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Detroit a Turin Twin?

Curtis Johnson / Dec 10 2010

For Release Sunday, December 12, 2010

Curtis JohnsonTURIN — When in 1993 the Italian Parliament finally agreed to allow citizens to elect their own mayors, the people of Turin picked not a ‘pol’ but a professor, Valentino Castellani.

Turin was in what Americans make think of as the perilous “Detroit position,” with giant automaker Fiat still ratcheting down local employment from a high of 130,000 to today’s 20,000. Italy wanted more employment shifted to the south where jobs were needed; Fiat complied, seeing the bright side of lower labor costs. And Turin staggered.

Former mayor Castellani, looking back to the political situation in 1993, described it this November to a small delegation led by Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, as a “confrontation between two parties: the party of those, probably the majority, that were convinced of the irreversible decline of the city, and the party of those that instead were confident that a renaissance for Torino was possible.”

Turin, long accustomed to relying on Fiat for everything, stared at an uncertain future. Having been once ruled by kings and then beneficently bossed by the Agnelli family that founded Fiat, Turin finally had to, in the words of Castellani, “think on its own.”

Mayor Bing is well aware of present-day Detroit’s eerily parallel plight to the one Turin faced. Few sister city arrangements have as many parallel profiles. Both Turin and Detroit hit peak population levels decades ago (1.2 million for Turin in 1975 and 1.9 million for Detroit in the early 1950s). Both then endured decline that by the turn of the century had reduced Turin by 865,000 people, Detroit by 900,000. Both had been built on the bedrock of a working-class culture. Both in 2006 capitalized on special events to draw positive attention: the Winter Olympics in Turin and the Super Bowl in Detroit. Both are home to major philanthropies willing to invest in the future.

Turin certainly looks like the target for Detroit to hit, the model of how — with strategy, serious money, and steady execution — any place can focus its assets and convert its liabilities. Turin built and executed an Urban Master Plan and two stages of strategic planning. Local banks joined with Italy, the European Union, and the Turin-based Compagnia di San Paolo (a foundation with $8 billion in assets) to fund hundreds of millions of dollars toward a stronger city and economy.

Maybe it helps that Turin is older. It dates from the first century A.D., while Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac arrived by canoe in 1701, “just” 300 years ago, to found what is now Detroit. But Turin has endured deeper insults. When Italy became a unified nation in 1861, Turin was the first capital. But four years later, the capital, along with all the economic benefits, moved to Florence.

Castellani, recalled the corner-turning period for Turin, when he used a then-controversial phrase, “Not only Fiat,” to tell citizens that the auto industry would in future be only a part of the region’s economy. Mayor Bing, speaking on a panel in the Teatro Vittorio midway through the week’s visit, echoed that theme — that Detroit’s auto industry would remain a key anchor but that the major employment base would likely shift to health and a wide range of entrepreneurial enterprises that go largely unnoticed today.

What Detroiters could not fail to notice, in contrast to their own vastly spread out and partially deserted city, was the intact fabric of a densely populated city on a footprint a third the size of Detroit. Turin is nearly a seamless string of buildings centuries old, most of modest height, nearly all home to offices and apartments, with retail at the street level.

Equally conspicuous is the breathtaking boldness of Turin’s modern transit infrastructure — new underground rail forming a network connecting what they call the ‘backbones’ of the city, serving an above-ground world planned to be parks and grand boulevards integrating biking, walking, driving, and streetcar transit. Today’s Turin is a a dazzling dance of merging and separating trams, trucks, cars, bicycles — people on foot, on streets lined with tall trees, a dose of old urbanism in contrast to Detroit’s heavy dominance of cars, trucks, more cars — and often few pedestrians or cycles in sight.

And in meeting after meeting, whether with the regional (yes, regional!) Piemonte chamber of commerce, or the head of Turin’s aggressively expanding polytechnical university, Detroiters heard the remarkable Turin narrative — a dogged commitment to build on the legacy concentration of design and engineering talent, to attract and hold a new generation of university-trained youth, and to aim for global leadership.

Turin’s on a roll. Detroit is gearing up. It’s Detroit’s turn.

Curtis Johnson is president of the Citistates Group.  His e-mail address is columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. james Barron
    Posted December 11, 2010 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    Professor/Mayor Castellani is a pragmatic visionary who also reached out for best practices elsewhere. In 1994, at the First International Congress on the Atlantic Rim in Boston, he was an active participant and was the signatory for Europe on the Declaration of the Atlantic Rim, along with representatives from Africa, the Caribbean and North and South America.

    James Barron

  2. DB (D. Boyd)
    Posted December 13, 2010 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    As Americans, I suspect our patriotic pride may have us leaning a bit to the right of “arrogant” when viewed by the rest of the world. We’ve expended a lot of effort looking at each other internal to the U.S. (only to learn we can’t all be Austin, Portland, or San Diego!). So, I’m pleased to see Curt’s column pointing out that a region as challenged as Detroit is looking outside the borders of the U.S. for inspiration.

    But in the current super-heated political climate of most cities, I can’t help but wonder… did Mayor Bing take “heat” from his certain detractors for going on an international junket? I hope not!

  3. Posted December 13, 2010 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    Following on Mayor Bing’s comment it’s interesting to note Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Michigan’s move of its headquaters to Downtown Detroit.

  4. R. van Wormer
    Posted December 15, 2010 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    The idea that the “health industry” can take the place of manufacturing is wide spread. However it seems to me that this is a service for a productive economy, not a substitute for that economy.