A tale of two cities

Detroit and Munich: similar cities with very different challenges

Nick Lerner
6 June 2016

10 min read

As city officials prepare to gather July 10-14 in Singapore for the 2016 World Cities Summit, Compass compares two cities – Detroit and Munich – where the automotive industry is paramount but each city’s future holds very different challenges. Still, both cities see realistic 3D modeling as an important piece of planning their evolutions.

Detroit, Michigan, and Munich, Germany, have much in common. They share similar latitudes (48°13’N for Munich, 48°13’N for Detroit). Both are graced with water (the River Isar for Munich, the Detroit River linking the St. Clair and Erie lakes for Detroit). And, since the turn of the 20th century, automobiles have dominated both cities’ economies.

Detroit took off in 1903, when Henry Ford founded Ford Motor Company. Ford was quickly followed by the Dodge Brothers, Packard and Walter Chrysler, leading to Detroit’s nickname as “The Motor City.” In Munich, BMW is the largest employer with 41,000 workers, triple those employed by the city’s second largest company.

Economically, however, it is difficult to imagine two cities, both located in advanced western nations, which are more dissimilar.

With 3% unemployment and per capita income approaching €27,000 in 2007 (US$30,663), Munich has the highest standard of living in Germany and the fourth highest worldwide, according to the 2015 Mercer Survey; its population has grown 20% in the past 10 years, to a total of more than 1.5 million. Given its success, Munich’s biggest challenge is how to continue to grow in just 310 square kilometers (120 square miles) of space without sacrificing its environment or succumbing to traffic gridlock.

                                                                             The Park Avenue Building in downtown Detroit is one                                                                                   of more than 80,000 properties that had been                                                                                          abandoned before the city began                                                                               its comeback. (Image © AFP Photo / Maria Oberman)

Detroit, meanwhile, battered by repeated setbacks in the US auto industry and a mass exodus to the suburbs, has lost 60% of its population, dropping from a high of 1.8 million in the 1950 census to slightly less than 700,000 today. Its unemployment rate is 14.5%, and its 2010 per capita income was US$14,118 (€12,400), less than half of Munich’s. At its worst, more than 80,000 buildings were abandoned, including 20% of the city’s housing. With its employment and tax base eroded, Detroit – US$18.5 billion in debt – filed for bankruptcy in December 2013.

With such divergent economic pictures, it would be easy to conclude that Detroit and Munich won’t find any common solutions to their challenges at the World City Summit in Singapore this July. In fact, however, both cities will be taking a hard look at the host city’s “Virtual Singapore” program (http://bit.ly/ VirtualSingapore). That effort, currently in development, is working to feed the data automatically generated by its citizens’ smartphone movements into a dynamic 3D virtual model that grows richer day by day. The result is a real-time, ever-evolving simulation of Singapore that will help the bustling city-state plan its future while delivering a high quality of interaction for its citizens.

The following is a look at the challenges of both Detroit and Munich, and how they might be addressed by the same technology at use in Singapore.


In the wake of its urban downturn, Detroit is rising again with a maker culture. “Detroit is the city that made America, and it’s not giving up,” said Jacques Panis, president of Shinola, a Detroit-based company that Panis describes as “a job-creation vehicle.”

                                                                           MAURICE COX, Detroit Planning Director

Shinola, one of a host of young companies flocking to help rebuild downtown Detroit, produces a range of high-quality watches, bicycles, leather goods and journals – all proudly branded “Built in Detroit.” Though small, with just 500 employees, Shinola is only about 200 employees short of making Detroit’s list of Top 25 employers.

Panis describes his main challenge as bringing large numbers of new staff to high levels of skill in complex manufacturing into the factory to help us train our people and set up operations to Swiss standards,” he said. “We are all in it together: innovating, understanding and ‘making’ properly.”



Shinola does not take any tax incentives, Panis said, but finds the city government’s attitude refreshing. “Because of its history, the city has everything you need to run a global manufacturing business, including an airport, port and railway, and a city government that is prepared to embrace innovative concepts and that offers new enterprises a genuine welcome,” he said. “They have time to listen and they want to help create opportunities. This city is what opportunity looks like.”


Such sentiments are music to the ears of Maurice Cox, Detroit’s planning director, who was appointed in 2015 to draw people and investment to a city best known for cars, Motown music and the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history (Detroit emerged from bankruptcy in December 2014 after just a year of restructuring).

As planning director in an economically distressed region, Cox’s job isn’t just planning; he also works as an enabler of development and one of the city’s leading cheerleaders. In 2013-2014 alone, US$5.2 billion (€4.5 billion) in new investment flowed into the city. The population of key areas, including downtown and midtown Detroit and nearby neighborhoods, has begun to grow; overall, population decline has slowed from 2.5% annually to about 1%. Cox is eager to keep turning that tide.

                                                            JACQUES PANIS, President of Shinola

“Detroit has the square-mile footprint of Manhattan, Boston and San Francisco put together, but is sparsely populated in many areas,” Cox said. “Development potential is therefore enormous. We are currently mapping the city to define development parcels for innovative startups.”

In this “supersize city,” some areas retain a genuinely rural feel. “We have to think of new urban forms and define uses for this land to make linked islands of enterprise throughout the city,” Cox said. “These would be places where new businesses could emerge, grow and network in different neighborhoods rather than being located downtown. It’s a new city paradigm. Through investment, we are creating engines of growth, cultural anchors and strategic employment opportunities.”

To keep Detroit growing, housing is another important focus. Detroit is holding competitions for developers and architects to create family- and enterprise-friendly medium-density housing and other pedestrian-scale neighborhood concepts. “The future of Detroit is in its neighborhoods, and at a village scale,” Cox said. “Places that have previously not received attention or resources are getting them now. Opportunities to innovate are hiding in plain sight.”




One major contributor to Detroit’s renaissance is Rock Ventures, parent of Quicken Loans. Quicken, one of the world’s largest mortgage lenders, was founded by Dan Gilbert, a Detroit native who in 2010 consolidated Quicken Loans’ 4,600 employees in downtown Detroit. Quicken is now the city’s third largest employer, outranked only by a major medical center and the city itself.

Bedrock Detroit, another of the Rock Ventures companies, has revitalized entire blocks of abandoned Detroit real estate into attractive spaces for young, up-and-coming companies. Together, Rock and Bedrock have invested US$2.2 billion (€1.9 billion) in Detroit, purchased 14 million square feet (1.3 million square meters) of properties and created 8,000 new jobs, including architects, property managers, maintenance staff, mortgage bankers, and IT, sales and marketing professionals.

Steve Rosenthal, principal of Bedrock and president of Rock Companies, is leading all aspects of revitalizing a four-block, 8.4-acre section of Detroit’s historic Brush Park neighborhood north of downtown. Since 2011, the company has also purchased 90 buildings for redevelopment and has a host of other major building projects underway in the city. Rosenthal describes it as “the biggest development in Detroit for 30 years.”


As Detroit claws its way back from the brink of extinction, Munich is grappling with how to manage too much success – success that will only increase the pressure on a city of only 310 square kilometers (120 square miles) with a population of 1.5 million people that has grown 20% in the past decade. With an unemployment rate of only 3% and one of the highest per capita income levels in Europe, Munich also boasts Germany’s highest cost of living.

BMW, which employs 41,000 people in Munich, dominates the city center with its BMW World museum (lower left), high-rise corporate tower (upper right), and manufacturing plants (center). (Image © Ulrich Baumgarten / Getty Images)

And now premium automobile maker BMW, already the city’s largest employer by far, is consolidating its research activities in the city center, with plans to grow its Munich employment by 15,000. The research and innovation center, known as FIZ (Forschungs und Innovationszentrum), will transform an abandoned military facility into a 2 million-square-meter (21 million-square-foot) campus focused on creating the transportation innovations of tomorrow.

“FIZ will be our main R&D hub for the next 30 years of technical and environmental challenges,” said Markus Baumgartner, BMW FIZ Future Program lead. “Previously, the site for FIZ was closed to the public. In the future, the site will be more accessible; in some parts the only boundaries will be the buildings themselves. To help spark ideas, FIZ is designed to facilitate as much personal and chance meeting as possible. All around will be public space and a 5-hectare public garden.”



Communication has been a major focus for BMW as it pursues the project. “Early and continuous communication is key to defining a common purpose, gaining strong backing and accelerated momentum for change,” Baumgartner said. “We worked with our neighbors and the city to define the aesthetics, function and integration of FIZ into the metropolitan fabric and help make improvements for everyone. These include better bus, tube, rail and tram links as well as improvements to roads and footways.”

                                                                   MARKUS BAUMGARTNER, FIZ Future Program Lead


Volker Brambach, a planner at Munich’s Department of Urban Planning and Construction, leads the city’s efforts to weave FIZ into Munich’s urban center. “Mediating in consultation with many interest groups, we sought to produce a master plan that defines the structures and future development so that everybody wins,” he said. “Our main goal is to strengthen and improve local spaces, make them look good and have them as green as possible.”

Accommodating new people is a priority in the rapidly growing city. “Currently, BMW employs 41,000 people in Munich,” Brambach said. “FIZ will increase that number by 15,000 over coming decades. This creates a need for more housing. The likelihood is for increased density, as land is in short supply.”

Like BMW, the city sees communication as a key tool in understanding and overcoming objections. “We have to deal with very complex sets of issues while clearly communicating our plans,” Brambach said. “This has helped create a very positive feeling about FIZ, because almost everyone has got what they wanted. Even though growing traffic load will be an everlasting problem that has to be solved, very few people complained."

In redeveloping an abandoned military complex to create FIZ, a 2 million-square-meter (21 million-square-feet) campus to house 15,000 BMW R&D employees, BMW and Munich officials have focused on creating green, welcoming spaces to offset increased density in the city center. (Image © HENN Architects)

“The outcome has been that BMW is expanding in its preferred location. That is good for the city and helps us attract more funding for infrastructure improvements that benefit business and citizens. The success of the project is breeding further successes.”


As Detroit reinvents itself and Munich seeks to integrate a project that will fundamentally impact its center city, both have employed 3D visualization technology to help envision the future.

In Detroit, for example, Bedrock has made extensive use of 3D visualizations to demonstrate the impact of its developments on the city and urban life. These visualizations often simulate buildings and their planned uses before they are built. The universal language of 3D helps Bedrock explain its plans to community interest groups, generate understanding and gain acceptance and support, Rosenthal said. “We have a specialist outreach team that holds monthly meetings where we share our vision and listen to what people want. We respect what was there before and work together to create a great environment in which to work, play and live.”



In Munich, the master plan for FIZ was developed with help from a competition, won by HENN Architecture of Munich, Berlin and Beijing, in which 3D digital models depicted the entire site and represented each building. The judges used the 3D models to demonstrate the project’s integration with the city’s existing infrastructure.

Milagros Caiña-Andree, member of the Board of Management of BMW AG responsible for HR, sees the advantages of the winning design – not only for integrating FIZ into the surrounding neighborhoods of north Munich, but also for improving communications and work processes. “The concept of open spaces with green yards, pocket parks, squares and green roofs will increase the quality of the work environment for our associates,” she said. “And with landmarks like the accessible neighborhood park in the north of FIZ and multipurpose buildings with public access, we will further improve interconnectedness with the surrounding city.”

                                  In planning for their futures, both Detroit and Munich have used 3D virtual models to help                                                    stakeholders visualize the possibilities. (Image © denisgo / iStock)            

3D visualizations helped explain complex project plans for FIZ to stakeholders – including city authorities, site neighbors, owners of adjacent land and other interest groups, such as those concerned with transport or the environment.

“FIZ is long-term project for BMW,” Baumgartner said. “It’s difficult for someone today to conceive the world of 2040. There will be different ways to communicate and collaborate, and we have to make flexible plans because we do not know what future realities will be.”

Brambach agrees. “We have to deal with very complex sets of issues while making our plans absolutely clear,” he said. “The use of 3D visualizations is of great value to the city planners. They are very useful for explaining the master plan to politicians, planners, local groups and the public. We also use physical models for parts of the city, including the Olympic Park and the old city. Digital 3D models can easily be adapted and changed and they give a good feel for the scale and dimensions involved.”


Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes real-time, online transparency for government information, points out that the benefits of deploying a unified platform for all city and government data leads to significant efficiencies. Such platforms reduce the time required to access data that, in most cities, are siloed in dispersed physical locations and computer systems. By making data more accessible and understandable in an intuitive visual context, 3D visualization also helps stakeholders address urban challenges so that business, social and financial opportunities can be simulated, analyzed and tested before they become reality.

“For Munich, it would be a dream to have a fully interactive digital model of the entire city on a single unified platform,” Brambach said. “One that showed infrastructure, services, transport, schools and hospitals, as well as detailing ownership of buildings and land, could enable greater transparency and more effectively demonstrate how planning challenges are resolved. Combining data from past decades and different departments would add enormous value by allowing people to see the impact of historical changes and help make better informed decisions for the city’s future.”

In Detroit, Cox also is intrigued by the potential of a 3D visualization platform. He conceives of a comprehensive online resource, one that would “let people view the city’s development opportunity packages and requests for proposals on parcels of land,” as a forum for development ideas.

With his background in architecture, design is important to Cox, and 3D visualizations help both the public and city planners fully understand a project at the design stage. “It’s hard to legislate good design,” Cox said. “So we work with a growing expert team of new fresh talent, architects, historic building-preservation experts and planners. They surprise potential investors with their commercial perception and bright ideas. We raise the bar and provide options.”

When officials from Detroit and Munich visit Singapore this summer, they will be able to see first-hand how their host city is developing its Virtual Singapore platform: consolidating existing city data, displaying it visually, and using the Internet of Things to capture and communicate the complex spatial and temporal implications of city life. By analyzing the patterns and interactions among people and their environment, including systems such as transport and waste management, Singapore is helping to lead the way for cities committed to a future that is more efficient, livable and sustainable. ◆

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