Reshaping Detroit: Villages and Greenways

“This continent has not seen a transformation like Detroit’s since the last days of the Maya. The city, once the fourth largest in the country, is now so depopulated that some stretches resemble the outlying farmland and others are altogether wild.”

— From “Detroit Arcadia“, Harper’s Magazine, 2007

urban-village-299x224At nearly 140 square miles, Detroit is a very large city.

The problem is it no longer has enough residents or businesses providing a tax base to support this size. About 40 square miles are abandoned or vacant.

Yesterday’s Free Press featured an article “Urban villages in Detroit’s future?” about recent efforts to make this situation work.

In a new vision of Detroit’s future, a team of visiting urban planners suggests the city might one day resemble the English countryside, with distinct urban villages surrounded by farms, fields and meadows.

The idea may sound improbable, but Alan Mallach, a New Jersey-based planner who led the visiting team, said Detroit is evolving in that direction anyway, with large chunks of the city now largely abandoned.

“In a way, think of it as a 21st-Century version of a traditional country pattern,” Mallach said. “You have high-density development on one side of the street and cows on the other, quite literally.”

Having participated in these conversations over the past year, this certainly seems like the most realistic strategy for Detroit.

So how does it affect biking?

First, having good walkability and bikeability within these urban villages is a key design feature. And since Detroit has “good bones” (i.e. uses the American street grid), we’re mostly there.

Second, the planned connections between the villages and in the lower density greenspaces are great places for building greenways and bike lanes, as noted in the Free Press article.

Preserving Non-Motorized Mobility

Detroit Free PressOne question with creating these larger greenspaces is how do we preserve the street grids and maintain bikability? Creating superblocks disrupts direct routes for cyclists and pedestrians, while concentrating vehicle traffic around their perimeters.

For example, there is a recent proposal for an urban farm made up of 10 square city blocks. How do we handle the public right-of-ways across that property (which could interfer with the farming operations)?

In speaking with Allan Mallach, he really didn’t have any specific ideas yet. And, what he is proposing (and what Detroit is experiencing) truly is unique at this scale, so we’ll need to work out some issues as we progress.

I also raised this question with Ian Lockwood, a renowned senior transportation planner with Glatting Jackson. One thought he had was to maintain the street grid, but return the roads to gravel in order to reduce the infrastructure and make them permeable (for reduced storm water management.)

The Future of Detroit Biking

Detroit will undoubtedly continue its transformation whether its planned or not. It’s already transformed in ways that make it far more bike friendly, especially compared with the surround suburban areas and with other American cities.

And with some perseverance (and funding!), we’ll continue planning this transformation to make us even more bike friendly.

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2 Responses to “Reshaping Detroit: Villages and Greenways”

  1. james willer Says:

    I’m so glad you brought up the issue of maintaining connectivity as more and more proposals will be forthcoming looking to create superblocks. I don’t have to tell you that gravel is not a good surface for biking on, but their are great products on the market that are permeable and still allow traditional transportation modes upon them. e.g. permeable concrete. A good strategy for Detroit would be to offer Storm/ Sewer credits for companies installing permeable surfaces like parking lots, sidewalks…etc. How cool would the dequindre cut be if it was made of permeable concrete? Relating to the superblock issue, a prime example of the city shooting itself in the foot would be the chrysler plant at Kercheval. The imposition of the plant completely destroys any meaningful connection with the vibrant downtown of Gross Pointe.

  2. Downsizing Detroit | m-bike.org Says:

    […] topic has been discussed and studied, especially during the past year, some of which we covered. Groups like Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD) and the WARM Training Center have […]

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