People First Project Winners


We're so grateful to the Knight Foundation for funding our Knight Cities Challenge -- The People First Project, creating a network of tactical urbanists who collectively select a single urban challenge each year on which to focus quick, low-cost, creative improvements. Out of 75 applications, 12 winners receive a $5,000 mini-grant to design and implement a transformative project that utilizes the principles of human-centered design to transform Michigan Avenue into a more complete street. Additionally, selected project leaders will participate in a learning community that consists of global leaders in the tactical urbanism movement, participate in a documentary about the project, and be the focal point of the fourth issue of Grand Circus Magazine.

Check out our 12 winners below:

Mikayla Cutlip
Project: Historical building street murals and pop-up programming

"In the late 1930s, buildings on the south side of Michigan Ave were demolished to expand the road. I propose taking a step back in history by recreating a portion of the floorpans of these original buildings."

Caroline Kane
Project: Activating empty lots through temporary community spaces

"I would like to convert under-utilized public spaces into pop-up living rooms where individuals can come socialize, explore, and interact with the Corktown community without the necessity of monetary interactions. I've noticed one of the major problems with Michigan Ave is its lack of intimacy. The street is extremely wide and sometimes busy, leading one to believe it is for cars--not people; there are no patios or community spaces, and many empty lots between large buildings. These spaces could be filled to compensate for the vastness of the street itself. By placing pop-ups in these empty lots, pedestrians can feel free to wander Michigan avenue, as the street itself becomes its own destination."

Kenneth Andejeski
Project [in partnership with Caroline Kane]: Community storytelling through urban campfires

"Community Campfires will be a series of intimate evening storytelling experiences, focusing on the love of cities and communities, that pops-up on vacant lots along the Michigan Avenue Corridor. ..Imagine a future where patrons can walk from Katoi to PJ’s Lager House with ongoing campfires to light and warm their way."

Donna Jackson
Project: Doors used as canvases for local artists

"Door of Opportunity are doors transformed into art by local artists. These doors tell the stories of artists and their lives in Detroit. On Michigan Avenue, the door project can bring a visual component to the street and the neighborhood. Each door will have a QR code providing content about the artists, Corktown and/or historical Michigan Ave." 

Steve Coy
Project: Interactive street art

"We are proposing three art projects: 1) Interactive Street Art, 2) Radio Active Sculptures, and 3) Mirror Diamond Sculptures. Too often people see vacant space and think that housing or businesses are the only solutions. It is our hope that unique and unprecedented art can help others envision what future spaces, more specifically streetscapes, in this instance, can be and how they can be used beyond driving and parking."  

Antoine Sleep McDowell
Project: Life size stencil cut outs of children playing in vacant lot/public park

"Seeing kids playing and enjoy themselves in the installation will hopefully spark parents to start bringing their kids to parks and local spots to get them to enjoy the city again."

Erin Gavle
Project: Creative light installations

"I’d like to continue to add art, light, and a sense of community to the block by incorporating art installations that encourage interaction and provide safety to pedestrians.  A little bit of surprise and delight. Something to make you stop, interact, smile, remember. A little bit of magic on an important street in the middle of transitional block. Something to say nice things about. Something to make you feel a little silly and childlike. When we spark these emotions and passions within someone, we start to inspire."

NO LINE: Salam Rida & Samantha Okolita
Project: Modular urban seating

"The piece is called Samla, which in Swedish means “to gather”. The design is based off of a geometric pattern that is then curated to be modular and adaptable to any situation in which it is designed to be placed in. The urban furniture comes together like tetris into a singular block that is easily stored."

Kerry Conway
Project: Woven canopy bike lane protector


"My project would create a woven canopy over the public space bordering the bike lane, delineating a visible barrier between the automobile and pedestrian street. This project would carve out a public space for dwelling, where Michigan Avenue pedestrians can participate in a vibrant urban street rather than be pushed to its margins. It is important to create a public space within the street section, not just additional seating for patrons of businesses in the area. The sight of people gathering, chairs, tables, lights, and plants will emphasize the importance of people, community, and life in our city, and not just individuals in automobiles."

Lisa Waud
Project: Flower and vine structure for rest and relaxation

"For this project I propose to create a permanent structure for perennial and annual flowering vines to grow on, flower on. This project would further the mission to increase pedestrian safety and enjoyment of the street by creating a green space that's practical and beautiful."

Greg Mangan
Project: Dumpster converted into a mobile garden and seating space

"The concept would entail using a dumpster converted into a mobile garden with bench seating built within one side of it. The dumpster would have small trees, plants and flowers within the garden protruding from the top of it. The bench seating on the parkmobile would allow people to sit down and enjoy a coffee, or sit while waiting for a table at a restaurant, or to simply sit and enjoy a conversation with another human being."

Daisuke Hughes
Project: "Living" wall in between parking lot and sidewalk 

"My project would tackle urban street-wall inefficiencies experienced on the south side of Michigan Avenue between 11th and Rosa Parks. My suggestion is to build a narrow retaining wall and/or linear planter box that hugs the sidewalk along that barren stretch of the avenue...We have so many missing teeth in the street wall of the avenue that a simple move like this may bring greater attention to the effectiveness of prioritizing the human experience. "

Emily Baughman
Project: Interactive light and sound crosswalks

"My project is to address pedestrian safety along Michigan Avenue. To address after-dark pedestrian safety problems, I will install tunnels of motion sensor lights along stretches of Michigan Avenue that pedestrians feel less safe walking at night. To address problems of jaywalking, at pedestrian crossings, I will install a music installation timed to the crosswalk “stop” indications. The Supreme’s “Stop in the Name of Love” will be set to play when the crosswalk “stop” indication is displayed."


Meet the Team


Founder, Principal

1. What makes Detroit unique?

This moment in Detroit is unique because we have the opportunity to try new models for how cities develop. No city has reached such heights and fallen to such depths with such speed. We are left with a shell of a city, but this presents interesting solutions in terms of land-use , community engagement, and our civic infrastructure.

2. If you could pick one thing, what would you change about Detroit?

We lack public life. We need more social interaction to occur on streets and sidewalks and public parks. Right now, we are too car-centric, too institution-centric, and we are losing sight of the fact that it is the space between buildings that gives a city its pulse.

3. What is the best part about working for HSS.

This is the company of my dreams. I wake up every morning excited to go to work. I really feel that we are breaking new ground with our approach to urban change, and its exciting to feel at the forefront. Hopefully these models will be replicable in other cities in the future.

4. What's one piece of advice on how citizens can impact their urban environment.

Have a bias towards action. All of the official systems are designed to prevent change. They are the defenders of the status quo, no matter how broken it is. Put possibilities into the world, and the world will respond.



Director of Engagement

Jessica Meyer moved to Detroit from Chicago in 2011 to serve in the City Year Detroit AmeriCorps program and she never left.  Aside from spending her time transforming cities by putting people first, she is also a graduate of Build Institute, board member for Detroit SOUP, founder of The Pack, and writer for Model D media.

1. What makes Detroit unique?

Detroit's small town feel in a global city is what makes it so unique for me. It's a huge reason why I wanted to stay over moving back to Chicago. It makes it easier to see the impact of your work every day, which is essential when working in a city with so much need and decades of work ahead of it.

2. If you could pick one thing, what would you change about Detroit?

I wish we could have more of a balance between focusing on interesting new avenues like entrepreneurship, innovation, and public space activation while also addressing the huge gaps in education, poverty, water access and transportation.

3. What is the best part about working for HSS?

We have a lot of passion and energy but not in a naive way. We focus a lot on self-education and understanding the facts. At the same time our work's foundation is community engagement and making sure we aren't doing something that the we may think is awesome but the community doesn't want. We are all about balance: big picture strategic plans, temporary activation and insights, and community engagement and involvement.

4. What's one piece of advice on how citizens can impact their urban environment?

There's so many ways! I'm a big fan of block clubs. I think it's a really powerful way to take ownership of your space in your neighborhood. Big things happen when a few passionate people get together.


Community Connector / Associate | Volunteer Manager for Open Streets Detroit

Born and raised in suburban Chicago, Kenny moved to Detroit to be a Challenge Detroit fellow in 2014. Since completing the fellowship, he has dedicated himself to exploring the intersection of economic development, entrepreneurship and education in redeveloping urban spaces. In his free time, he captains city-wide basketball and ultimate frisbee teams, and travels - he's hoping to see all 50 states and 6 continents by age 30; he's hit 33 and 3 by 26.

1. What makes Detroit unique?

Detroit has taught me a lot about love and relationships. Before moving here almost two years ago, I could not have imagined caring so much about a place that constantly frustrates me. From the five-lane one-way street that cuts through my quiet residential neighborhood to the neighborhoods that are isolated from resources, education and economic opportunity due to mobility barriers that exist there, Detroit has no shortage of flaws and imperfections.

That being said, I love this place because there is immense opportunity to peel back the layers of failed policy and planning to create a just and equitable future for everyone who chooses to call this place home.

2. If you could change one thing, what would you change about Detroit?

Too often we allow ourselves to get caught up in generalized tropes and narratives about the challenges and opportunities in Detroit. Depending on who you ask, it could be the only place where you would raise a family or the last place you would raise a family, The Murder Capital of the US or The Comeback City.

Regardless of the lens you choose to adopt, we need to openly address and examine Detroit's complexity. Shift conversations from Downtown and the Neighborhoods to focus on safe, walkable, livable and equitable communities throughout the city. Infuse black and white dialogues with Hispanic, Arabic, Chaldean, Polish, Hmong, Korean, Jewish and all other represented perspectives. Investment and development are vital, but let's discuss gentrification and community benefits agreements with every one of those decisions.

Detroit has the unrivaled opportunity to pioneer sustainable and equitable post-industrial redevelopment. We just need to do so in a painstakingly intentional way.

3. What is the best part about working for HSS?

The people. The people I get to work alongside. The people that inspire the work that we do. The people that our work benefits. 

4. What is one piece of advice on how citizens can impact their urban environment?

Before you work to change an urban environment, start by learning from and embedding yourself in the community that exists there. There is nothing more dangerous than prescribing solutions for problems that you don't understand and aren't personally affected by.



Design and Geospatial Analysis intern

I am a graduate student at the Department  of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University. My fields of interest are economic development, urban modelling and geospatial analysis.

1. What makes Detroit unique?

I think the unique aspect of Detroit as a city is the changing landscape of neighborhoods. Through public art, walkable streets and tactical urbanism initiatives, the urban fabric of the city is continuously enhanced.

2. If you could change one thing, what would you change about Detroit?

I would change the public transit system in Detroit because I felt over the course of the last 10 weeks that it is very difficult to go around Detroit if one doesn't have a car.

3. What is the best part about working for HSS?

I think the best part about working for HSS was that I was given a high degree of freedom and flexibility in the work environment. Chad, Jessica and team really encouraged me to be driven by my fields of interest and then give input into creating the Place Plan.

4. What is one piece of advice on how citizens can impact their urban environment?

I would encourage citizens to look beyond their smaller communities. Everyone should be sensitive to the issues faced by all the communities in Corktown. This allows for the city to grow in a much faster manner through collaboration between different citizens of a city.


Lead Public Space Activator

Barbara is a Boston-based active transportation planner & year-round bicyclist. She works on equitable & engaging place-based projects that are designed at the human scale.

1. What makes Detroit unique? 

Detroit is poised to become the most sustainable city in the United States. By focusing on small scale manufacturing, urban agriculture, transit-oriented development, and sustainable complete streets transportation infrastructure projects, it will not only improve the livability of the city but also create jobs for people living here. 

2. If you could pick one thing, what would you change about Detroit?

The width of the roads, pavement quality and the number of one-way pairs. 

3. What is the best part about working for HSS?

I really enjoy the team and the opportunity to design, create and implement thoughtful, place-based projects. 

4. What’s one piece of advice on how citizens can impact their urban environment?

Try a new form of transportation a couple of times a week, you'll see and experience new things. Try taking the bus to work, a bike ride to the grocery store or a walk to a local bar or restaurant. 

Opinions on Land Use

A community garden near West Village. 

A community garden near West Village. 

In a city with 20 square miles of vacant land, roughly the size of Manhattan, it’s tough to find consensus on how to best repurpose this land and appropriately prepare for the future of a less-populated Detroit. Some wealthy individuals have their own plans for programs to reuse vacant space. For example, John Hantz is on a mission to buy abandoned, blighted lots on Detroit’s east side and fill them with trees and grass, and so far his project has planted over 20,000 trees on close to 2,000 vacant lots (source). Meanwhile, other initiatives such as Recovery Park Farm take a more community-based approach by hiring individuals facing barriers to employment to remove blight, grow produce, and generally revitalize the green spaces of Detroit’s lower east side. Meanwhile, the city has their own policies and plans for future land use.

The issue of land use in Detroit raises questions about the interactions between a small number of wealthy, white businessmen and the rest of the city. While some proponents of his plan trust Hantz to follow through on his promises and provide much-needed cash to the city while assisting in its blight removal project, others are less supportive of his plan. Criticisms include attacking Hantz for using volunteer labor to plant trees and his private property, and ironically “sympathizing” with the inability of the super-rich to always buy the land they want at the price they want it.

Volunteers plant trees as part of the Hantz Woodlands project. 

Volunteers plant trees as part of the Hantz Woodlands project. 

Dan Gilbert, likely the highest-profile businessman in Detroit, has done tremendous revitalization work downtown but is often criticized for expanding the holdings of “Gilbertville” while paying little attention to the struggles of the people outside of downtown Detroit’s 7.2 square miles. It is easy to praise Gilbert and Hantz for their work, but also easy to slot them into a “white savior complex.” With questions of race and class and considerations about the history of Detroit all swirling around together, it’s no easy task to decide on the best route to take.

Speaking as an outsider working in Detroit for the summer, it seems like a number of parties must work collaboratively to combat the issue of vacant land in Detroit. When investors, developers, community movements and the city government are all at odds in their attempts to remake this space, it inhibits progress. Still, this is a huge problem to tackle and raises issues both of best practices for use of space in the 21st century and of ownership of the space. Considering the wide range of interests surrounding Detroit's revitalization in the coming years, the way the city moves forwards to remake its unused space can either negate or highlight the disparity between who the city belongs to and who has control.  

Joe Squillace is a junior at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He is a summer intern at the Corktown Economic Development Corporation and is interested in cities, energy, and computational sustainability.  

Community Engagement Why Should We Care?

Dean Savage Park —a park with the potential, yet absent of the attention.

Situated snugly in the center of Corktown, Dean Savage Park seems to be the ideal location for a park brimming with activity. Yet the space sits largely-ignored and slightly frazzled. A few weeks ago, the Corktown Economic Development Corporation (CEDC) and Batch Brewing Company teamed up to host a Biergarten to bring some life, attention and community discussion to the park. The Biergarten’s purpose wasn’t just to sell beer, but to create a space where the community could lounge, laugh, and of course, drink. 

And I’d say it was a success. 

I’m a student intern working with CEDC over the summer. Connected through Duke Engage (a program at Duke University which promotes volunteerism, service, and community engagement), I’m a part of a cohort of eight students assigned to various nonprofits throughout Detroit. My site partner, Joe Squillace, and I really enjoy working with CEDC since it really gives us a chance to not only learn about a new field and area (I’ll never see streets and cities the same way again) but also exercise our skills.

As a part of the program, I’m only in Detroit for eight weeks —not enough time to really see the revitalization of Corktown come to fruition (a major goal of CEDC). But helping out at an event like the Biergarten showed me not only the short term benefits of community engagement, but also the sheer importance of it as well.

But, what exactly is community engagement?

Perform a quick Google search and phrases like “participation,”“communication,” and “building relationships” pepper the page. Since the term is so broad, it’s a little difficult to precisely define. Community engagement encompasses everything from activities designed to increase community participation, to consulting the community while planning events, to empowering the community by facilitating discussion (did I say community enough times?).

Basically, community engagement is engaging with the community (is your mind blown yet?). 

Community engagement is as flour is to a cake —an essential ingredient. If a nonprofit like CEDC wants to succeed in its goals, it needs to increase its engagement efforts. The Biergarten is a prime example of an event designed to garner public attention, gather community feedback, and promote a vibrant feel. 

And it was a success on many different fronts.

First, the event raised money for the Patronicity Campaign —a campaign“aimed at creating a fun, safe, and inclusive space for all residents and visitors to Corktown.”In doing so, the Biergarten also publicized the campaign, thus garnering more public attention. Later, this can translate to a broader base of support.

The Biergarten also successfully gathered resident feedback on what they would like to see the park used for. When I interviewed a local, she noted how little pop-ups like this one are “good methods for revitalization” and “eye-opener(s) for the city.” Another local noted that although the location was prime, the park would be more attractive to relax in if it was aesthetically more pleasing; small things like adding colorful flowers and making sure the grass wasn’t dead would go a long way, according to him. These little snippets of feedback are helpful. They give CEDC more direction on how to accomplish its goals.

And so in the end, it’s apparent why community engagement is such a big deal not only for nonprofits like CEDC, but organizations in general. It makes reaching goals easier and more efficient —basically a catalyst to success. 

But for community engagement to work, it has to be implemented in different ways over the long-term. Sadly, I’m a summer intern here for a measly two months. I won’t be here to see long-term benefits. But seeing just how much the Biergarten has accomplished in a short time frame, I know that with sustained effort, community engagement can and will transform Corktown.

Ashka Stephen is a rising sophomore at Duke University majoring in Economics and Computer Science. She’s interested in learning more about startup culture, entrepreneurship and innovation. Over the summer, she is interning at the Corktown Economic Development Corporation and is primarily working on a team creating a Place Plan for the Corktown Area.

Walkability Is Just a (Good) Start

The Dequindre Cut Greenway, opened in May of 2009.

A recent report from Smart Growth America, in conjunction with The George Washington University’s Center for Real Estate & Urban Analysis, includes Detroit in its “top tier” of Development Momentum rankings, indicating that the city’s walkability is trending up rapidly. Projects such as the riverfront restoration and Dequindre Cut Greenway helped secure this ranking.

This news reflects progress in the city as its residents start to enjoy the numerous health and economic benefits of walkable neighborhoods. These benefits are well documented in scientific research, and some of the top reasons why walkability is important in an urban environment include:

1.     Ample footpaths with access to recreation and retail areas encourage walking and exercise outdoors. This is especially important in a country where close to 35% of adults are obese and 93% of the average citizen’s time is spent in closed buildings or vehicles.  

2.     Walking takes cars off the road, which decreases traffic and reduces emissions. 

3.     Strong walkability increases property values and decreases rates of foreclosure.

4.     Walkable neighborhoods see decreased rates of crime, including violent crime and murder.

5.     The quality of spaces surrounding people drastically impact their quality of life; one study suggests that having a more complex and walkable environment requires maintaining a more complex cognitive map and can help ward off Alzheimer’s Disease.  

We at Human Scale Studio have made significant efforts to increase walkability in Corktown through our work with the Corktown Economic Development Corporation. We recently won the Knight Cities Challenge award for our People First project, and we will distribute 12 grants of $5000 to selected fellows to fund transformative projects aimed at making Michigan Avenue a more complete street. (More information and applications are available here.) The benefits of walkability are wide-reaching, and the findings of Smart Growth America and GWU indicate that the city of Detroit and its activists are serious about improving walkability and seizing these benefits. 

Kids play at the Detroit Riverfront fountains. 

Kids play at the Detroit Riverfront fountains. 

Still, in designing more walkable communities, we must remember that improving walkability alone is not enough to secure a sustainable and prosperous future for a neighborhood or region. Studies have shown that HUD-assisted housing is more likely to be in walkable neighborhoods but also more likely to be in neighborhoods of “lower quality,” with higher incidence of segregation and low-quality schooling. For example, this article leads with the story of a woman who was happy to see her son walk across the street to school only to later realize that this convenience was useless because of the school’s poor quality.  

The presence of desirable facilities alone gets residents out of their houses, but walkability matters less when there aren’t desirable locations to walk to. In the development of Detroit and other cities across the country, a foundation of strong education, transportation, public services, and general financial solvency are must-haves. In the wake of this exciting news it is important to remember that walkability is just the start.

Joe Squillace is a junior at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He is a summer intern at the Corktown Economic Development Corporation and is interested in cities, energy, and computational sustainability.