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Experts of Crisis: Exclusive Planning Discourse and Community Resistance in Detroit


Often regarded as exceptional in its degree of economic decline, conditions of abandonment and population loss, the city of Detroit has garnered the attention of media, academics and planning professionals. Significant to this draw is the role of development ‘expertise’ and its hopes of mitigating the challenges of the city through largely economically motivated development strategies. A number of scholars contributing to the literature on political economy have related expertise to neoliberal agendas, contending that the status of experts relies on the economic rationalization of policy decisions. In the context of Detroit, I will explore the role of development experts (practitioners formally trained in development professions) at a time of economic restructuring, and the discursive practices employed to reproduce their status as experts; I will also explore the communities that resist such expertise. I used discourse analysis to compare the values and rationale for redevelopment strategies as presented in four discourses: 1) urban planning academia; 2) media; 3) development professionals and 4) community groups. More specifically, I aim to understand how the narratives within differently situated development discourses frame problems and prescribe solutions and how such narratives relate to worsening disparity across race and class groups. In addition to exploring the narratives that give leverage to the economically motivated and state sanctioned development strategies that dominate planning discourse, this work focuses on the resistance to these strategies through political mobilization of community groups. These explorations focus primarily on two disparate development landscapes: Downtown-Midtown, an area of burgeoning, state-subsidized private investment, and the 48217 zip code, an area with some of the worst air quality in the state, undergoing state supported expansion of noxious industries.

From these explorations, I conclude that discourse on the development of Downtown-Midtown is largely framed by a handful of private investors deemed development experts, and the philanthropic foundation community that bolsters their interests. These individuals and institutions utilize their expertise in branding campaigns that simultaneously attract a wealthier class of young professionals to the city’s core, while at the same time pathologize outer neighborhoods of the city not seen as fit for investment. Building from the racialized historic context of the 48217 zip code, community groups were found to mirror the strategies of neoliberal expertise in their efforts to stop the expansion of industry, to no avail. This points to a more complex power dynamic between experts and supposed non-experts than the literature currently offers. Finally, this dissertation considers the ways that both the media and academic planning discourse potentially denigrate lower income and communities of color in the city, treating them as outside of the goals of dominant development discourse.

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