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Detroit's Revitalization Begins in the Streets

Two weeks ago today, under the banner of the People First Project, I led a group of volunteers to reclaim the parking space in front of Astro Coffee on Michigan Avenue and transform it into a public space.

The parklet was an immediate hit and instantly beloved by the community. Like most Detroiters, Corktown residents were starved for a public place to naturally gather and meet neighbors, because one of the great ironies of our city is that we have more vacant land per capita than any other major American city, but we also have the least amount of public space. The night we installed the parklet, over a hundred people joined us in celebration in the streets.

Yet, when you look outside of Astro Coffee today, all you see is the same old parking spot that existed before. The lively scene of activated street life that we created has been replaced by a single, stationary SUV.

The parklet was dismantled by the Michigan Department of Transportation—the state agency that controls the road—after only 8 days.

Everyone involved was shocked by the speed with which MDOT responded. As their workers tore down the parklet, residents had tears in their eyes. One long-time resident and small business owner looked at the destruction in dismay, remarking that the parklet was the best thing that had happened to the neighborhood in over 15 years.

Our story was covered by state and national media outlets. You can learn more about the parklet here and here.

The truth is the parklet was never meant to be a permanent fixture. It was a tactical intervention to start a serious conversation about the future of Michigan Avenue, and in turn, the future of all of our city’s major streets. This is a conversation we need to be having right now, and it is surprisingly absent from our discourse about the future of Detroit.

Mayor Duggan has indicated that the measure by which his term should be judged is two-fold: 1. Is the population going up or down? 2. Are the neighborhoods included in the city’s rebirth? He’s made it clear that those two measures go hand in hand, because great neighborhoods are what keep and draw residents. And he’s right.

But what makes neighborhoods great?

If you listen to our government, corporate, and philanthropic leaders, you would think that the best way to create vibrant neighborhoods is by setting up a system of business support, and by luring large-scale real estate developers so that they can build on vacant lots and rehab blighted residential structures.

This approach ignores something fundamental: great neighborhoods need great streets. In order for a neighborhood to thrive, people have to be able to walk and sit and perform in public space. They have to be able to go to multiple businesses without getting in a car. Neighborhoods need to have an environment of spontaneity and joy. These are the elements that give a neighborhood its buzz and establish quality of life for residents.

The lesson of post-war American urban development is this: if you want to kill a neighborhood, put a freeway through it. The work of 21st Century urban development is the opposite: if you want to build a neighborhood, right-size its streets so they function primarily to serve people on feet and on bicycles.

Streets are to neighborhoods what soil is to a garden. If the quality of the soil is poor, the garden still grows, but its fruit won’t be edible. If the quality of our neighborhood streets is poor, the city still grows, but it won’t be lasting.

We’ve got our revitalization strategy backwards. Our focus on business growth before public space is the equivalent of building our city on a foundation of sand. Every effort, from policing to business growth to diversity, becomes that much harder and more expensive when we don’t have people and eyes on the street.

We often act as if we can’t have nice things in this city because we live in a resource strapped region, but the reality is that we spend money unwisely by subsidizing stadiums and sprawl. Look at the giant pit west of Woodward or go up to that outer edges of Van Dyke where there is a major freeway expansion going on, and you will see where our budgetary priorities are.

Further, we increase the cost of change by disenfranchising the public from the process of revitalizing their own neighborhoods. Our culture has embraced crowd-funding and crowd-sourcing as tools for growth and creativity, but what about crowd-creation? Imagine if people were empowered by government to make their environment more people-friendly, beautiful, and safe by enlisting them in the production of their public spaces and streets.

Democracy is not a spectator sport, and participation in it is not a specialized skill.

That’s why we are building a coalition of passionate like-minded people to continue activations along Michigan Avenue with the goal of eventually transforming it into a complete street through the force of law. We are also seeking the advocacy of elected officials who understand that the city and region need to put people first. If you are interested in joining our effort, email me at chad@humanscalestudio.com

The parklet may be gone, but the fight continues.

We will not stop until Michigan Avenue feels less a freeway and more like a Main Street.

Chad Rochkind
Chad Rochkind is the founder of Human Scale Studio, the Executive Director of the Corktown Economic Development Corporation, and a winner of the Knight Cities Challenge. Metropolis Magazine named Chad one of its "10 New Talents" in 2014. Chad holds a Master's Degree in Historical and Sustainable Architecture from New York University, where he graduated at the top of his class. He wrote his master's thesis on Detroit's revitalization and how small-scale revitalization efforts can play a leading role in the city’s renaissance. A graduate of the University of Michigan, Chad is passionate about Detroit's role in leading the world toward a more sustainable and equitable urban future. He is a home owner, with his wife, in the Hubbard Farms neighborhood of Detroit.