The Detroit Regional Chamber hosted their sixth Detroit Policy Conference on March 2, 2017 at the MotorCity Casino Hotel in downtown Detroit. This year’s conference focused on the rapid development in Detroit, highlighting the city’s innovative spirit, the benefits of and need for cross-sector collaboration, and the changemakers who are paving the way for development to come. Featured speakers included Toni Griffin (Urban Planning for the American City), Christopher Illitch (Illitch Holdings’), and Janette Sadik-Khan (Bloomberg Associates’). Sessions and panels showcased voices from the various arenas of community development in Detroit, including but not limited to career development, transportation, and food economics. The discussions were dynamic and informative, allowing participants and observers an opportunity to understand the current state of commerce and innovation in Detroit.

Detroit first came under the spotlight in 2013, when the city declared Chapter 9 bankruptcy, the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in United States’ debt history. Since, the city has been analyzed in the context of being the city that deals with the worst of all of our nation’s urban problems, from crime and poverty to healthcare and education. In the face of so much challenge, Detroit offers vision and passion for a better, brighter future. And all eyes are waiting for the city to deliver.

For this reason, events like the Detroit Policy Conference are vital to Detroit’s communications efforts. For outsiders, the conference explained the current state and the actions taken. In short, this conference is positive PR for Detroit, a step that pushes its public image towards growth and opportunity. On the other hand, the conference opened communications channels for change makers within the city, enabling panelists and participants to see what their peers and counterparts are doing. From what I observed, this conference helped strengthen the cross-sector collaborative efforts within the city. If there’s anything I’ve learned from my few years of experience, it’s that strong communications can be enough to bridge any gap. If strong communication can help sway policy to the side of science, it can surely help us strengthen Detroit.

I listened to several speakers at the conference that were incredibly eye opening to me, as an outsider to Detroit and someone whose host company is part of the automotive industry. But I think the words that stuck with me the most came from Janette Sadik-Khan. Maybe it was because she was my first true, in-depth venture into urban planning. Or maybe it was because her ideas about urban mobility are just that good.

Janette Sadik-Khan is a visionary for transportation and mobility in an urban setting. She has worked on improving mobility for pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists in New York, San Francisco, Mexico City, and more. In each of these cities, she approached the concept of mobility by addressing another issue: reclaiming unused space. She transformed unused parking lots and poorly utilized large roadways into community spaces, which are available to the public for residents and visitors alike. Sadik-Khan designs these spaces to make sure that pedestrians and cyclists have a safe way to mobilize, and so that motorized traffic still has a clear and non-intrusive road to travel on. Her redesigns call for only one change: better collaboration and compromise between motorists and non-motorists overall.

Sadik-Khan offered several pieces of wisdom during her talk at the conference, but there were a few lines that really stood out to me. The first was her philosophy regarding change. She said, “If you didn’t change your core business model in over 50 years, would you still be in business?” When she dropped this line, she was critiquing the usability of the traditional city design that catered primarily to cars and personal vehicles. “If large highways actually worked, then those cities should move at record speeds,” she went on to say. Cities like Detroit were designed the way Los Angeles and Miami were designed, with up to eight lanes that are supposed to increase the flow of traffic. And, somehow, Los Angeles and Miami commuters face hours of traffic every day. Detroit’s road structure is similar, but the traffic is less because the population simply hasn’t hit the same proportions of bigger cities. When it does, however, by how much will our commutes increase? To combat this mobility challenge, Sadik-Khan has encouraged the development of bus fleets and bike lanes (that go two-ways and are protected by parked cars, of course) in other cities, and has noticed a difference. She also encourages that we, as a society, start making better use of data analytics to truly see the positive effects of such sustainable change.

Here’s the second thing Sadik-Khan said that stuck with me: “You get the city you plan for.” If the city makes it safer to bike, then people will be more confident in biking more often. As Detroit – and Ford – are in the midst of transforming mobility, I thought this was a prominent piece of advice. If the city and its mobility companies are looking to create a more sustainable city, then I think it’s important for both entities to plan for diverse types of transportation. If companies invested more in public transportation, then people would have the opportunity to rely less on personal vehicles.

Listening to Sadik-Khan’s experiences (and cracking open her book) brought to light a personal learning. I think I might be interested in urban planning. Admittedly, before coming to Detroit, urban planning was an ethereal field to me, even though I’ve always loved cities and the opportunities for living and learning that they bring. My experiences in Detroit are teaching me how dimensional city planning is, and I find myself wondering how I can find my interests in this world.