The Detroit Berlin Connection

Land Use

In the second installment of the series, The Detroit Berlin Connection, we heard about the influence of the creative class and how artists can impact a city’s image. In our final segment, WDET’s Martina Guzmán examines how Detroit, the city with the highest unemployment of any major metropolis in America, and Berlin, one of the poorest capitol cities in Europe, turn to creativity when it comes to abandoned buildings and vacant land.

Click on the audio player above to listen and then we want to hear from you.

What are the best ways Detroit can utilize its land to help reinvent itself? For example, what do you think can be done with the region's abandoned auto plants? Scroll down, and comment below.

Watch an audio slide show featuring people who are thinking creatively about land use here.

Find more stories, videos, and photos at


With their storied and tumultuous past and present, Detroit and Berlin have both confronted vast acres of destroyed buildings.

"In Berlin, in the city center, there were 1500 buildings and now only 12 are left."

Berlin buildings were brought down by bombs, the division of the city, and culture of tearing down buildings that prevailed more than 150 years ago. Benedikt Goebel, a historian and expert in Berlin’s urban renewal says that in Germany there is a saying… ”The revolution is going to eat its own children.”

"Modern buildings will get destroyed by the next modern generation. All fans of modern architecture modern town planning, if they are somewhat intelligent have to think about destroying all the Mies van der roh buildings because they are old.

My favorite city would be mixture of old and new buildings."

But part of keeping old buildings around is figuring out how to use them. After Berlin’s reunification in 1990, the city moved to build a new airport far from the city center. Officials had to decide what to do with the enormous Nazi era, airport called Tempelhof. Martin Schwarz, the urban planner in charge of Tempelhof, says leaders took a gamble, re-designating the site from an airport to a park.

"Opposed to “normal” parks Tempelhof is wide and open. There are no tall trees. So the range of activities goes from sunbathing, running and skating all the way to model helicopter and airplane flights and kite skating. When it’s windy, the sky is full of kites."

Berlin pledges to spend about 80 million dollars between now and 2017 to develop Tempelhof into what will be the city’s largest park. Schwarz says the gamble paid off, and short of placing some strategic signs, the space remained exactly the same creating an untraditional gathering place.

"Well I came here since I heard this is a great space to come and just skate."

That’s “Mad Maloony” – well, that’s her name in the derby world. She’s roller skating on the former parallel runways of the old airport, surrounded by open space.

"And it’s an old airport with a lot of history to it and I think that’s really cool. Being able to be in the middle of Berlin and still have this much of a space to just skate and have fun - I think it’s an opportunity that not every city has."

In good weather, the place is packed with locals and tourists. “Mad Maloony” is visiting from Sweden.

"The ground is perfect, it’s a closed area so people don’t get hit by cars or anything. It’s pretty amazing to have such a huge space right in the middle of the city."

Huge space in the middle of the city... Sound familiar?

Detroit recently embarked on a plan to tear down ten thousand abandoned structures, adding to the thousands of acres of land that currently sit vacant. Detroit might not have 80 million dollars to readily spend on a new park, but it does have people like Malik Yakini. Yakini is the Executive Director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, a non-profit promoting what they call “food justice”. Yakini and members of the food network used personal finances and creative organizing to make a place on Detroit’s west side for the community to gather. He turned vacant plots of land into a farm called D-Town.

"Gardens and farms also create a way to generate wealth and to create jobs and ownership. So that’s kind of a side benefit to this. So there’s all kind of benefits to the urban agriculture movement. Also I guess probably the most basic thing, is it causes people to work together. And it kind of re-stitches together the fabric of community. They, on the most basic level are ways of putting into productive use, areas that have formally been dormant."

Yakini advocates turning only a small amount of Detroit’s vacant land into urban farms.

"Most urban agriculture advocates don’t see this as being the singular solution to our problems in the city of Detroit. We have a multifaceted challenge facing us and the solution to it is going to have to be multifaceted also."

The land use can vary, but abandoned buildings and empty lots must be turned into safer places that foster a spirit of community. Since reunification, Berlin has been largely successful at renovating its ruins; Malik Yakini says that looking ahead, Detroit should show the world that a successful city is all about relationships.

"Detroit is in a very unique situation to rethink our relationship to the land, to rethink our relationships to each other, to rethink our relationships to work and how we earn a living and how we survive on this planet. And the reason that we have that great opportunity is because of the vast expanses of unused and underutilized land in the city of Detroit."

On the opposite side of the city, on Detroit’s east side, sit 200 acres of a semi-abandoned park. Danielle North is a project manager at the non-profit organization, Warren/Conner Development. Through a public and private partnership, North is spearheading a plan to construct a charter school on the formerly deserted park and re-develop a connection between city and suburbs.

"Tons of East-siders, tons of other people go through this community everyday because it’s pretty much a gateway. So Gross Pointers come through here to go to work or to come through this area."

The project, called the Chandler Park Promise Coalition, was created after development plans to build a comprehensive community center fell through.

Chandler Park, D-Town Farms and Tempelhof in Berlin are examples of what can happen when people take charge of their own situations.

"What happened then is that the community stood up and said although promises have been made to us, we’re not going to let the promises go down because we’re going to continue to fight to make something happen."

"I do think that what Detroit is doing is remaking a very large landscape."

That’s Bruce Katz, founder of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, in Washington, DC. Detroit is under many microscopes of government agencies, not-for-profits and design teams, working to find solutions and under the impression that they can figure out what's best. They would do well to listen to the people who live in the neighborhoods, says Katz.

"I think as an outsider you really do have to be humble about your advice and guidance because the real experts are the people who live there."

As these two iconic cities move forward, they’ve made tough choices about how to best use their forsaken factories, schools, churches, even airports, parks, and houses. The real solutions will come from learning from each other; from diverse group of people committed to Detroit's success, from urban solutions in other cities across America, and as far away as Berlin.

I’m Martina Guzmán, WDET News.