Tag Archives: Density

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.

Downsizing for density

Looking south at Mitchell and Medbury on the east side.

Looking south at Mitchell and Medbury on the east side.

Writing in Fast Company, Greg Lindsay argued this week that downsizing Detroit “won’t make Detroit any denser, but the opposite.” He then quotes The Baffler’s Will Boisvert at length for support. While I too am not totally comfortable with Bing’s rhetoric on rightsizing, I think there are enough misconceptions in Boisvert’s quote that it’s worth picking apart section by section. Let’s start at the top:

[As] rational as all this sounds, it hangs on a grotesque misunderstanding of Detroit’s predicament. Despite its ghost-town image, Detroit’s population density is still actually rather high by American standards. The city is half again as dense as Portland, Oregon, substantially denser than the booming Sunbelt cities of Phoenix, Houston, and Dallas, denser even than Pittsburgh–all of them places that adequately fund city services. Detroit’s problem is not underpopulation, but brute poverty, something that the grossly overstated efficiencies of shrinkage won’t alleviate.

It’s true that overall, Detroit is still denser than newer Sunbelt cities, even after losing half its population. Unfortunately, Detroit is no longer dense enough to support its own infrastructure. There are far too many streets, sidewalks, and sewers per person. The city is fiscally unsustainable, and as a consequence, depopulating neighborhoods are neglected, leading to environmental damage as well. Burned out homes are left standing; illegally dumped trash piles up in the streets. That’s why planners favor rightsizing — so Detroit can stabilize at a size it can afford to maintain and maybe start to grow again.

And for all its anti-sprawl rhetoric, shrinkism is extravagantly wasteful from the larger perspective of metropolitan land use. It hollows out the dense core of metro-area settlement under the assumption–the ugly, unstated postulate of shrinkage–that decent people can’t be enticed to live there.

“Shrinkism” is not responsible for hollowing out Detroit’s core; suburban flight and jobs loss are. Rightsizing is an attempt to deal with the consequences of the mass abandonment that has already taken place. Part of the solution, as Boisvert recommends, ought to be limiting further sprawl on the metro area’s edge. But even if that were politically possible, it wouldn’t solve the problem. Nor would simply building new housing in Detroit’s emptiest areas. It’s been tried, and the unfortunate truth is that when 100 new affordable homes are built in Detroit, dozens more are abandoned because net housing demand is essentially zero.

The reasons why demand is so low are well known: crime, poor schools, high taxes, lack of jobs, poor city services, limited retail, and so on. Problems like these can’t be tackled in isolation. There needs to be comprehensive change to bring any one neighborhood back, let alone revive the city as a whole. That’s why so many leaders here have come to favor rightsizing. They view this as an opportunity to focus concentrated resources on Detroit’s most promising corridors, creating the conditions that will finally make Detroit’s older neighborhoods once again safe, enriching places to live.

As city districts are razed and emptied, development is shunted, as usual, to cornfields on the exurban frontier, where people drive everywhere and nowhere–that’s the green part of the equation.

Rightsizing will not “shunt” development to the exurban fringe. That’s what’s happening already. Most of the neighborhoods we’re discussing haven’t seen significant investment since the 1950s. If nothing is done, they will continue to deteriorate and the exurban fringe will continue to grow. If they can once again be made dense and sustainable, in part through consolidation, Detroit might have a fighting chance to compete against suburban neighborhoods by providing a safe, viable urban alternative.

How Kresge plans to reconfigure Detroit

For more than a year now, there’s been growing talk of “rightsizing” Detroit–consolidating the city in some fashion to restore density and make it easier to deliver city services. Just this Tuesday Model D published an op-ed in favor of consolidating Detroit around key corridors and neighborhoods. Now, for the first time, there might be real money behind the idea. On Monday, Crain’s Detroit reported that the Kresge Foundation is offering to fund a citywide master plan to guide the shrinking of the city:

In four to six months, Detroit could have the broad-brush outlines of a land use plan that encompasses the principles of shrinking the city by consolidating investment in key neighborhoods — if Detroit Mayor Dave Bing accepts an offer from a metro Detroit foundation to fund the creation of such a plan.

Bing told Crain’s last August that resizing the city is one of his top priorities. Administration officials are engaged in preliminary discussions with the foundation community, said Edward Cardenas, Bing’s press secretary, adding that the mayor had planned to begin studying land use issues in the first quarter of this year.

That the city must shrink is beyond debate, said Rip Rapson, president of the Troy-based Kresge Foundation, which has offered to fund the plan. And a land use plan is crucial to developing viable long-term strategies.

This is big news for Detroit. It also confirms a growing suspicion of mine: Detroit’s most influential civic leaders don’t work in City Hall; they work for major foundations. The Kresge Foundation above all is on a mission to restructure Detroit, and it has the money and vision to do it. Scan through the latest annual report. In just the past few years, Kresge, along with other foundations, has funded the remake of the riverfront, the Dequindre Cut, and the Argonaut Building and is a major backer of the upcoming light rail line, the Next Economy Initiative, and the Next Detroit Neighborhood Initiative.

In November, Kresge’s president, Rip Rapson, laid out the binding vision behind all these initiatives in a speech called “A Different View of Detroit.” I’m pasting an excerpt below, but this is one you should read in full. This could well be Detroit’s future:

The second broad theme of the nine modules of work is infrastructure. It centers largely around the issue of land use in Detroit, the lynchpin for re-imagining the kind of city Detroit will be twenty years from now.

If you draw a map of Detroit and then you stick in Boston, stick in Manhattan, stick in San Francisco, and stick in a little part of Saint Paul, you still have room left over. This is an enormous city. Its geography far outstrips its governance capacity. There are all sorts of implications, but at the end of the day, Detroit simply has to shrink in order to grow. That’s a complex undertaking. You have to re-purpose land. You have to re-imagine how you deploy public resources. You have to engage residents in all aspects and at every stage.

If there was ever an issue in Detroit in which philanthropy could play a critical role, it’s here. Land use is the third rail of municipal politics; political folks can’t get near this and live to tell about it. As a result, our staff at Kresge and others have begun drawing on the experience of New Orleans and of European cities to try to figure out how, over the next year, we can make tangible progress in developing a framework that is sufficiently bold, yet sufficiently realistic, to give rise to a very different map of Detroit.

Jane Jacobs on Detroit: “Low-density failure”

I’m currently reading Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities, her 1961 masterwork on urbanism, and the assessment of Detroit is damning. “Detroit is largely composed, today, of seemingly endless square miles of low-density failure,” she writes. Long before the unrest of 1967 or the whole-sale flight of the middle class, Jacobs considered Detroit a failed city for being too suburban:

Virtually all of urban Detroit is as weak on vitality and diversity as the Bronx. It is ring superimposed upon ring of failed gray belts. Even Detroit’s downtown itself cannot produce a respectable amount of diversity. It is dispirited and dull, and almost deserted by seven o’clock of an evening.

Even in its heyday, most of Detroit didn’t compare to cities like Chicago and New York. Detroit was simply never developed as densely. Before 1900 (that is, before the Ford Motor Company), the city was only a fraction of its current size. Its outer limits roughly corresponded to the U-shape made by East and West Grand Boulevard. The rest of Detroit was developed later, after the auto boom, in increasingly suburban neighborhoods of detached, single-family homes.

That’s why Detroit will never look like other big cities, even if it recovers. Only the historic urban core has a fighting chance to redevelop densely. The central business district, Corktown, Mexicantown, Eastern Market, the Cass Corridor (Midtown)–these are Detroit’s growth areas, where new lofts and small businesses are repurposing empty buildings and restoring the urban fabric. The rest of Detroit was built to be both suburban and walkable (not unlike Ferndale or Grosse Pointe Park), but after decades of disinvestment most of it is now neither. These residential areas will need to find a different path to recovery, and Jane Jacobs doesn’t offer much help.