Detroit and the Landscape Tipping Point

Streetscapes and stormwater management will be at the center of Detroit’s efforts to tackle urban vacancy.

By Zach Mortice 

The abandoned Michigan Central Station in Detroit. Image courtesy of Zach Mortice.

In a city beset by a nearly incomparable foreclosure crisis and 20 square miles of vacant land, there’s been a growing understanding that landscape architecture and Detroit are perfect for each other. But in 2017, the city will unveil a handful of new proposals on how the discipline can grow back healthy urbanism in the Motor City.

Detroit announced early this month that, after an RFP process, it is awarding a total of $1.6 million across four project teams to plan landscape and streetscape improvements including green stormwater management and infrastructure upgrades. Each team will focus on a group of neighborhoods, moving beyond the overarching vision set forth by the Detroit Future City framework into a “fine grain of detail,” says Alexa Bush, a landscape architect with the City of Detroit. These four initiatives follow the city’s first landscape improvement RFP (for the Livernois/McNichols area) with more to come next year.

The four areas are composed of smaller neighborhoods—walkable and bikeable quarter-square-mile districts—where residents could one day get all their basic commercial and service necessities after a short jaunt through their neighborhood. City administrators chose these places largely for their strong and intact building stock with vibrant commercial activity. They wanted to “build off areas of strength” so that successive waves of development can radiate out into adjacent struggling neighborhoods, Bush says. The four areas have “good bones to build from in terms of re-creating a real sense of urban life,” she says. So the question becomes, “Where are we closest to the tipping point to create that?”

The sites under consideration contain relatively little vacant publicly owned land. This signals a sea change from past redevelopment proposals in Detroit. By and large, the city is done with the triage that comes with planned abandonment. The landscape fixes Mayor Mike Duggan and planning director Maurice Cox are pursuing are meant to bind together the city’s quilt of urbanism no matter how frayed the fabric. “The strategy doesn’t work if it requires us to have 100 percent contiguous lots on a block,” says Bush. “The strategy has to work with Mr. Jones down the street still the only landholder [there.] We’re really looking at much more of a mosaic approach to the neighborhood, where we’re not presupposing that anyone has to move.”

Funding for implementation of the projects, which should have initial design proposals by spring, is expected to come from a wide range of local, state, and federal sources. Examples might include Department of Transportation TIGER Grants, private donations, and philanthropy, as well as existing Department of Water and Sewerage projects that align with the mandate for sustainable stormwater management.

A team led by Design Workshop will focus on the Northwest Detroit/Grand River area, examining the potential for green stormwater infrastructure. And SmithGroupJJR will assess the possibilities of installing a Beltline-style greenway into a disused rail corridor in the Islandview/Greater Villages neighborhoods.

Herman Kiefer Hospital site. Image courtesy of the City of Detroit.

The Rosa Parks/Clairmount area is something of an outlier among the other sites, as it’s by far the smallest at a half square mile, and subject to intense disinvestment. It’s 47 percent vacant, but surrounded by more successful, vibrant areas. Cultural histories, says City of Detroit landscape architect Dan Rieden, are key to all of the neighborhood initiatives, but nowhere more than at Rosa Parks/Clairmount.

It’s the site of Herman Kiefer Hospital (designed in part by Albert Kahn), which specialized in infectious diseases and treated generations of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable from 1911 till it was shuttered in 2013. This area is also where the fuse on Detroit’s long decline was lit: The 1967 Detroit riots, which violently spurred white flight from the city, began there, and helped set Detroit on its current path of economic ruination and hopeful rebirth. A park in the neighborhood currently commemorates the riot, but its team, led by Gensler with landscape architects at Hood Design Studio, will do more to recognize this turning point in Detroit’s history.

“This is a cultural landscape with a rich history, that [had] a kind of wilderness grow over it,” says Paul Peters of Hood Design Studio. “And so our approach is to go back and look at this history and begin to pull it forward to create a palimpsest, in a way, so that people are able to connect the place that they’ll begin to build in the future with what existed before, rather than going in tabula rasa and wiping it clean. A big part of our approach will be finding a way to look at the events that have occurred over time, [and] seeing if there are any physical artifacts that remain. We’ll take an archaeological approach, sifting through the site to see if there’s any physical remains, particularly relating to African American history.”

Both the Latin American communities in the Southwest Detroit/Vernor Corridor project area and Rosa Parks/Clairmount will focus on improving their housing stock. Dave Walker, the City of Detroit’s design director for the West District, says they want to add more “missing middle” housing types (small apartment buildings and townhouses), instead of big apartment blocks and large single family homes, the housing type that most defines Detroit.

But Southwest Detroit differs from Rosa Parks/Clairmount in its strong commercial spine and active, urban vitality. Its team of designers (led by Goody Clancy, with local landscape architects livingLAB) are looking to convert workaday traffic viaducts into infrastructure that welcomes people to the neighborhood. Mostly at-grade rail lines crossed by below-grade car traffic, the viaducts are prone to flooding. As monofunctional infrastructure only serving cars, they’re dangerous and inaccessible for bicyclists and pedestrians. For livingLAB, they’re potential gateways into Southwest Detroit, and “opportunities for art, for nonmotorized transportation, [and] connecting into a blue-green infrastructure network,” says livingLAB’s Courtney Piotrowski.

It’s a chance to “merge the sort of traditional top-down economic development and design approach with a very bottom-up grassroots approach, where we look to the immigrant community, [and] the neighbors who’ve been [there] for a long time,” says Piotrowski.

If the City of Detroit can’t rebuild its neighborhoods wholesale, says Walker, landscape moves are a signal to the development community, and most importantly to neighbors, that the city is invested in their success, and a turnaround is at hand.

Detroit’s unique condition among American cities means its definition of success will be different, too, and intimately tied to the discipline of landscape architecture. Managing urban vacancy implicitly calls forth the idea of open green space of some type or another, home turf for landscape designers. So turning around the city doesn’t necessarily mean “there’s infill in every neighborhood citywide,” says Bush. “How do we make these neighborhoods that aren’t as strong feel complete without having to build a house? How do we create a neighborhood that feels complete, feels cared for, and has amenities for people even if every house of the block is not full?”

Hence: “Landscape [architecture],” says Walker, “is the perfect discipline to help us restructure the city of Detroit.”

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based architecture and landscape architecture journalist. Listen to his Chicago architecture and design podcast A Lot You Got to Holler, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram

3 thoughts on “Detroit and the Landscape Tipping Point”

  1. I love this comment, “people are able to connect the place that they’ll begin to build in the future with what existed before, rather than going in tabula rasa and wiping it clean.” So awesome that you’re also contemplating a beltline style greenway. Very cool to see Detroit moving in this direction.

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