By Alexa Bush
In the last decade, the story of Detroit has transformed from one focused on decline to one about a resurgence. While much of the press on Detroit’s comeback has been around its Greater Downtown, that’s only part of it. Our work with Reimagining the Civic Commons, focused in a neighborhood, is one of several targeted efforts in neighborhoods across Detroit. The Detroit Civic Commons work is located in the area around Livernois Ave and McNichols Rd. This neighborhood developed between the 1920’s and 1950’s as a predominantly single family neighborhood at a time when manufacturing offered the promise of homeownership to everyone, from the wealthiest to the working classes.
Our ambition is to bring greater vibrancy to this neighborhood, reinforcing the efforts of residents and businesses that have persevered and thrived in the face of dramatic economic and social change. We will improve the civic character and quality of life in the neighborhood. However, our vision of urban vitality cannot be a return to a nostalgic dream of the past; rather, it must be forward looking and more adaptive, diverse, integrated and resilient than what came before. We are working with three themes:
Vacant land is our greatest asset
In our project area in the Fitzgerald neighborhood, almost 40 percent of the residential parcels are publicly-owned by the Detroit Land Bank Authority. While some of these parcels contain structures, the majority, approximately 75 percent, are lots where the structures have been demolished. Rather than think of this land as the missing teeth in the block or a void space in the neighborhood that must be infilled with new structures to feel whole, we seek to use this land to create new, urban landscapes that provide a compelling sense of place and a public commons. These landscapes will also do productive work for the community, such as managing stormwater, producing food, providing access to natural environments, conveying a sense of beauty and care, and making the neighborhood feel complete even without the addition of new buildings on every lot. Vacant land along our commercial corridors is also useful. We’re exploring how attracting select mixed-use and mixed-income multifamily developments can add density, new retail services and a diversity of housing options beyond the single family detached home.
photo credit: Alexa Bush
Retrofit for biking and walking
Detroit’s Mayor Mike Duggan has embraced the concept of a “20-Minute Neighborhood” that puts the amenities, services, transit options and civic assets necessary for daily life within a 20-minute walk or bike ride from where residents live. Doing this in a city like Detroit which has historically focused heavily on mobility via the private automobile (even going so far as to remove the public streetcars which once connected our major thoroughfares) means we’re working against the grain of prior urban planning decisions. How do we integrate a more expansive and diverse idea of mobility into our streets? We believe that this kind of walkable environment is not only more attractive to people across many demographic categories, but also more equitable, providing better access and quality of life to the most vulnerable populations: youth, seniors and those without access to a vehicle.
photo credit: Alexa Bush
Not your old local government
We believe we have the opportunity to reinvent the role of local government as a partner in neighborhood development. As the City government has restructured after municipal bankruptcy, there is new capacity for the City to engage with neighborhoods. But the local government that emerges cannot recreate a 20th century model that was so highly resource-intensive and top-down. It must develop a nimbler, more collaborative model that is more resilient to economic changes, and responsive to the community. This involves “lighter” projects such as pilots and pop-ups to test ideas before investing capital, such as we’ve done this past spring and summer as part of our Civic Commons efforts, working with the Better Block Foundation and local stakeholders including University Commons and the Live6 Alliance to prototype bike lanes on Livernois. It also involves taking a collaborative approach to partnerships with the private, non-profit and philanthropic sectors, as well as residents, to shape the vision and get things done.
These three themes add up to a big question: how do we reimagine and retrofit our twentieth century urban fabric and develop the multi-sector relationships to meet the needs of the twenty-first? Stay tuned—that’s what we’ll be working on for the next three years with Detroit Civic Commons.
Alexa Bush is Senior City Planner for the City of Detroit’s Planning & Development Department.