Saturday, June 13, 2009

Detroit: Urbanist Opportunity

An interesting post via the Sustainable Cities Collective from Kaid Benfield asks the provocative question "Is Detroit (the city) a lost cause environmentally? Altogether?" and again makes me wonder why it is that Detroit seems to always get framed in thoughts of negativity, versus thinking of it as a potential opportunity to redefine the way we think of urban areas. Too often this is the vision - framed in outmigration and decay.

:: image via Sustainable Cities Collective

It is more rare (and refreshing) to see thinking and solutions about positive steps. The first part of the post discusses a post from CoolTown Studios about the Vision for Detroit offers some solid advice about economic redevelopment and investment in public space - from CoolTown Studios:

"1. Build on current solutions such as Detroit’s urban placemaking bright spot, Campus Martius, which has itself attracted $450 million in investment, 300 condos and high tech companies.
2. Follow New York City’s Department of Transportation lead (how ironic, when you think about it) and invest in reinventing Detroit’s urban fabric towards one that actually appeals to people. See image above of the transformation of Manhattan’s Broadway Boulevard.
3. Find a Bart Blatstein and develop a culturally unique destination, like his
piazza in Philadelphia surrounded by new condos, offices and local businesses."

While I can't quite figure out everyone's gushing praise for the Philadelphia Piazza as the model (more on this later), I think the idea of significnat public spaces is great. Another link discusses Campus Martius Park a step in the right direction in terms of usable public space that provided incentives for surrounding development. But a single park may catalyze a district, but does not create regeneration on the scale of a city. A consistent series of steps that build on and exploit the existing opportunities (and new ones that come up) will cumulatively impact, in a positive way, the City of Detroit.

:: image via Cooltownstudios

The post goes on to discuss the project from the AIA Sustainable Design Action Team visit and report from Detroit - which I was a part of last fall, and have posted regularly since then (see here, here, here, here, and here) in regards to Detroit and some of the work they are doing. Since that visit, Detroit has been on my mind - remembering both the sadness of decay, as well as the wonderful work happening on all levels. Benfield links to a story on Rooflines, an online publication of the National Housing Institute - of which SDAT leader Alan Mallach has been a researcher for many years.

From the Rooflines post: "By defining the future built-up area of Detroit proper as a series of small urban villages, the planners are talking about a new definition of what a city is. In a place like Detroit, the urban form will exist in two types: the suburbs and the villages. Many people will continue to choose to move out to the suburbs to raise their families and seek their fortunes, while a smaller share will opt for cool city living. (“Cool cities” being the term Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm uses for cities that can attract creative people)"

There is a great link to a story of the SDAT in the Detroit Free Press entitled 'Urban villages in Detroit's future?' that offers some more discussion (and a new and purposely abstracted version of the node diagram we created in the process) that seems to keep popping up as the image to support the story. Interesting story: this diagram was, in my opinon, one of the most provocative and interesting things we produced for the charrette - and that's not only because it was the work of myself and planner Subrata Basu - but that it began to make sense that this would actually make sense and really work on the ground. It was also a hugely radical statement and was close to being nixed from the presentation and report.

:: image via Detroit Free Press

A quote to take home the point: ""In a way, think of it as a 21st-Century version of a traditional country pattern," Mallach said. "You have high-density development on one side of the street and cows on the other, quite literally." The team's recommendations, contained in a draft report by a committee of the American Institute of Architects, are the latest in a flurry of ideas for dealing with Detroit's growing vacancy. Detroit's population is less than half of its 1950s peak, and an estimated 40 square miles of the 139-square-mile city are empty. The committee suggests that Detroit could recreate itself as a 21st-Century version of the English countryside. "Isn't that basically what's happening? Even without any plans or strategies?" Mallach asked." But he added, "It's happening in a sloppy, destructive fashion where you get areas that are essentially abandoned, but they're not useable open space, they're not environmentally sound, so they're basically wasteland."

Not surprisingly, with this level of description, Benfield offers skepticism at this model: "Although intriguing in a utopian sort of way, that sounds like giving up on cities and downtowns altogether in favor of a much more fragmented landscape and pattern of living, resulting in probably even more driving and emissions."

Good point, and I admit Mallach's terminology in the article is even a bit too utopian-sounding for my taste (an English Countryside???) - and misses a good picture of what the solution strived for - a practical and realistic application. We discussed the parallels of the conceptual framework (wheel and radiating spokes - based on the existing Detroit urban form) during the process - but it was interesting to see how this emerged as the right solution. I have my issues with Mallach and the SDAT process we undertook (mostly the lack of visualization and specifics and total lack of desire to actually create anything more than words and charts) but the SDAT solution is not utopian at all, merely a practical recognition and acknowledgement that the idea of population density and the size of urban form is discongruent and needs serious attention.

There actually is a solid, dense core that is working and selected nodes of community around the peripheral edges. The nodes identified are the existing center's of vibrancy, and are not overlaid in some sort of Howard-esque Garden City without regard to context or community. These nodes self-sorted (probably due to socio-economic factors and transportation) and not selected at any particular interval. I think of it as a practical use of utopian ideals that reacted to context. The linking together of these nodes through multi-modal linkages will not cure the driving issues (trust me, we were reminded often of the fact that this is still a car-culture) - but will mitigate, due to choices, some of the auto-centric problems.

:: image via Wayne Bloggers

Shrinking cities are happening all over the world, and present a new opportunity for urban form. The secret is to avoid falling into the trap of the old paradigm and think way outside the box. In this case the box is the sprawling city limits of the city - which can either be viewed as half-empty of half-full (or in this case - full with a lot of opportunities for agriculture, open space, future development and anything else in between). Detroit is poised to be vision and urbanist opportunity to show what can be done - within government, institutions, and community - to quit bitching about the economy and wishing for it all to come back, and start doing something positive.


  1. You may find the work done in Northeast Ohio by the Kent State University Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative interesting. Their Shrinking Cities Institute investigates alternative strategies for dealing with population decline.

  2. Thanks for the link David... will check it out.

  3. Seems to me the solution has nothing to do with top-down reorganization of the physical qualities of the city, greenways, public plazas or any other public expenditures. I would think that that general kind of top-down political philosophy is precisely why there is such decay and an out-migration in Detroit.

    The smarter question to ask is: where are all these ex-Detroit citizens moving to and what makes those places so great? Are they moving to southern states that are seeing great in-migration as recent Census data shows (to the point where certain Northern states are losing representatives in Congress to certain Southern states.)

    Is it the right-to-work laws, lower corporate and/or individual taxes that have attracted more job creators and help create better environments?

    These are the questions to ask first it seems to me.


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