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Network Structures: Buildings, Publics, and the Internet

The project: This project sought to develop strategies for converting abandoned school buildings in Detroit into anchor institutions that provide internet access through mesh networks. Detroit has one of the lowest rates of internet connectivity in the U.S., which is exacerbated by the economic precarity of many Detroiters, the high cost of residential internet access, uneven broadband service provision throughout the city, and low population density in some neighborhoods. Mesh networks rely on multiple points of internet connectivity through distributed fields of routers. These grassroots, community-based internet networks have the potential to enable further social networks within a given community.

The process: Faculty from U-M’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and the Digital Studies Institute partnered with the City of Detroit’s digital inclusion director and Tri-Unity Community Development Corporation to conduct a feasibility study exploring best practices for the development of mesh networks, strategies for repurposing vacated institutions in Detroit neighborhoods, and financial modeling to support such strategies.

Results: Tri-Unity Community Development suggested the researchers focus on two abandoned schools in the Pride Area Community: Oakman Elementary Orthopedic School and George Parker Elementary School. The research team interviewed at least 20 members of the community via Zoom to gain an understanding of their needs and levels of access to digital infrastructure. They used that information to develop a series of design sketches that adapt spaces at Oakman and Parker schools and convert a collection of vacant lots between the two schools into affordable housing. 

See the prototypes and learn more about this ongoing research.  

Cyrus Peñarroyo, U-M Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning

McLain Clutter, U-M Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning

Sarah Murray, U-M College of Literature, Science, and the Arts

Joshua Edmonds, City of Detroit director of digital inclusion

David Underwood, director of Tri-Unity Community Development Corporation