Using innovation as a reality check on red tape in Detroit


Detroit’s Mix Tape Zoning initiative sought to inspire commercial revitalization using a design-led approach to regulatory reform.


After decades of population decline and disinvestment, many of Detroit’s commercial areas stood to gain from revitalization efforts. Unfortunately, the complexity of zoning and building requirements created a sizable regulatory burden for smaller businesses and deterred would-be entrepreneurs from launching ventures in these underused commercial corridors.


The City of Detroit launched its “Mix Tape Zoning Detroit” initiative as a way to experiment and gather information about needed changes to zoning and building codes. Under this pilot effort, teams selected through an RFP process received funds to create hypothetical plans for three representative commercial sites in the city. The city government then checked the plans against existing code in order to identify regulations and processes in need of reform. In this way, the city was able to find the urgent areas for change without a complete, time-consuming overhaul of existing zoning and building codes.  Many of the regulatory roadblocks identified will be lifted for parcels citywide.



  • August
    The City of Detroit’s Planning and Development Department (PDD) issues a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) for its Mix Tape Zoning Detroit project.
  • September
    RFQ applications due.
  • October
    Mix Tape Zoning Detroit launches with its three chosen teams, each of which receive funds for travel, study, and design development.
  • November
    The three teams present their designs and receive feedback from an advisory group.


  • February
    Teams present their final designs.
  • March – April 
    Teams work with city staff to compare plans against existing code and determine whether particular rules create unnecessary barriers to development. After identifying these pain points, the teams work with city staff to devise regulatory reform strategies.
  • Late 2017
    The City of Detroit will publish a report on its findings and identify 40+ suggested regulatory changes to address. City working groups will determine next steps.

 Lessons learned

Pilots can inform regulatory reform efforts

Overhauling an entire zoning code is a daunting process that few cities are willing to endure on a regular basis. Mix Tape Zoning Detroit gave the City of Detroit a way to learn exactly which regulations were getting in the way of development that the city wanted to see. They could thereby understand the most pressing regulatory challenges before making major changes to the building and zoning codes. Cities should explore how they might leverage pilot projects to inform better regulatory outcomes.

Cities should leverage the “comparative advantage” of residents’ DIY ethos

Detroit’s desire to reform its building and zoning codes stemmed in part from a desire to support the ingenuity and entrepreneurialism of its residents. Small business owners are the ones most hindered by outdated or unnecessarily complex regulation, and some Detroit entrepreneurs were operating without the permission of regulators. By regarding this DIY ethos as a potential driver of economic growth, the city recognized the importance of removing unnecessary impediments to entrepreneurship.