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In Detroit, Barbers And Landscapers Unite To Clean Up The City

Winner of the Knight Cities Challenge will pair local Detroit barbers with landscape contractors to transform overgrown vacant lots into unique public spaces.

Courtesy of the Knight Foundation

Detroit might be floundering, but it’s not down for the count. Last week the winners of the Knight Cities Challenge, an annual city planning competition, were announced, and the Motor City is uniquely poised to benefit. Out of over 7,000 applications, sent in by activists, artists, architects, city officials, nonprofits, entrepreneurs, and everything in between, 32 winners were chosen, and funds totaling over $5 million were supplied to individuals and organizations hoping to improve their communities. One of our favorite projects is The Buzz, which will pair local Detroit barbers with landscape contractors to transform overgrown vacant lots. The groups will then attend design workshops that’ll teach mowing and pattern-making techniques.


The organization behind The Buzz, urban planning initiative Detroit Future City (DFC), was granted $84,055 by The Knight Foundation to spearhead the project. Detroit, according to The Buzz’s creators, “has an arsenal of talented barbers and hair stylists,” as well as a surplus of vacant land that needs mowing and maintaining. Through a series of facilitated creativity meet ups, barbers and landscape contractors will work together to “discover new aesthetics of mowing and pattern making techniques” and create a larger concept program for vacant lot management. As a press release for the Knight Foundation pointed out, “How might a taper hawk translate to a vacant lot? Working in pairs through a multi-part workshop series, ‘The Buzz’ will bring two unique sets of talents together to develop fresh solutions to vacant lot maintenance.” Three short (180 second) video pieces will be created, and the final results will be displayed through a “vacant lot mowing pageant” in September of 2015. Documentation of the project’s process, participants, and “final mowing instructables” will be available at in the future.

One of Detroit's many abandoned buildings

Currently, Detroit has as many as 70,000 abandoned buildings and 90,000 vacant lots, and growing: the city, through its Land Bank and Blight authorities, tears down about 200 structures a week. The project lead, Erin Kelly, a program manager at DFC, describes what the group hopes to achieve with this unusual project:

“At a local and national level, the greatest impact of The Buzz will be to involve folks in the dialogue about the potential of vacant land in Detroit. Through facilitated design workshops, we will test a new way to lift up local knowledge and style, and translate what we learn together into on the ground results. We hope that through The Buzz, new terminology emerges, and that Detroiters can begin to describe our local landscapes (and their need for maintenance) through the conventions of hair and hairstyles. By integrating talented professionals who are not usually brought together, we will at minimum have fun refining a model for facilitating these cross-pollinations, and at maximum blend the potential for expression through barbery with the practical limitations of landscaping equipment.”

“The core engagement work of The Buzz will unfold through the multipart workshop series, with three separate groups of participants recruited to complete the series. The workshops are structured to facilitate an appreciative exchange between participants. During the first workshop, participants will showcase their own expertise. In the second workshop, participants will switch media, with, for example, barbers interpreting vacant lots through hairstyles. The third and fourth sessions are team-based charrettes, with final concepts from each team revealed during the last workshop of the series. A vacant lot pageant will be held in September to celebrate the best designs from each group and the talent and contributions of all participants.”

While “The Buzz” is certainly..err..buzzworthy, the larger philosophy behind the Knight Cities Challenge—that “ordinary people have the ideas and power to change their communities, rather than just depending on City Hall to do so”—is the real story behind the initiative. As a rep for Knight Cities told us, “It’s a really revolutionary idea to put $5 million behind—most foundations fund established institutions and organizations, not average Joes.”

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