Detroit, Michigan

America's most challenged city spurs a groundbreaking framework for action

With a declining tax base, outdated infrastructure and only a third of the population it boasted in the early 1950s, Detroit has become the poster child of urban decline. Plan after plan has dashed to pieces against the realpolitik of change as well as the failure of planners and others to understand the complex issues at hand.

In 2010, a coalition of private foundations, community organizations, civic leaders and engaged citizens, under the auspices of the Detroit Works Project Long-Range Planning Effort, addressed the situation with a level of intensity, commitment, creativity and expertise equal to the scale of the problem—unprecedented.

How to make a weighty framework fly? The 300-page “strategic framework” that resulted from this effort is a masterwork of innovative—at times even counterintuitive—thinking and intense civic engagement. Regardless, stakeholders recognized the new vision, named Detroit Future City, wouldn’t fly on merit alone.

Introducing The People’s Plan. Working with the project’s communications, civic engagement and technical teams, Applied Storytelling articulated the story of “The People’s Plan” in clear, compelling terms. From there, we developed an in-depth communications plan that showed how to shape the story for audiences with diverse attitudes and agendas, and outlined an approach for getting the groundbreaking document into even the most hard-to-reach residents’ hands.

Securing the mandate to move forward. When Detroit Future City debuted in early January, the story came across consistent and clear—to an exceptionally favorable response despite keen critical scrutiny. A pledge of $150 million by The Kresge Foundation, one of the plan’s underwriters, signaled a critical early endorsement by the foundation community. With a public mandate behind it, planning gave way to a project management focus, the next stage in the city’s bold efforts to reclaim its future.

“Few audiences are as diverse, critical and potentially outspoken as a city’s many constituencies. To the extent they have been engaged in civic brand work at the outset, they must be informed all the way through. And, in the end, simply thanked.”