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
SEAS Faculty Advisor: 
Bob Grese
Master Students Involved in Project: 
  • Matthew Bertrand, MLA, Landscape Architecture
  • Yihui Chen, MLA Landscape Architecture
  • Xevy Zhang, MLA Landscape Architecture 
Project Status: 
Past Project