Pewabic: “Tiling” the Story of Revitalization in Detroit Through Public Gardens (2017)

Client Organization: 
Pewabic Society, Inc.
Project Location : 
Detroit, MI
Summary of Project Idea: 

Goals & Objectives:

Pewabic is a non-profit ceramic studio rich in heritage. Founded in Detroit in 1903, Pewabic’s signature style is closely linked with Detroit’s artistic history, with tile installations at many of the region’s major public institutions, ranging from the Detroit Institute of Arts to the Detroit Zoo to the Detroit People Mover stations and Comerica Park (The University of Michigan also features Pewabic tiles in many of its buildings). Our studio, an historic 1907 Tudor-style building, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1991. Today, Pewabic is more than a ceramics studio; it is an engaged community of makers, artists and educators dedicated to enriching the human spirit through clay. We continue to redefine our role in the community through outreach and education, looking for new ways to make ceramics relevant and accessible to people of all ages and skill levels. We envision part of our future role to include enhanced sustainability of our operations, as well as better integration of our landscape into our mission. We would like to work with students at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment to develop a vision for how to incorporate art, sustainable landscape design and neighborhood placemaking into our campus.

Pewabic seeks to redefine our outdoor campus landscape into a major public garden and art space that will enhance our prominence as a destination for visitors, while also advancing community sustainability and serving as an inviting gathering space for neighborhood residents. We envision the site serving as a gathering space that celebrates Pewabic’s relationship with the city of Detroit and that advances a vision for arts-based revitalization of the broader Detroit community. Pewabic’s 1.5 acre site offers significant opportunity for landscape-based renovations, including a paved parking area and two bare quarter-acre lots (one currently used only occasionally as overflow parking). Pewabic is located directly across the street from Detroit Water and Sewer’s Waterworks park, which we understand to be a priority zone for using green infrastructure to combat combined sewer overflows. Ideally, the site design would incorporate a sustainable water feature(s) that would offer an artistic model for urban stormwater management. We would also like to incorporate the results of this work into our organization’s educational mission, showcasing the impact that artistic landscapes can have on a community. Finally, we would like to explore how our efforts towards sustainability could be incorporated into our outreach activities to improve the resilience and well-being of the broader Detroit community. We look forward to additional suggestions from interested students as to how to enhance the value of our project.

Theoretical Justification, Social Benefit, or Significance

This project addresses the essential components of the University’s SNRE program – uncovering and responding to the relationships among design, culture and ecology. Detroit is currently experiencing a dynamic renaissance, and is looking to both the arts and green space for placemaking initiatives to help catalyze development. Is it possible to come up with design strategies that more deeply integrate the arts and landscape design? How can we best design an outdoor landscape for an arts organization so that it serves the necessary commercial purposes (providing a compelling destination for tourists and shoppers, showcasing architectural tile design and providing parking) while also activating the space for residents of the neighborhood? Is it also possible to incorporate sustainable water features that would offer an artistic model for urban stormwater management? Pewabic currently draws more than 40,000 visitors to our business each year, but few of them come from the immediate neighborhood. The ideal design solution for our campus will create an even stronger visitor draw to the organization – serving as an economic driver for the disinvested lower east side of Detroit – while also engaging area residents who might not otherwise visit and shop at Pewabic. Pewabic has long told Detroit’s story through the ceramic medium in ways that have attracted global attention, and thus offers a prime opportunity for inspiring arts-based movement towards sustainability. As much of the City of Detroit considers how to manage lands vacated due to population loss, Pewabic can model creative reuse of its own vacant landscape. Detroit offers fertile grounds to explore resilience in a post-industrial landscape, and Pewabic is well-poised to “tile” the story of how Detroit adapts to become a thriving, resilient, sustainable model for a 21st century city. Our campus offers an excellent real world laboratory to develop sustainable designs that build vibrant local economies and enhance the quality of life for urban residents.

Specific Activities & Duration

We believe Pewabic’s project would fit well within the structure of the SNRE masters project, and can be scaled depending on the team size and configuration. It could function primarily as a landscape architecture design project, but it would also incorporate other SNRE disciplines that expand the project’s reach. The project could benefit from community surveys and focus groups, as well as from design charrettes. Students could explore creative options for stormwater management, and research creative solutions to deal with parking requirements and regulations. We are open to student suggestions for how to best answer the questions our project raises.

Integrative Approach

The project offers opportunities for Landscape Architecture and Sustainable Systems to develop an integrated design that combines green elements, storm water management and architectural tile design elements. There are opportunities for community engagement using the Behavior, Education and Communication track, and for integrating signage and communication strategies explaining the sustainable design elements. Opportunities exist in Policy and Planning to explore water re-use regulations, and meeting parking needs through integrated design or alternative arrangements (such as parking on neighborhood streets). There are even Environmental Justice aspects, in using the planning to open up the site to residents of the surrounding disinvested neighborhood – addressing questions of equity in Detroit’s artistic renaissance.

SEAS Program Areas: 
Behavior, Education, and Communication
Sustainable Systems
Landscape Architecture
Role for each program area: 

Behavior, Education, Communications – BEC students could facilitate engagement with Pewabic’s community (both internal and external) to guide the design process, as well as to evaluate our organization and our site for its potential for environmental education. Pewabic offers untapped opportunity in the visual arts to tell the story of sustainability – how can those design resources best be leveraged towards a sustainable future?

Sustainable Systems – Sustainable Systems students could conduct a sustainability analysis of Pewabic’s campus landscape and buildings, and generate a lifecycle analysis for ceramics as an urban design element. In addition, they could conduct an analysis of our potential role as part of the city’s water infrastructure.

Landscape Architecture – At its core, our project is a landscape architecture project. LA students would bring together the diversity of project features into an integrated landscape design. Students could also develop a visual inventory of historical use of Pewabic pottery throughout Detroit area landscapes, and consider how to incorporate that history into the landscape.

Team size: 

The project is scalable and could work well with 3-7 students.

Professional Career Development Benefits: 

Participating students can expect to gain a solid foundation in the community-based design process, and to develop contacts across greater Detroit. Potential partner organizations include Jefferson East, Inc. (a former SNRE study partner), the Villages CDC and the Greening of Detroit. Students will have an opportunity to work with Pewabic artists and designers, and potentially showcase their work through the Detroit Design Festival. The project will provide a powerful case study in building on community strengths towards a sustainable future. Participants will have an opportunity to practice ecological design as part of urban design, historic preservation, landscape planning and site planning and gain experience working with nongovernmental organizations.

Funding Sources: 

Funding is not currently identified, but Pewabic is a well respected nonprofit with strong relationships among the Detroit foundation community and could potentially raise additional funds to support the project.

Identify expected products/deliverables: 


  • A set of design documents for the envisioned landscape and how it pertains to our mission and vision, including our goals of promoting economic development and advancing community sustainability. 
  • A plan for community engagement for arts education and environmental sustainability.
  • Plans for building improvements based on sustainability analyses and ceramic life cycle analyses.


  • Student products would serve as vision documents to guide the development of Pewabic’s campus. The project team’s recommendations would be shared with both internal (Pewabic staff and board) and external (community members, city planning officials, development organizations) constituents.
  • Plans could help generate fundraising to support Pewabic’s goals for campus development, community engagement and landscape sustainability. These would be shared with individuals and foundation funders.
Contact full name: 
Steve McBride
Job title: 
Executive Director
State or Country: 
SEAS Faculty Advisor: 
Bob Grese
Contact Phone: 
(313) 626-2000
Contact e-mail: 
Contact information: 
Staff member of a potential client organization
Master Students Involved in Project: 
  • Matthew Bertrand, MLA, Landscape Architecture
  • Yihui Chen, MLA Landscape Architecture
  • Xevy Zhang, MLA Landscape Architecture 
Project Status: 
Past Project