Having entered last year freshly unshackled from the largest municipal bankruptcy case in American history, Detroit is starting 2016 on a similarly encouraging note: violent crime is down, unemployment rates are at a 15-year low and a local woman closed out the year by winning a record-breaking $2 million jackpot playing the slots at Greektown Casino. At the end of 2015, the city also joined UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network as the first-ever City of Design in the United States.

Detroit, alongside Puebla, Mexico, joins Montreal as the only the North American cities to be bestowed with UNESCO City of Design status.

Of the 47 cities from 33 countries to join the Creative Cities Network last month, six were recognized for their contributions to global design. Joining Detroit and Puebla are Budapest, Singapore and the Indonesian city of Bandung. Kaunas, Lithuania's second largest city, also made the cut. Previously designated Cities of Design included Buenos Aires, Beijing, Berlin, Bilbao, Helsinki and Kobe.

Detroit, now part of of a 116-member city-strong network, is obviously in good company.

Detroit skylineDetroit: America's top city for design? (Photo: Bryan Debus/flickr)

Dodge, urban decay and ... design?

So what exactly is a City of Design? And why has Detroit, fallen industrial powerhouse-turned-optimist playground, been singled out for design by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization?

It’s true that Detroit might fit more snugly into some of the other categories within the Creative Cities Network, of which there are seven: Design, Literature, Music, Film, Gastronomy, Media Arts and Crafts & Folk Art. Motown would have been a shoo-in for the Music category.

Regardless, the vital role that design played in the foundation — and is playing in the regeneration — of Detroit can't be ignored.

Long considered infallible, Detroit harnessed manufacturing and design, particularly automotive design, to ascend to soaring heights of prosperity during the first half of the 20th century. Impoverished Detroit, historically a main-line city of makers and doers and dreamers, is now using the power of ingenuity and design to build itself back up again after an extended period of economic decline and widespread dilapidation.

It’s not an obvious choice but certainly not an unworthy one.

Shinola, DetroitShinola, Detroit-based watchmaker, bicycle-builder and purveyor of fine leather goods. (Photo: VasenkaPhotography/flickr)

Along with Detroit, the two other U.S. cities selected to join the Creative Cities Network in 2015 aren’t obvious choices either: Tucson was ushered in under the Gastronomy category (yes, Tucson) while Austin was recognized for its prowess in Media Arts. Established in 2004, the network “aims to foster international cooperation with and between cities committed to investing in creativity as a driver for sustainable urban development, social inclusion and cultural vibrancy."

Previously designated American cities include Santa Fe and the quilting mecca of Paducah, Kentucky, both in the Crafts & Folk Arts category (2005, 2013). And tiny Iowa City, home to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, joined European literary heavyweights such as Dublin, Prague and Reykjavik in the Literature category in 2008.

The usual suspects — San Francisco, New Orleans, Portland, Miami, Los Angeles, Nashville and on — are refreshingly nowhere to be found (yet) among Creative Cities Networks' member cities.

Detroit Industry MuralsDiego Rivera's Detroit Industry Murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts. (Photo: Dave Hogg/flickr)

A design-driven rebirth

It should pointed out that cities that have “identified creativity as a strategic factor for sustainable urban development” are not individually approached by UNESCO to join the Creative Cities Network. Nor did Detroit necessarily beat out a shortlist of competing cities for the honor of City of Design; it's not a competition. Cities individually apply to join the Creative Cities Network — and some have applied multiple times before being selected.

Detroit Creative Corridor Center (DC3), a self-described “creative industries advocacy organization” and the driving force behind the annual Detroit Design Festival, spearheaded the application process.

“Detroit’s legacy of design is rich and includes Eames, Knoll, Bertoia, Diffrient, Rapson, Weese, Saarinen, Libeskind, Yamasaki, Kahn, Dow, Earle, and scores of others,” Ellie Schneider, interim executive director of DC3, explained to Architectural Digest last month. “Design continues to play a significant role in our economy, and it was important that our application reflect our city’s contributions to the global design community, both historically and today.”

Adds Richard Rogers, president of the College of Creative Studies, which co-founded DC3 in 2010: "Detroit is the cradle of American industrial modernism and one of the few cities that has fundamentally changed the way the world works, lives and moves. Detroit designers continue to have a powerful impact on society today, and being a part of the UNESCO network will magnify their impact."

Helmed by Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Stephen McGee and submitted to UNESCO by DC3 as part of the application process, the above short film best sums up why design in Detroit serves as a catalyst, a driver of rebirth and renewal. (As pointed out by the DC3, the creative sector is the third largest private sector employer in the Detroit metro area, which itself is home to the highest number of industrial and commercial design professionals in the country).

I admit that Detroit's relationship with design didn’t quite gel until I watched McGee’s film.

From my own experiences with Detroit, I immediately recall the sweeping emptiness of downtown and the semi-disarming niceness of those who live and work there. I remember a bookstore and a couple of great meals that didn’t cost a lot of money. But McGee's film helped me also remember the art deco skyscrapers, the tucked-away ateliers, the bespoke bicycle-makers and the invigorating visual pop of a city on the rebound — sometimes uplifting, frequently depressing but never uninteresting. I also remember a certain electricity in the air, the steady hum of Motor City revving up its engines for a comeback.

Also in 2015, another city with a rich design heritage, Philadelphia, was bestowed by UNESCO with World Heritage status. Joining the likes of Vienna, Jerusalem, Rome and Istanbul, Philadelphia is the first and only city in the U.S. to achieve this honor.

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.