Community | Outdoors

From Motor City to Walkable City

This article was written by Samantha Szeszulski, Second Year Challenge Detroit Fellow

As a city that has for so long been dependent on the automobile, Detroit will need to change its focus to continue to grow as a desirable and thriving city.

After graduating with my Bachelor of Science in Architecture from the metro-Detroit based Lawrence Technological University, I was fortunate to be chosen as one of the 2013-2014 Challenge Detroit Fellows. The yearlong fellowship program provided me with countless opportunities to meet Detroit’s most influential people, gain invaluable and relevant career experiences, contribute to the city, and explore my own passions as a designer within the framework of Detroit.

These opportunities, and countless others I experienced throughout the year, culminated in July during a self-directed community impact project. Guided by the framework set forth through the Challenge Detroit Fellowship, I was able to explore and implement a series of human-scale, urban installations that began to provide what is lacking in pedestrian infrastructure for the City of Detroit.

My initial installation consisted of a series of 20 “lighter, quicker, cheaper” plastic signs installed throughout The Villages neighborhoods during the Detroit Design Festival. This project, entitled Walk [Detroit], was based on the national Walk [Your City] campaign, and it has a local twist to increase its effectiveness within our city. This easy-to-use network of signs encourages walkability by assigning a number to the amount of travel time to several pinpointed destinations throughout the community. By quantifying the time of travel to a destination and providing walking directions through digital QR codes, the signs encourage increased pedestrian activity.

Why is this relevant to the future of Detroit? Increased pedestrian activity has countless benefits that directly address many of Detroit’s current struggles. As efforts continue to bring numerous retailers to the city, increased foot traffic can mean more customers for those businesses. Walking also provides multiple health benefits, both as a source of exercise and also reducing pollution. Walking reduces traffic at rush hour times; translating to less wear and tear on our roads. With a substantial number of Detroit families not able to afford private transportation, increased walkability gives accessibility to these families. Walkability and the understood proximity to amenities can even contribute to higher Detroit home values.

While low-budget installations, such as the one I created for my project, are only one small step in tackling a larger challenge, they can bring attention to the potential for improved pedestrian amenities needed throughout the city. Some examples being bike lanes, bike racks, proper lighting, proper crosswalks, better (safer) sidewalks, street furniture, crosswalks, more permanent wayfinding signage and more. These upgrades to city infrastructure can work in parallel with other infrastructural and systematic upgrades happening throughout the city to take major steps in tackling the previously mentioned challenges.

The initial 20 sign installation is just the beginning of my efforts to address the issue of walkability in the Motor City. While the Challenge Detroit framework provided me the timeline and resources for my initial exploration of this idea, I have intention of growing the number of installations several times over. Realizing early on in my exploration that this challenge is one worth addressing, I applied for and received additional funding from The Awesome Foundation’s Detroit Chapter to continue my efforts. Coming spring 2015, many more sign installations will begin appearing in several Detroit neighborhoods, encouraging residents and visitors alike to choose exercise over engines when navigating their neighborhoods. While these “lighter, cheaper, quicker” installations lack proper durability and the administrative approval needed to be a part of the permanent solution, they do serve a dual purpose of both encouragement and awareness. They are the start to larger conversations around pedestrian infrastructure that must occur for Detroit to move forward as a stronger, healthier city.