June 26, 2017
Dan Pitera working at the DCDC.

The national reputation of Detroit Mercy’s Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC) continues to rise.

The DCDC is currently advising community development and economic engine groups in Memphis and Milwaukee as part of a grant by the Kresge Foundation’s American Cities Practice. 

In consultation with the DCDC, both cities are developing reports and community development plans similar to the plan Detroit Future City (DFC) produced, which was informed by Executive Director Dan Pitera’s civic engagement efforts in 2012. The DFC project is a decision-making framework for the City of Detroit, which includes five elements: economic growth, land use, city systems, neighborhoods and land and building assets.

“We seek to inspire and help build the capacities of the nonprofit, government community and foundation communities to deliver on this kind of work and include many people and constituencies as possible to be a part of community revitalization planning processes,” Pitera said. 

“We worked with Michigan Community Resources to design an engagement process that really has become second to none anywhere in the country,” Pitera added. “We developed 23 different tactics that got us out in the city. We engaged about 90,000 Detroiters in total as part of our substantial community outreach process.”

The Kresge Foundation recommended that civic leaders in Memphis and Milwaukee consult with the DCDC as part of their initial planning efforts.

Kresge Foundation Senior Fellow Carol Coletta connected leaders in Memphis with staff at the DCDC, whereas leaders in Milwaukee were inspired by a peer-to-peer visit to Detroit. The Kresge Foundation then granted both cities with the support to work with the DCDC to advise how to design and implement community revitalization and engagement plans.

“The idea is to engage as many people as possible to develop a framework for how they will move forward,” Pitera said. “Some people say master plan, usually when you think of ‘master plan,’ you’re thinking of policies and only physical development. All the three cities, with Detroit being one of them, are looking beyond just the physical development, like what economic growth is key, how do we think about our city systems and so on.”

Pitera points out that the DCDC won’t be taking on any of the work in the projects in Memphis and Milwaukee; the DCDC is simply there to advise. One of the reasons Pitera chooses to operate that way is that he believes the stakeholders in each city know their city better than he ever could.

“You live in a community — I could never come in and tell you what it’s like to live in your community. It’s your expertise,” Pitera said. “One of the tactics that worked really well in Milwaukee, and would probably work well in Detroit, was a series of happy hours to engage people. One of our goals was to help bring people out who wouldn’t typically come to what they consider a boring community meeting. We’re trying to move away from community meetings with our tactics.

“Those happy hours have become quite successful in Milwaukee. That wasn’t our idea, that was their idea. We’re trying to build their capacity by inspiring them by what we’ve done. They see what’s possible for them to develop that are specific and particular to them.”

Through projects in and out of Detroit, the reputation of the DCDC continues to grow. The DCDC was recently awarded the prestigious Whitney A. Young Jr. award by the American Institute of Architects. This award distinguishes an architect or architectural organization that embodies social responsibility and actively addresses a relevant issue, such as affordable housing, inclusiveness or universal access. 

“It’s essentially the Academy Awards for what we do,” Pitera said of the honor. “It illustrates that the work we are doing is nationally recognized. We are really setting the standard for policy decisions on how to do this work. In fact, there is no national policy on this work, but we’re working hard to create an agenda with other folks on how to do this work more holistically around the country. That builds the reputation here. We field calls from people around the world to talk with us about our methods and our knowledge on the city of Detroit.”

Housed in University of Detroit Mercy’s School of Architecture, the DCDC is a teaching hospital for architecture students. Students can work for the DCDC full or part-time and receive exposure to real-world experiences in architecture, landscape architecture and design.

“The students are doing the actual work,” Pitera said. “They are in client meetings. They do not just sit behind desks. They see the entire workings. They sit in the office meetings. They hear the good, bad and the ugly in those meetings. They are part of the entire process. There’s no romance about the work after they finish working with us. They know every aspect of it.”

Students will be actively participating in the advising projects in both Memphis and Milwaukee and be able to see how things work, both locally and in these new locations.

“Working in these other locations, it gets back to the sense of urban reconnaissance,” Pitera said. “There are so many opportunities to work in a variety of different ways in the City of Detroit. I really hope we don’t all settle on one or two methods and just sort of duplicate those methods around the city. Working in Memphis and Milwaukee only makes us better designers and better thinkers to work in the City of Detroit. It makes us more savvy. The insight helps clarify what we’re doing.

“Someone might say, ‘Why are Memphis and Milwaukee exciting, because you’re not doing the work?’ But it’s exciting to be a part of helping people work, seeing their passion to create a higher quality of life for the people there and helping them reach their goals. Helping them build their expertise helps us build our expertise. We’ve learned; they’ve learned. We come back and share that here. They’re sharing what they’ve learned from us; that, to me, is what’s so exciting,” Pitera concluded.

The Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC) is a multi-disciplinary, nonprofit architecture and urban design firm at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture dedicated to creating sustainable spaces and communities through quality design and the collaborative process. Since 1994, the DCDC has worked with more than 100 Detroit nonprofit organizations, community groups and philanthropic foundations toward fulfilling its mission. The staff consists of seven full-time urban design, architecture and landscape architecture professionals, and one to three student interns. To learn more about the DCDC and connect to a free digital book on their work and philosophy, please visit For more about the Detroit Mercy School of Architecture, please visit

— By Dave Pemberton. Follow Detroit Mercy on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Have a story idea? Let us know by submitting your idea.