20 July 2011

Detroit copies Torino’s public markets to support its regeneration

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Porta Palazzo
(English translation of article published yesterday in La Stampa newspaper – author Andrea Rossi):

Michigan delegation between the cabbages and the red peppers

Who would have thought that the regeneration of a city can start from a market stand that sells fruits and vegetables, or clothes? But it’s true: one of the pillars that Detroit has chosen to structure its very difficult relaunch around, is the development of a network of local public markets, based on the “Torino model”.

Facing an uncertain industrial future, having lost nearly half of its inhabitants in fifty years, and with a fragile urban fabric that needs to be rethought, Detroit is looking in the mirror and discovers it has much in common with the situation facing Torino fifteen years ago. So now, building on the newborn Fiat-Chrysler connection between the cities, Detroit is retracing the steps of Torino’s regeneration. The city’s urban and (particularly its) social fabric needs to be knitted back together, and the Michigan heart has decided where to start from.

It may seem bizarre to us, but for the Americans it isn’t. Yesterday morning a delegation landed in Torino led by Kathryn Lynch Underwood, the City Planner of the City of Detroit. And with her came a group of about ten managers, experts and market operators. The first thing they did was taking a plunge in the heart of the Porta Palazzo market. Then they gathered in an office, to be briefed in detail on Torino’s 45 local markets by the city’s administrators in charge of local commerce and public spaces.

As of today they will visit them one by one, trying to understand how they can export their DNA and adapt them to the Detroit context. “They are interested in understanding the social, economic and cultural functioning of the markets and of the nearby businesses, which in Torino constitute one of the more distinctive aspects of urban life,” explain deputy mayors Ilda Curti and Giuliana Tedesco.

It took the American delegation only one day to understand that the replication – even in a reduced version – of the “Torino model” could be the engine of the urban regeneration process that the Michigan capital will have to undertake if it wants to rise up again. “Ours is a feeble system, made up of only six markets,” explains Pam Weintestein, who is in charge of one. “In Turin, however, everyone does their shopping at the market stands irrespective of their social background or their income level.” Dan Carmody is in charge of the Eastern Market, Detroit’s largest. He is surprised: “What makes the difference here is the sense of community that transpires from your markets. It is obvious that they add value to the urban context.”

Detroit is in desperate need of revitalizing its urban spaces. Kathryn Lynch Underwood, who works for Detroit’s City Planning Commission, knows it all too well: “Our challenge is to bring about density in a depopulated city center. Detroit is a dispersive city. Markets can help in creating new densities, to repopulate the heart of the city, and to rebuild the sense of community.”

It is a cultural challenge first of all, more so than an economic one, even though money is not of secondary importance. Detroit is a metropolis in crisis, held in the vice of poverty: thousands of inhabitants do not own a car, many not even a functioning refrigerator. “Developing a network of nearby markets,” explains Sarah Fleming, director of Detroit’s Economic Development Department, “would allow us to reach a double goal. Our citizens wouldn’t be forced anymore to drive to the big suburban supermarkets for their daily shopping, allowing even those who do not have a car could to obtain quality food. Also, the possibility of doing your small shopping on a daily basis at the market stands would solve many food conservation problems.”

It is not just about the rediscovery of “local” food culture that America has lost out on. What really drives this is the idea that the urban generation of a metropolis can start from its food.

Further links:
Kathryn Lynch Underwood
Detroit Food Policy Council
Detroit Food Justice

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