Paul Jones III. Courtesy photo
I first started following Paul Jones III on Twitter about three years ago. I didn’t realize that he was just 20 years old at the time.
That’s because he’s wise beyond his years, posting sharp observations about Detroit, whether its history, transit, architecture or equity issues. Because it’s Twitter, there are also plenty of Detroit jokes.
And he’s got the lived experience to boot. Born on Detroit’s northwest side, he got his undergraduate degree from Wayne State University. He then interned in the city’s Planning and Development Department, getting a first-hand look at the workings of city government. He’s currently in his first year of a master’s program for urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan. Oh, and he’s also the board vice president of Transportation Riders United, a Metro Detroit transit advocacy group.
We spoke to Jones (@PaultheUrbanist on Twitter) about a wide range of topics, including the disconnect between city government and residents, the value of urban planning and what he wants to do with his degree.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Dig: What inspired your fascination with Detroit? Was there a book or moment that sparked your interest?
Jones: I grew up in the northwest side of the city, in a part that was relatively stable. All the neighbors knew each other. But it was very obvious to me from a very early age that, across the city, there were disparities in how services were being provided and where investment was going. Those differences made me ask questions about how the city came to be. From there, whenever I had a question, I’d go down a rabbit hole and figure out everything I could and built my knowledge in that way.
Once I started to construct a bigger picture and went down a more academic path, I discovered “The Origins of the Urban Crisis,” which echoed a lot of the stuff I’d already observed day to day and put it in a historical context.
You actually worked for the city of Detroit when you were just 18 years old. What was that experience like and how did it impact the way you look at city government’s role?
I was by far the youngest intern in the office — most were graduate or postgraduate students. And none of them were from Detroit. I was doing work for the city, but one of the only people who experienced it the way I had. That was really formative for my understanding of how planning works, both for how things can go right but also how relationship building in communities can be difficult for people outside those communities.
In what ways was it difficult?
It manifests in the way projects were implemented. When the city wanted to do something, they would try to get buy-in for the project after it had already started. But residents see through that and don’t trust it, because city government has not been able to adequately meet people’s needs for a long time. So it’s difficult to show up and try to get people to think about aspirational goals for the community when the rest of the structure isn’t doing what it needs to do.
The city needs to focus more on relationship building before projects are set in motion, make all the information accessible and make sure people know what’s going on in their neighborhood.
You’re on the board of Transportation Riders United and you tweet a lot about transit. Why is that a topic you’re so passionate about?
Historically, transportation in Detroit has been one of the biggest sources of segregation, displacement and economic disempowerment. We can’t talk about Detroit being the Motor City without also talking about the ways we’ve designed transit infrastructure and policy to separate people, and maintain racial and class lines, for decades — and still to this day.
You think about the freeway system, which is an ongoing monument to the time when we decided to tear up Black neighborhoods and replace them with this infrastructure that catalyzed migration to the suburbs by making their property values higher and making it easier to commute to their jobs in the city. The actual residents aren’t really benefiting from having a freeway in their backyard in any way. Detroiters suffer from high pedestrian fatality rates and bear the burden of pollution from exhaust. Car insurance is incredibly high, but we’ve given people few alternatives.
So I think transit is the key piece to everything else. We don’t talk about it enough, nor in a way where people realize the importance of getting around to everyone’s life. We can build the perfect school system tomorrow, but if kids can’t get to their school it won’t mean anything. Magical companies could offer great jobs for everyone in Detroit, but if they can’t get across the city it wouldn’t matter.
How do you think we can encourage people from different backgrounds to get interested in urban planning?
One way would be to make the language more accessible. We’ve had a bad legacy of planners in Detroit who didn’t know how to have regular conversations about their plans. This city also struggles with transparency. The processes here tend to be opaque with little access to information. So people get discouraged.
Once you draw a line from plan to reality, the power of urban planning, for better or worse, becomes clear. One example is redlining. You can find citywide maps of Detroit that outline where redlining took place. The neighborhood where I grew up was colored yellow, which meant you were still eligible for a mortgage. A couple blocks over, on Coyle Street, is where a red neighborhood starts. My parents told me not to go on those streets. The housing quality changes and you can tell you’re entering a different neighborhood. Something that took place almost 100 years ago still has a lingering impact today. And I grew up in that neighborhood without really understanding it.
You’ve still got time to figure out what you want to do with your degree, but I know you’re interested in community development. What does that look like practically speaking?
For me, community development is about giving residents the tools, knowledge and power they need to make the best decisions for their communities. Here’s what you can do with vacant land. Here’s a policy to make you more economically secure. Let’s have parks that respond to people’s health needs. Black and brown people often live with family members — let’s make it easier to build multi-generational housing so families can keep their wealth and expand their social net in their neighborhood.
I’m excited about all the little ways that development and planning can work to make people’s lives better.
Do you want to work in Detroit after you graduate?
I don’t know yet. Long term, I definitely want to work in Detroit. I’ve lived here my whole life. My roots are here. This is where my heart is, personally and professionally, and I want my impact to be here. But I’m also just 23, so I’d like to get away for a little bit, challenge myself and learn from other places — then bring those lessons back.