Youths play key role in Cody Rouge revitalization plan

Youths are at the forefront of community planning in the Warrendale/Cody Rouge neighborhood, where the city has recently announced a partnership with Huntington Bank to support a child-centric plan of action, co-crafted by residents and the city, through the Strategic Neighborhoods and Affordable Housing Leverage Funds.


Mayor Mike Duggan spoke on the partnership at a press conference held at Brennan Pool in Rouge Park on Aug. 21. Seven major funders have committed $5 million over five years to support 10 individualized neighborhood revitalization plans, each with resident input.


The Warrendale/Cody Rouge neighborhood framework plan is unique, in that it focuses on making improvements through a youth-centric lens. In addition to general economic development, affordable housing, and beautification, in its brainstorming phase, the plan also looks at kid-friendly transportation and spaces for youth entrepreneurship, education, artistic creation, and play.


Nine local teens, many who have participated in the Cody Rouge Action Alliance Youth Council, and who live, work, worship, or attend school in the neighborhood, are making these development plans for their community alongside the city and adult residents.


This is the first-ever undertaking of the city to put youth at the forefront of the planning process. The goal is to guide future growth and investment in a neighborhood that holds one of the city’s largest populations of school-age children, with one-third of its population under 18 years of age, according to Data Driven Detroit.


“The idea is that these kids will be the stewards of this land, and of these projects, and of this neighborhood for much longer than any of the rest of us will be,” says Matt Williams, project manager for the City of Detroit Planning and Development Department.


Taylin Hodges, 16, joined the plan’s youth steering committee after having often expressed to her parents a desire to find concrete ways to improve her neighborhood. As someone who loves the outdoors and has a fondness for animals, she says those talks were often triggered by issues of litter, trash, and critter control.


“Sometimes I feel the youth don’t always get a say,” Hodges shared at a community meeting held this past spring to kick off the framework plan process. “We usually get things decided for us. But we came, and demanded a say for our community.”


Meetings between the city’s Planning and Development Department and both an adult and teen neighborhood steering committee started in February, a few months before the community kickoff. With an approximate 12-month goal, the group hopes to finalize a neighborhood framework plan by next spring.


To further agency within the teens beforehand, Williams says the planning department developed a curriculum and rubric to help them to better understand how his department works, to pinpoint local leaders and define how decisions are made in their community, and to begin to register what types of planning ideas might be feasible and what their implementation could look like.


“The project was completely different than how I originally thought it was going to be,” Hodges says, “I felt like it was gonna be, like, sitting in a classroom having nine-hour discussions about different things. But it’s actually much more hands-on than that. We got to interview city officials, we got to go out and build things, talk to residents, draw out our ideas. My opinion matters,” she continues, “way more than I thought it was going to.”


The teen’s investigative interviews with public officials have included community leaders such as Duggan; Maurice Cox, the city of Detroit’s planning director; and Tonya Allen, Skillman Foundation president and CEO.


“The goal,” Williams says, “was to then go to the proverbial drawing board with this informed series of recommendations on projects that could happen in the community, and start to draw them in a way that our young people feel an agency in: in keeping them up, in participating and activating said sites, as they will be the prime users, given populations tend to stay somewhere close to where they were born.”


The current economic plan looks to create places in which young people can become entrepreneurs or showcase their artistic talents by activating vacant space along the commercial corridor with the intent of making it a kid-friendly storefront.


Whether incorporating that or in addition to it, Hodges says there’s a large push for a teen center with a comfy hangout space, a music studio, and room for dance. Also on the wish list are an art room, an auto shop, and a garden, as well as classes on basic life skills: finance and food preparation.


“We want it to be a place where kids can go and have fun, but they can also learn new things that they aren’t able to explore,” she says.


This will all get fleshed out over the next six months, but Williams says a streetscape element is also a part of the conversation. Maybe it’s living landscapes, interactive bus stops, or designated places of play along Main Street (Warren Avenue or Joy Road). Transportation may also have a youth-centric lens, such as a scooter lane alongside a pedestrian bike lane or free MoGo for kids from school grounds to places like the library or the entrepreneurial center. Maybe scooter docking stations.


Kenyetta Campbell, executive director of the Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance, and a member of the plan’s adult steering committee says another youth-focus concern is street safety: speed bumps, the tearing down of abandoned houses, and the revisioning of vacant lots. She also says teens would love to see an amphitheater in Stein Park as well as a venue that provides go-karts or laser tag.


Some of the quick-action ways the group has been able to alter the current neighborhood landscape has been in identifying projects that can be done with minimal supplies and good old-fashioned sweat equity.


In June, the planning committee, in partnership with the Joy-Southfield Community Development Corporation and local volunteers, held a community picnic table build to construct eight tables, which were distributed across five vacant lots.


Just picnic tables are not enough to create an inviting space, so six weeks later, participants and funders in the annual Grow Cody week event installed fences, flowers, inground lights, and signage to the new pocket yards.


As a planner, Williams says projects like these are exciting to participate in. That there’s a waiting process that comes with city government transparency, and these smaller initiatives are helpful to keep up engagement and to maximize the communal energy.


As to the youth involvement in the long-term planning process, Campbell says, “They’re not just coming to meetings. They’re actually learning about planning, they’re giving their input, they’re interviewing the community stakeholders. It’s really been a great process thus far.”


“This is such a good opportunity,” Hodges says. “A lot of teens should be able to experience this type of thing. We are the future generation, so I feel it’s important to get our opinion on a lot of things.”


“I feel overall, we should do more things like this, that the community hasn’t really had, on the plan, where their opinion is really valued.”


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