Historically, when people talk about developing a good — or even great — city, the focus has been fairly superficial, says June Manning Thomas.
Tall, beautiful buildings and lively business and entertainment districts are important, but they aren’t enough.
“We need cities where people can work, where they can live in a safe environment, where they can actually get to places in terms of transportation,” she says.
Thomas is Centennial Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. She was named the Mary Frances Berry Distinguished University Professor of Urban Planning in 2016.
The Distinguished University Professor, U-M’s most prestigious professorship, recognizes senior faculty with exceptional scholarly or creative achievements, national and international reputations for academic excellence and superior records of teaching, mentoring and service.
Thomas will speak on “Critical Needs in Planning the ‘Good City’: Lessons from Detroit” in her Distinguished University Professor lecture at 4 p.m. Tuesday in the Rackham Amphitheatre.
When she talks about “the good city,” Thomas refers to a philosophical ideal that goes back to early civilization. But when thinking about the ongoing redevelopment of a city like Detroit, it can also be thought of as an important step to becoming great.
In her talk, Thomas will examine ways planners have conceptualized Detroit redevelopment to create the “good city” in the 1950s, early 1990s, and early 2010s. She’ll talk about barriers these planners have faced and what lessons can be learned from them.
She notes that in the 1950s, the prevailing thought was to save the city and its downtown by clearing out so-called “blighted areas” — often African-American neighborhoods — and replacing them with new “beautiful housing.”
“The standard of physical beauty was disrespectful to other kinds of needs, such as compassion for the people that were being removed, providing access to the city for everyone, and including some sort of means for people to make a livelihood who had actually depended on those neighborhoods,” she says.
Thomas has extensively researched and written about urban renewal and race in Detroit since the mid-’90s. Her 1997 book, “Redevelopment and Race: Planning a Finer City in Postwar Detroit” (Johns Hopkins University Press; second edition, Wayne State University Press, 2013), was one of the first scholarly looks at the relationship between racial injustice and urban planning.
Thomas named her professorship for Mary Frances Berry, who received law and doctoral degrees from U-M and chaired the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights for many years. Berry’s many books, particularly on the connections between law and social justice, have inspired many people.
A South Carolina native, Thomas settled in Michigan after earning her Bachelor of Arts degree from Michigan State University and a Ph.D. from U-M. As a teenager in the 1960s, Thomas was on the front lines of the civil rights movement in her home state. Under court order, she and a dozen other black students first integrated the local high school. This experience helped shape her ongoing work.
“I’m not angry about it, I just discuss it,” she says. “It doesn’t wear me down. It actually brings me joy.”