Research

I critically assess the effects of different plans, policies, and structures of governance on racial and social justice in legacy cities. I am also interested in the collective contribution that research on Detroit-like cities can make to urban studies. I write from a long historical perspective and use a mix of methods, including archival research, participant observation, interviewing, and spatial analysis. I am currently doing research in three areas:

1. Ethical dilemmas of “shrinking cities” planning

Shrinking neighborhoods in shrinking cities have prompted some of the most vexing questions in planning: Should local governments provide different types of services or different levels of service based on neighborhood condition? If scarce resources for neighborhood reinvestment must be targeted to be effective, which neighborhoods should be prioritized: those just beginning to decline or those in the deepest distress? Is there a threshold of decline beyond which an area must be cleared in order to be successfully redeveloped? Is it ever ethical to “decommission” a neighborhood without redeveloping it? Is it possible to improve the quality of life in shrinking neighborhoods without redevelopment or displacement?

My project charts the intellectual history of this debate: the questions that planners and planning scholars have asked, and the answers that they have given, in response to the prolonged decline of cities like St. Louis, Cleveland, and Detroit. The first outcome of this project is “The Trap of Triage: Lessons from the ‘Team Four Plan,'” an article published by the Journal of Planning History in 2016. In 1975, a group of consultants advised St. Louis planners to pursue a strategy of neighborhood triage: ‘‘conservation’’ for areas in good health, ‘‘redevelopment’’ for areas just starting to decline, and ‘‘depletion’’ for areas already in severe distress. The firm’s recommendation provoked outrage among residents of the city’s predominantly black North Side, who read ‘‘depletion’’ as a promise of benign neglect. In my article, I explain how Team Four justified its advice, and why, four decades later, the controversy over its memo persists.

2. Local governance, race, and the public realm

My second area of focus is understanding how the structure of local governance has evolved and how changes in its structure have changed the distribution of city services and access to the public realm. I’m particularly interested in the politics of partnership: when and why communities turn to community-based, market-based, or intergovernmental partnerships to provide city services or manage public facilities, and how those partnerships influence the efficiency and equity of service provision.

My dissertation contributes to this literature by providing a history of Detroit’s park and recreation system, from its origins in the early 1800s to the present. This history serves as a case study of the evolution of local governance and the effect of changes to its structure on the public realm—especially in terms of racial justice. In my dissertation, I explain how and why the various facilities that compose the park and recreation system came to be built, by whom, and for whom. I also explain how the park and recreation system and its structure of provision changed over time and with what effect. In doing so, I provide a theoretical and historical framework for understanding the restructuring of local governance—how the different components of local governance interrelate and change together over time—and the effect of restructuring on racial and social justice, as manifested through service delivery and the condition and placement of facilities throughout Detroit’s built environment.

3. Learning from cities like Detroit

My third area of focus is the collective contribution that research on “legacy cities” or “shrinking cities” has made, and could make, to urban studies. In 2015, I co-authored a book chapter, “Learning from Detroit: How Research on a Declining City Enriches Urban Studies.” I am also an organizer of the University of Michigan’s “Detroit School Series.” Through monthly workshops and lectures, we have been leading an interdisciplinary conversation on how research on Detroit—a city often seen as an extreme outlier of decline—can produce knowledge that is original and relevant to urban studies globally. We also hope to foster new collaborations among the hundreds of researchers who are studying Detroit and cities like it. For our 2016-2017 series, we are posing twin questions to our workshop participants and lecturers: “What topics can’t we understand without first understanding Detroit?” and “What must we better understand in order to understand Detroit itself?”

Last updated on October 31, 2016.