What makes this American city a design trailblazer?

As UNESCO City of Design—the only one in the U.S.—Detroit is part of a network of cities around the world using design to improve the lives of everyday people.

Renewal Project

How does a city achieve inclusive growth? Public officials, community activists, and business and civic leaders grapple with this question every day. At Design Core Detroit, we believe that inclusive design practices hold the key to creating opportunities for inclusive growth. As the only U.S. city to be designated as a UNESCO City of Design, Detroit is part of a network of cities around the world using design to improve the lives of everyday people.

Over 50 organizations are working to make Detroit into a leading center for the practice of inclusive design. Together, these organizations reached 70,000 people through more than 60 projects throughout the city in 2018. This coalition is guided by three common values: diverse experiences, accessible opportunities, and collaborative relationships.

What is inclusive design, you ask? Inclusive design takes into consideration the full spectrum of human diversity and the individual experiences of each person to create solutions that allow more people to participate in society. By designing for people that may seem like the exception in society, we can create places, products, services, and systems that work for all people in society.

How can design drive inclusive growth? Here are three ways Detroit is making progress:

Commercial spaces

The Commons—part coffee shop, laundromat, and community space—is a 2018 Commerce Design: Detroit award winner. Photo courtesy of MACC Development

Most people interact with design on a daily basis through the public spaces and small business that they frequent. More important than aesthetics, sometimes these design decisions signal who is welcome in a space.

Starting in 2018, Design Core and its partners at AIA Detroit launched the Commerce Design: Detroit awards, licensed from the city of Montréal. This award honors commercial projects where business owners hired professional designers to help them in the design or renovation of their space. The winners begin to demonstrate to the greater community how inclusive design practices can create welcoming neighborhood spaces.

The Commons, developed by MACC Development, is a prime example of inclusive design in practice. Part coffee shop, laundromat, and community space, thoughtful decisions allow these very different concepts to co-exist and for different customers to interact with each other comfortably. The Commons has become a meeting point for the diverse community surrounds it.

“When you’re surrounded by attractive businesses that offer great experiences, they create a sort of living environment that makes a difference in people’s daily lives. Enhancing the quality of the living environment is something that you start at a small scale and it becomes a movement.” Sylvie Champeau, MGP Counsellor Analysis & Management Control, Design Bureau, Economic Development Department, City of Montréal.


Design Core Detroit along with partners hosted an equitable mobility workshop with residents.

With automated and connected vehicles on the horizon, industry is scrambling to develop new forms of mobility for the future. But questions of inclusion are often missing from this work, suggesting that new mobility solutions like scooters, rideshare, and others may not serve all segments of a community.

Inspired by a research project between Saint-Etienne, France, and Michelin looking at mobility and autonomous vehicles, the 2030 Detroit Equitable Mobility Project is a joint collaboration between Design Core, the College for Creative Studies (CCS), Ford Motor Company Fund, and the communications agency GTB to explore how human-centered design can achieve a mobile future for all Detroiters.

Over two phases, using participatory design approaches with community members in the Hope Village neighborhood of Detroit, CCS students and faculty developed three long-term mobility scenarios with service design solutions that would allow a broader range of residents to access health care, food, and other daily needs. A third phase launching this fall will lead the students through the design of physical objects to enhance the service design solutions.

“We support the inclusion of multiple voices in the design process. At the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. If you imbed the user during the design process, you have a much higher chance to have a successful proposal,” says Maria Luisa Ross, CCS Professor and Chair of MFA Integrated Design.

Community Impact

Local students created Brightmoor Water Cycles, a tricycle-mounted water filtration system. Photo courtesy of Brightmoor Maker Space

Neighborhood revitalization often means new real estate development, business, and public spaces, but what about the human needs of existing residents? Conscious that services are the soft infrastructure of society, Detroit community advocates are engaged in grassroots efforts to enhance the quality of life for all. Sometimes these projects not only shift local social dynamics, but also make their way across international borders.

In response to the Flint Water Crisis of 2016 and the continual human rights concern of widespread water shut-offs in the city of Detroit, Brightmoor Maker Space developed a program called Water Cycles. Sixty local students designed a functional and imaginative solar-powered water purification system. The Water Cycle is a tricycle-mounted three-stage filtration process unit capable of delivering 30 gallons of potable water in 30 minutes.

Not only does this project support clean water access in Detroit neighborhoods, but can help communities around the world. In March 2019, a group of students traveled to Kenya to help implement the project near Nairobi. A third iteration of the Water Cycle is currently in development.

Learn more: These are just a few examples of the ways that inclusive design practices can improve the quality of life and economic opportunity for everyone in a community. To read more stories of the work of our partners and Design Core, download Inclusive Design Together: Detroit City of Design Monitoring Report. Also, follow the Detroit City of Design Podcast and visit Detroit in September during Detroit Month of Design to see this work in person.