Retrofitting Detroit: Filling in the blanks

This is the third in a series on retrofitting metro Detroit for urbanism. Also read the first and second.

Downtown Detroit: The urban heart of the region. Courtesy of ifmuth @ Flickr.

The mayor of Portland has defined a good urban neighborhood as one where everything you need for daily life is within a 20-minute walk or bike ride of home. You can get to your job, drop your kids off at school, pick up groceries, and go out for the night without going more than a couple transit stops away.

Most Metro Detroit neighborhoods fail this standard. We have dozens of suburbs where daily life can be conducted within a 20-minute drive of home, but we have very few neighborhoods that are walkable and well served by transit. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t in the future. We have many semi-walkable neighborhoods — both in Detroit and the inner ring suburbs — that could, if residents and political leaders so desired, be redeveloped more densely to provide the amenities they currently lack.

Most promisingly, there is greater downtown, including Corktown, Midtown, Eastern Market, and Lafayette Park. These historic neighborhoods have been redeveloping for more than a decade but thus far remain incomplete. If you’re near Wayne State, for example, it’s easy to get a drink with friends, but you may be at a loss if you need, say, a pair of socks, or new kitchen supplies. With the introduction of light rail and the continued influx of people, many of these gaps will be filled in coming years.

The most cohesive urban neighborhood in Metro Detroit: Hamtramck. Courtesy of MarkinDetroit @ Flickr.

Then there are Metro Detroit’s unglamorous, but authentically urban, immigrant enclaves. Vernor Avenue in Southwest Detroit is lined with all kinds of stores: bakeries, movie rentals, banks, auto repair. Ditto Joseph Campau, Conant, and Caniff in Hamtramck. If you need something, you can probably find it here in a small, ramshackle shop. While these areas are often starved for tax revenue, they are and will be an essential part of Metro Detroit’s urban future.

Less intuitively, there are former streetcar suburbs, like Ferndale, Royal Oak, and Birmingham. While these small suburbs are full of tidy single-family homes, they are anchored by growing downtowns that could grow outward and upward. Today their main streets are dominated by restaurants and boutiques, but with the addition of more (affordable) apartment buildings, offices, and basic stores, these could become fully functioning, mid-scale urban neighborhoods within larger suburban towns.

In fact, many experts predict most new walkable retrofits will be built in the suburbs, even in such anti-urban places as Southfield and Troy. In the video above, planner Ellen Dunham-Jones shows how dead malls are being repurposed as walkable communities and how auto-oriented streets are being remade to accommodate people in addition to cars. The results tend toward the generic, but these models offer a plausible path forward for aging suburban communities that have no downtown to speak of and wish to spark reinvestment.

Of course, saying Metro Detroit could have a thriving network of urban neighborhoods one day isn’t the same as making it happen. The process will no doubt be contentious and take years of individual and collective effort to change zoning laws and change minds. (See the years-long struggle in Ann Arbor to add density to 5th Street for a taste.) But I think it helps to start with a vision of where we could go as a region, if only we had the will.

9 thoughts on “Retrofitting Detroit: Filling in the blanks

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  4. Patrick Morris

    The major item missing here is the cultural change, the slow shift of attitudes and behaviors, that must occur in order to “stop the sprawl” and “fill in the blanks.” We can have all the best ideas, but we have to get people behind them in order to make them work. It’s the best advice I heard from a high school english teacher, “Show, don’t tell.” You can tell us why Detroit should be more walkable and linked with public transportation, but showing that it will be worth the infrastructure investment and benefit people is a tougher job.

    Does Detroit need to compare itself to Portland’s style of development? That’s what Ann Arbor does, and what a lot of people in Metro Detroit don’t like. People move to the suburbs because they enjoy the lifestyle there – safety, the freedom of driving, the nice backyards where kids can play, and good schools. Telling the people contributing to sprawl that they should stop is not a good way to win over voters who will have a say in the new Metro Detroit plan.

    There are more visions on the drawing board right now. We’ll have a better idea of Michigan’s vision and urban leadership culture on November 2.

  5. Cooper Post author

    You’re right that attitudes in Metro Detroit will need to shift more before the developments I describe here will be widely embraced. That said, I think attitudes in the region are already changing.

    You can see it in several trends. First, there’s the new focus on creating walkable, urban areas with retail and restaurants, not just in the city proper but in a half dozen suburbs. Second, there’s increasing public support for mass transit. Not everyone’s on board (bad pun), but the opposition is not nearly vocal as it once was. Third, the living choices of young people indicate a real desire for urban living. People in their 20s are moving in large numbers to Midtown, Ferndale, Royal Oak, and other walkable neighborhoods–or they’re moving out of state altogether to find jobs in more developed, diversified cities. But the preference for urban living among a great number of young people is increasingly evident.

    All these trends indicate an openness to urbanism that was previously absent from the region. What’s needed now, I think, is a vision for Metro Detroit that embraces this desire for urbanism, not just in the city proper but also along key corridors in the suburbs. We don’t have to be an exclusively suburban region. Urban living can and should be an option, too, and the most logical place to begin is along the Woodward corridor. My latest post (soon to be posted) explores this idea.

    Unfortunately, you don’t hear any such “vision” coming from candidates for statewide office. Pardon my cynicism, but I don’t expect to learn anything on November 2. We haven’t had strong state-level urban leadership in decades. I doubt we’ll start now. That said, both Bernero and his running mate are currently mayors of mid-size cities, and Snyder has a surprisingly progressive vision for cities, maybe owing to his Ann Arbor roots. So we may hear more about the future of our cities than we’re used to. But I haven’t heard any prominent politician in Michigan propose real solutions for bridging the urban-suburban divide or making Detroit a thriving city again. Those ideas are being generated from the bottom up.

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  7. Patrick Morris

    I think we understand that on these issues of development we both agree far more than we disagree. We come at this issue from different perspectives – where we grew up and where we go in the future – and neither is more accurate than any other. I’m a proponent of this sort of regionalism and can’t wait to move to a city where I can bike to my job. I agree that we have too many young, well educated graduates leaving Michigan. I bet that there are initiatives across the suburbs to make cities linked and walkable and I believe there are many community and personal health benefits to such a city.

    A lot of our disagreement has to do with what we take to mean “region.” I admittedly know very little about the suburbs and inevitable get lost when I drive there, but can shed a little light on Livingston County. We are a part of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) and consider ourselves a part of the Southeast Michigan Region. You can say anecdotally that young people are moving to suburbs and areas of the City of Detroit, but Livingston County is the fastest growing county in Michigan for the last two decades and estimates place its growth at a continued 18-26% over the next two decades (other SE MI counties average around 10-15%).

    Attitudes about public transportation are changing in some respects, but not in others. Ask a person if they support public transportation and you will almost always hear “yes.” Now ask a person if they support public transportation if it means increasing their taxes and you will almost always hear “no.” The proposed commuter rail line in Livingston County between Ann Arbor and Howell is a popular idea, but no one wants to pay for it.

    I think we also differ in the progression of a city’s development. I’m talking about just the City of Detroit. I think Detroit needs to first focus on achieving good governance, providing reliable police and fire protection, and creating schools that properly educate children. The City must have a set of just institutions to create the environment and tools that produce unique products and services. We have to meet the City’s residents through equitable conversation and work to fulfill their basic needs.

    Finally, I don’t think you can ignore the political context of the state when you talk about development issues. Even if you fail to place contentious policies in our current disarray in Lansing, you can’t ignore the fact that the Constitution of the State of Michigan is one of the strongest home-rule state constitutions. It cedes most powers to local authorities and creates irregular patterns of government among cities, townships and villages. This makes the benefits of regionalism difficult to realize.

    The next governor needs to dedicate political capital to an urban agenda and I absolutely think that person will. Bernero and Lawrence are small city mayors. Snyder is talking seriously about Detroit in West Michigan, the place where Republican politicians previously whipped up support by running against Detroit. We can see that attitudes are changing across the political spectrum – it’s a great time to live in Michigan. I think we can both agree on that.

  8. Cooper Post author

    We definitely agree more than we disagree. As for where we diverge, I think this article has some bearing:

    I don’t want to put myself too firmly in Florida’s camp, because I don’t buy the “creative class” notion of urban development, but obviously I prefer urban to suburban development, personally and politically. I wouldn’t go so far as to predict that walkable urbanism will be the predominate form of development in the future. Like you said, Livingston County is growing fastest, not Wayne or even Oakland. But it’s where I’d like to see us go.

  9. Patrick Morris

    The “creative class” idea isn’t well developed in that article. All the author says is that the individual in the “creative class” is 29, a graphic designer, and works at a tech and media firm. Using this tenuous definition, if you don’t buy this notion of development, what is happening in Detroit if it’s not something similar to “creative class” urban development? On this blog about development in Detroit, you have more posts tagged in the Art category than you do in History, Politics, or Transit.

    Beside from being an uninspiring and predictable five-paragraph essay, where the article particularly irks me is here: “In the gray field of economics, the two camps offer an almost black-and-white clash.” Ignoring the fact that prior to this sentence there is no reference to economics, I don’t believe either of the main theorists cited here would agree that their beliefs are black and white opposites. I don’t think that Kotkin prefers suburban to urban development, he just views the preference for suburban living as an established economic and social trend in our country. We have to remember it’s not going to be one form of development over another. People will choose to live in a way that best fits their lifestyle preferences. We have a large country that can accommodate both types of growth.

    We can cite statistics all day: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the three states with the lowest unemployment as August 2010 are North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska. Maybe that “proves” Kotkin’s theory of development in the heartland. But a handful of statistics won’t change the preferences of American citizens. We need honest, open, and reasoned debate about growth.
    I haven’t commented on your “Righting the Rightsizing Process,” but I think Mayor Bing’s planning process that engages citizens in discussion is one of the most innovative public programs. Combined with Bing’s comments about being content as a one-term mayor, I believe we’ll see a people-centered growth that will propel Detroit forward by forging an innovative path in urban development.

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