
"Detroit Future City is always defined and discussed as belonging to everyone. You don’t need to go through an office to implement the document. It’s built upon the work that everyone’s been doing."
Dan encourages everyone to implement the guide themselves, as business owners, community members, teachers, or Detroit residents. With Detroit going through bankruptcy proceedings, Detroit Future City may be the instructional guide to lead the city towards long-term sustainability, and certainly the only one designed by the community for the community. 

All photos by Doug Coombe. 

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