Tag Archives: Urbanism

Retrofitting Detroit: Connect the dots

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

Willis Street in the Cass Corridor / Midtown Detroit. Courtesy of Andrew Jameson @ Wikipedia.

When people think of Metro Detroit, the images that come to mind are of urban decay on the one hand and sprawl on the other. But the makings of a great city–one with walkable neighborhoods and lively streets–are hidden here in plain sight. From the skyscrapers of downtown Detroit to the busy main streets of suburbs like Ferndale and Royal Oak, the building blocks are in place for a truly regional “city” that transcends conventional boundaries.

For more than a decade now, urban life has been making a comeback in Metro Detroit. You can see it along the Riverwalk downtown. You can see it on Vernor Avenue. You can see it on Cass. You can see it on Nine Mile in Ferndale and Main Street in Royal Oak. People are out walking the streets, eating in sidewalk cafes, shopping, and going to work. They’re moving into lofts and riding their bikes more, enjoying these pockets of urban renaissance.

Unfortunately, these pockets have remained just that–isolated pockets that don’t add up to a greater whole. But with the addition of rapid transit, we could go from a simulacrum of urban life to the real thing, creating several corridors of urban development that bridge the city/suburban divide and make urban living a safe, attractive, and affordable option for all those who desire it.

Main and Fourth Street - Downtown Royal Oak. Courtesy of joelwashing @ Flickr.

While several corridors have tremendous potential–Michigan Avenue out to Dearborn and Jefferson Avenue out to the Pointes both come to mind–the most promising is the Woodward Corridor from downtown to Birmingham. Rapid transit down the length of Woodward would connect a long line of historic, walkable neighborhoods together, from Boston Edison to Berkley. It would also connect major hospitals, several dozen cultural institutions, and hundreds of thousands of people. While the corridor wouldn’t become “urban” overnight, it would immediately boost the areas that are already urbanizing, like Midtown and downtown Ferndale, and create the opportunity for other communities to pursue similar redevelopment.

If fully realized, an urbanized Woodward corridor could realign our region in several fundamental ways. First, it could make living without a car an attractive option again. Since the 1950s, when the streetcars stopped running, it has been difficult to find work, get to school, or grocery shop without a car. But if transit were rapid and efficient on Woodward (with ample bus connections to nearby communities), you could easily, say, live in Ferndale, take classes at Wayne, and work at Beaumont. Or live in Boston Edison, work in an office downtown, and go out for the night in Royal Oak. All without ever using a car.

Second, it will make tourists easier to attract. If you visit our tourism website today, you’ll see how hard it struggles to define the region, drawing as much attention to “North Oakland” and “Macomb” as Downtown Detroit. The Woodward Corridor will be far easier to market to out of town visitors because it will span city and suburb and connect most of our major attractions together. Visitors could walk the riverfront, take an architecture tour downtown, see museums in Midtown, spend an afternoon at the Detroit Zoo, and go out to eat in Ferndale, Royal Oak, or Birmingham — all without worrying about parking or directions.

Downtown Birmingham. Courtesy of ifmuth @ Flickr.

Third, it will create a meaningful and lasting linkage between Detroit and its suburbs that will help foster regional planning and development. Beginning with a regional transit authority, rapid transit on Woodward could be the catalyst Metro Detroit needs to start thinking and acting like a region. A continuous stretch of urban development from Detroit to its suburbs could help disabuse people of the notion that the suburbs can survive without the city or vice versa. We’re one region, and we rise or sink together. Woodward could be the focal point that makes that argument obvious and fosters regional pride.

Obviously, none of this is preordained. It’s not assured yet that Metro Detroit will even build a regional rail system, and if it does build one, whether it will be fast and effective enough to spark development. Nor is it clear how receptive the different communities along the path will be to a more concerted effort at urbanization. Lingering racial and political fears, too, could prevent the kind of cooperation needed to spark corridor-wide redevelopment. But this is the best case scenario we should be striving for–a world class “city” in Metro Detroit spanning both Detroit proper and its suburbs, starting with Woodward Avenue and spreading to the other spokes in years to come.

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.

Retrofitting Detroit: Stop the sprawl

This is the second in an ongoing series on retrofitting metro Detroit for urbanism. Read the first here.

1920s Suburbia - Dearborn, MI

Great cities have great neighborhoods. But not only has Metro Detroit long neglected its most walkable, urban neighborhoods, it has actively undermined them through sprawl.

Despite the fact that population growth has been flat for forty years (there are fewer people in Metro Detroit today than there were in 1970), we’ve kept building new subdivisions. Metro Detroit is now 50% larger than it was in 1970. Think of the madness of that. Despite the fact we could all comfortably live in a fraction of that space — in suburban, single-family homes no less — we’ve kept pushing ever outward, leaving behind the communities at the region’s center.

These are the communities with the greatest potential for urbanism. Places likes Detroit, Dearborn, Hamtramck, and Ferndale. While generally car dependent today, they are centered around small downtowns and have walkable street grids. With the right reinvestment, these communities could create an urban alternative for Metro Detroit — an area where more people live in apartment buildings and condos than single-family homes, an area where it’s easy to walk to the store or bike to work.

1950s Suburbia - Warren, MI

But the sprawl of the region actively undermines this future. The problem is not suburban living per se — even Detroit proper is dominated by single family homes. The problem is that suburbia is so dominant and so overbuilt. For forty years, there have been more homes than households in Metro Detroit. So every time a new subdivision is built — and new ones are built all the time — older blocks of homes in less desirable areas lose value. They can’t compete with the lower taxes and bigger homes of the exurbs, and developers aren’t interested in reinvestment because it’s cheaper to build new. So these older blocks end up blighted or even abandoned.

Historically, most of the damage has been in Detroit. The Detroit Parcel Survey found that a third of all residential land in Detroit is now vacant — a figure that never ceases to astonish. But the blight is also visible in the ‘burbs. Older suburbs like Hazel Park and the southern end of Warren have long struggled to maintain their retail and commercial corridors. Dying malls and empty factories are becoming common sights. Post-housing bubble, they are struggling to keep houses occupied, too.

For the cycle to ever end, and for urban redevelopment to have a fighting chance, we need to curb regional sprawl. It’s the necessary counterpart to “rightsizing.” Consolidation of the urban core must be matched by growth controls at the edge. If it’s not — if we simultaneously build our urban corridors up and our suburban edge outward without population growth — we’ll only further squeeze the areas in the middle, letting more historic communities slip into needless decline. And the damage will increasingly be felt not in Detroit but in the older suburbs that most closely surround it.

2000s Suburbia: Macomb Township

Retrofitting Metro Detroit for urbanism

When friends come back from trips to Chicago, they often lament that Detroit is not a “real city.” As quick as I am to protest — we have great parks, renowned museums, incredible architecture, huge festivals, immigrant enclaves, and more, don’t we? — I know exactly what they mean. Detroit may have all the components of a major city, but it lacks the connective tissue, the urban fabric, to tie it all together. Even Detroit’s most hyped urban neighborhoods are pockmarked with empty buildings, and the region’s growing suburban downtowns lack real diversity and remain isolated from each other.

In the next few posts, I’d like to explore what it would take to create a cohesive urban corridor in Metro Detroit out of the hodge podge of development we have today. Doing so, I think, will involve at least three major steps. I’ll explore each of these in turn in the next few weeks:

  1. Stop the sprawl. Metro Detroit’s population hasn’t risen in forty years, yet we keep subsidizing sprawl. It’s time to focus on redeveloping the city and retrofitting existing suburbs instead.
  2. Complete urban neighborhoods. Metro Detroit has the building blocks for urbanism, from Midtown to Hamtramck to suburban Main Streets like 9 Mile in Ferndale. We just need to develop them.
  3. Link them together with rapid transit. Starting with Woodward, rapid transit could bind Metro Detroit’s many hubs of urban activity together, forming a single urban corridor to anchor the region.

My hope is that this series of posts will spark a broader discussion about the future of Detroit. For too long, we’ve elected politicians without vision for the region. It’s time to start thinking seriously about what Detroit could become and what we need to do to get it there.

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.