A cut above – Detroit’s Dequindre Cut

Source: smithgroupjjr.com

Source: smithgroupjjr.com

For those out there that think Detroit’s a lost cause, the magnificent Dequindre Cut Greenway is an example of why you are wrong. Constructed along an abandoned below-grade rail corridor, the 1.35 mile greenway links some of Detroit’s coolest features – including the scenic 2.5 mile long RiverWalk, the vibrant Eastern Market, and the trendy Villages. Combine those with a world-class greenway for cyclists and pedestrians and some seriously hip graffiti artwork and you have the recipe for a Midwestern version of New York City’s High Line or Atlanta’s Belt Line.

Source: streetsblog.org

Source: streetsblog.org

Kudos to all those individuals and organizations involved in making the Dequindre Cut a post-industrial success story that truly is “a cut above” most other nonmotorized trails.

Source: freep.com

Source: freep.com

 

 

Issues of tall (sky) sprawl

Source: flap.org

Source: flap.org

I have asked myself at times whether in some places around the globe we humans are simply exchanging horizontal land sprawl with a tall (or sky) sprawl? Don’t get me wrong, I love to admire an impressive skyline just as much as the next person. But, there is a point where enough is enough — where we have traded one land use malady (horizontal land sprawl) for another (tall or sky sprawl). Where the benefits of increased density are being diminished by the loss of scenic views; by unacceptable bird mortality rates; by ugly aesthetics; or by uneven, haphazard, and/or overweighted distribution of the urban form. Here are a few examples for consideration.

Lost scenic viewsheds: Hong Kong has long had one of my favorite skylines, but a recent addition seems to detract (rather than enhance) the natural backdrop of lovely Victoria Peak. Furthermore, the enormous International Commerce Center (or Union Square) on the right side of the picture is completely out of scale and balance with the rest of the skyline. It is surprising that this tower was built in such a manner, given the strong application of feng shui principles into Chinese building design and location elements.

hong-kong-skyline-1

Hong Kong- Source: theworldedition.com

Likewise, viewing the city from the top of Victoria Peak in the second photograph below, it won’t be long until the stunning view of Victoria Harbour from the mountain could be nearly obliterated by a sea of skyscrapers. This again seems contrary to the principles of feng shui.

Source: en.wikipedia.org

Hong Kong – Source: en.wikipedia.org

Poor-balance: The Renaissance Center in Detroit (below) is off-center from the heart of downtown when observed and photographed from most angles. As a result, it counterbalances and overpowers the skyline and detracts from its overall appearance. If it had been more fully blended/incorporated into the existing cityscape, then perhaps its impact would be less harsh and less detrimental to the overall view.

Source: keysmashblog.com

Detroit – Source: keysmashblog.com

Bird collisions: Toronto’s impressive and growing skyline is considered particularly deadly to migrating song birds. Whether this is solely a function of them flying northbound overnight across open water and then being attracted or confused by the gleaming lights is unclear. It is estimated by the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) that an astounding between one and nine million birds die each year from collisions with buildings just in Toronto. Fortunately, through conservation and advocacy efforts by groups like FLAP, the city is working to mitigate the problem with new/revised design guide lines.

Toronto - Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Toronto – Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Source: flap.org

Source: flap.org

Single monstrosity: Perhaps someday soon, other skyscrapers will join the Beetham Tower in Manchester, England, but frankly it looks completely out-of-place and out of context with the scale of the rest of this famous industrial city.

Source: skyscrapercity.org

Manchester – Source: skyscrapercity.org

Double trouble: There is no doubt that Dubai has an impressive skyline. The problem is that it fails to condense the heart of the city into a tightly knit and compact urban form. Instead, each skyscraper tries to outdo its predecessors. This leaves a city that displays an urban form that contains both horizontal and vertical sprawl utilizing skyscrapers.

Dubai - Source: skyscrapercity.org

Dubai – Source: desktop-wallpaper.blogspot.org

In the end, the appropriateness of a particular skyline depends on its own visual, spatial, social, and natural context. What may be right in Los Angeles may not be appropriate in San Diego; what may be well-suited to Miami, may look ridiculous in New Orleans; or what may be a perfect fit in London, could be considered a terrible eyesore in Paris. It’s up to the architects, engineers, designers, and planners of the world to fashion a suitable and aesthetically appropriate blueprint that utilizes the guiding principles (goals and objectives) of the greater community where they are working, while attempting to keep the ego factor in check.

Oh, what might have been…

Source: detroitcurbed.com

Source: detroitcurbed.com

Here is a weblink to a fascinating blogpost by Christian Salcedo and Paul Beshouri about Detroit’s bid to host the 1968 Summer Olympics. I had no idea that Detroit had bid on hosting the olympics six different times and nearly won them in 1968.

As we all know, Mexico City won the opportunity, but one certainly has to wonder about what might have been (on a whole variety of levels), if Detroit, Michigan had been given this “golden” opportunity. Kudos to both authors on a great and thought-provoking post.

http://detroit.curbed.com/archives/2014/02/the-68-games-detroits-unrealized-olympic-dreams.php

Turning bold visions into reality

Source: beltline.org

Source: beltline.org

Kudos to Planning magazine for an insightful and interesting article in the January 2014 edition on the Atlanta BeltLine. Entitled, “Emerald Necklace, Southern Style,” author Alexander Garvin provides a terrific summary of this project by means of an excerpt from the soon to be published book, Planning Atlanta, which is due out in April.

This remarkable project of knitting neighborhoods and parks within the City of Atlanta together via trail and rail was the brainchild of then student Ryan Gravel. It must be quite rewarding to see his thesis become something other than a dusty memory on a bookshelf. Mr. Gravel and those who took up the challenge with him should be commended for their foresight and persistence. I am greatly looking forward to hearing much more about this exemplary project next week (Feb 13th) at APA Michigan’s “Transportation Bonanza” where Atlanta BeltLine President and CEO Paul Morris, FAICP will be making a formal presentation.

My only wish is that more cities around the country would have the guts to take a bold, sustainable concept and turn the vision into reality. So often, innovative ideas are cast off as whimsical, pie-in-the-sky, or unrealistic by those who are wholly entrenched in the status quo or can’t see beyond the end of their own nose. Too bad, because those narrow minded cities are likely destined for the trash pile of yesterday’s news.

Indy's Cultural Trail - Source: midwestmla.org

Indy’s Cultural Trail – Source: midwestmla.org

Thankfully, such is not the case with Atlanta’s Beltline, or New York City’s High Line, or Blue Island’s Cal-Sag Trail, or Indy’s Cultural Trail or Detroit’s Dequindre Cut Greenway. Each of these projects stands out as a testament of good planning…projects that we as planners must celebrate as bold visions and as superlative achievements.

Dequindre Cut - source: modelmedia.com

Dequindre Cut – source: modelmedia.com

Ten cool urban tree canopy maps

Below are a cool and coloful assortment of urban tree canopy maps from around the United States to enjoy on these cold, snowy, and gray days. Each of the maps is unique unto itself, but all clearly depict the green infrastructure of the tree canopy within the urban landscape and provide useful environmental information. Given the importance of trees for cleansing the air; producing oxygen; lowering temperatures in the urban heat island; and providing food, shelter, and cover for wildlife, these maps are a crucial part of any urban planning effort.

While I like the depiction of the tree canopy over a satellite/aerial image, the most useful ones, from a future planning perspective, would seem to be those maps that break down the percentage of tree cover/canopy by neighborhood or census tract. Enjoy!

Charlottesville, Virginia - Source : americanforests.org

Charlottesville, Virginia – Source : americanforests.org

Fayetteville, Arkansas - Source: accessfayetteville.org

Fayetteville, Arkansas – Source: accessfayetteville.org

Minneapolis, Minnesota - Source: blogsmprnews.org

Minneapolis, Minnesota – Source: blogsmprnews.org

Detroit - Source: datadrivendetroit.org

Detroit, Michigan – Source: datadrivendetroit.org

Cincinnati - Source: midwestutc,org

Cincinnati, Ohio – Source: midwestutc,org

Annapolis, Maryland -  Source: dnr.state.md.us

Annapolis, Maryland – Source: dnr.state.md.us

Grand Rapids, Michigan - Soutce: mlive.com

Grand Rapids, Michigan – Soutce: mlive.com

Tacoma, Washington - Source: cityoftacoma.org

Tacoma, Washington – Source: cityoftacoma.org

Edmond, Oklahoma - Source: edmondok.com

Edmond, Oklahoma – Source: edmondok.com

New Haven, Connecticut - Source: environment.yal.edu

New Haven, Connecticut – Source: environment.yal.edu

Bring rail transit to Detroit Metro Airport – NOW!

Source: aviationexplorer.com

Source: aviationexplorer.com

With one of the most modern midfield terminals (McNamara Terminal) in the nation, Detroit Metropolitan Airport has much to be proud of. This magnificent structure impresses nearly everyone who uses it. Among its seriously cool features is the elevated internal ExpressTram service that run most of the length (3,700 feet) of this massive, mile–long facility.  In fact, McNamara Terminal is the second longest airport terminal in the world.

ExpressTram - Source: flickr.com

Detroit Metro ExpressTram – Source: flickr.com

While rail is obviously utilized within Detroit Metro, the overall facility is anything but rail transit friendly at the present time. Passengers arriving and departing are limited to using their own vehicles, shuttles, cabs, and buses. Granted this is the Motor City, but trains have motors too! Fortunately, there is a silver lining, as a Norfolk Southern Railroad line abuts the northern boundary of the airport aside I-94. This rail line corridor is perfectly suited for bringing rail transit from downtown Detroit right into the heart of the airport and serve both the North and McNamara Terminals.

Source: destination360.com

Source: destination360.com

About three miles north of the airport terminals is another Norfolk Southern line that connects Chicago with Detroit and is also used for AMTRAK’s Wolverine service. A new off-site airport station along this line would include a bus rapid transit or light rail connection from the station to the airport along Merriman Road, according to the 2007 alternatives analysis.

A few years back I was at Detroit Metro Airport as two of my sons were departing on a scout trip. While there, an upset and somewhat disheveled women walked into the terminal from outside. As she passed us, she stated out loud, “what kind of city doesn’t have train service to its airport?” Very good question. Hopefully, in the VERY near future all of us in Southeast Michigan will be able to enjoy such a world-class rail transit system in one of the formats identified above.

Islands of sanity amid sprawl schlock

Royal Oak's main Sgtreet Theater - Source: detroitfunk.com

Royal Oak’s main Sgtreet Theater – Source: detroitfunk.com

Despite seas of commercial and residential sprawl in many parts of suburban Detroit, there are a few places of sane, sensible, and progressive planning that stand out as beacons of hope. Probably the most obvious of these dichotomies is just north of the Detroit city limits in southern Oakland County. The cities of Berkley, Birmingham, Ferndale, and Royal Oak form a four-part cluster of active, vibrant, and well-planned downtowns surrounded by healthy, interconnected residential neighborhoods. These four cities stand in stark contrast to the sprawl schlock of many nearby communities.

It is amazing how much more welcoming, walkable, and vibrant these four cities are compared to many of their abutting neighbors. Just driving through them, one quickly discerns the sense of community that prevails. Cooling and colorful tree canopies (it is fall), street-side store fronts, and bicycle/pedestrian traffic compared to the acres of largely empty parking lots, bland shopping plazas, and mundane suburban sprawl features just beyond their borders. It is quite a stark contrast between human-centric planning and auto-centric planning.

There are several other suburban parts of metro Detroit where healthy communities can be found, including the Northville-Plymouth, Milford, and Brighton on the west side, the Grosse Pointes on the east side, as well as the cities of Farmington, Rochester, and Dearborn.  Each of these is an obvious and clear contrast to most of those low-density “once-township suburbs” that abut and/or surround them. Granted, not all aspects of these islands of sensible planning are perfect – for instance Main Street in Royal Oak is still too auto-oriented for this planner at five lanes plus curbside parking. But, each are certainly welcome respites from the tiresome seas of suburban sprawl schlock that mar so much of the landscape.

Many kudos go out to Berkley, Birmingham, Ferndale, and Royal Oak, Michigan for their successful planning efforts to date. As promising beacons, it is hoped that these endearing islands of human-centric planning will stand tall as useful templates for future development patterns…patterns which forever forsake the mind-numbing sprawl schlock of the past.

Iconic tribute sculptures of Woodward Avenue

Source: modelmedia.com

Source: modelmedia.com

Of all the streets and roads in Michigan, none quite has the familiar ring, rhyme, and historic charm of Woodward Avenue. Stretching some 27 miles from the Detroit waterfront to Pontiac, Woodward Avenue (also known as M-1) is the main street of Southeast Michigan, as it passes Campus Martius Park, Grand Circus Park, Comerica Park, the Fox and Fillmore Theaters, Henry Ford’s famous Highland Park Assembly Plant, the Detroit Zoo, and many other key sights in Detroit, Ferndale, Royal Oak, Birmingham and Pontiac. It is also the annual August host of the marvelous Woodward Dream Cruise that draws millions of vintage motor vehicle fans.

Source: en.wikipedia.org

Woodward Dream Cruise – en.wikipedia.org

Due to its historical significance, Woodward Avenue, was the first nationally designated scenic byway in Michigan. It was also designated a Michigan Heritage Route in 1999 and an All-American Road in 2009.  To celebrate and recognize the heritage of Woodward Avenue, a variety of local, regional, and national organizations have worked together to design and install spectacular 30-foot tall tribute sculptures at intervals along the roadway. Currently four of these spectacular solar-powered, concrete and glass structures have been installed in the median at the following locations (listed south to north):

Highland Park at the former Ford Assembly Plant in 2012

highlandpark

Source: mlive.com

Ferndale two blocks north of Nine Mile Road in 2008

royal oak

Source: en.wikipedia.org

Royal Oak at Thirteen Mile Road in 2012

Source; topics.freep.com

Source; topics.freep.com

 Pontiac at the south end of downtown in 2010

pontiac larger

Source: woodwardavenue.org

Over time, more tribute sculptures will added at locations along the historic Woodward Avenue route and an audio tour incorporated into the tour program. Needless to say, they are a spectacular and iconic addition to this great heritage corridor.

The scenic beauty of Detroit

Think Detroit is just an industrial wasteland? Think again, folks – here are a few photos that show the scenic (and softer) side of this great city. Enjoy!

Source: facebook.com

Belle Isle – Source: facebook.com and the detroit riverfront conservancy

Source: m-bike.org

Source: m-bike.org

Campus Martius - Source: pps.org

Campus Martius – Source: pps.org

Dequindre Cut Bike Trail - Source: treehugger.com

Dequindre Cut Bike Trail – Source: treehugger.com

Historic Fort Wayne (Detroit) - Source: historicfortwaynecoalition

Historic Fort Wayne (Detroit) – Source: historicfortwaynecoalition

Grand Circus Park - Source: byways.org

Grand Circus Park – Source: byways.org

Source: deweyfromdetroit.com

Source: deweyfromdetroit.com

Shared responsibility for Detroit’s plight

Source: detroitconference.org

Source: detroitconference.org

As a Michigander for the past 21 years, I have heard my share of Detroit criticisms, jokes, and put downs, both from within and outside the Great Lakes State. While fingers can be and have been correctly pointed at the lack of past civic and political leadership in Detroit, our collective actions (or lack thereof) can certainly share in the responsibility. Some may scoff at such a notion, but here’s a few reasons why:

  • As a nation we elected leaders who adopted a tax code and laws that advocated, promoted, and accelerated flight from cities and suburban sprawl. Many in this nation continue to support such policies. Granted, this affects every city, but that does not mean it was beneficial for them unless they had scads of excess land for new subdivisions or the ability to annex freely.
  • As a nation we collectively turned our backs on inner cities many years ago only saw fit to reverse course when the notion of revitalization became profitable.
  • As a state, Michigan has some of the most arcane home rule laws that created thousands of 36 square mile “kingdumbs” (pun intended) that fight with each other like cats and dogs and seldom do the right thing.
  • This nation very nearly turned its collective back on the auto industry due to political self-interest, mostly from conservatives. Funny how these same self-righteous types expect and demand financial help when they have economic and natural disasters in their own states.
  • As a state and nation we allowed expressways, poorly placed factories, urban renewal projects, sports stadiums, and other projects to carve up and displace perfectly healthy inner city neighborhoods leaving a tattered and disjointed landscape.
  • Residents/politicians living in outstate Michigan from Detroit would short-sightedly say, act, and vote as if Detroit was not their problem too.
  • In Southeast Michigan, leaders and residents alike outside of Wayne County often could care less what happened south of Eight Mile.
Source: detroittransithistory.info

Source: detroittransithistory.info

  • One of the best interurban transit systems in the nation was torn up replaced by diesel belching buses that have as many endearing qualities as a lump of coal.
  • Corporations ran away in the 60s and 70s…with some finally seeing the light of their actions in the 00s and 10s.
  • Half of Detroit’s professional sport franchises left for the ‘burbs with one (Pistons) still practically playing closer to Flint than Detroit.
  • Far too many lenders and insurance companies red-lined inner city neighborhoods.
  • Shady lenders who offered inner city loans foreclosed on homeowners the first chance they got.
  • Absentee landlords let their properties decline into disrepair and blight.
  • Politicians shied away from making the tough decisions.
  • Rhetoric replaced reason in far too many discussions about Detroit.
  • Too many people in Southeast Michigan acted like the city was an island unto itself, when, like it or not, their collective futures are inexorably linked to Detroit’s fate.
  • Up until recent years, the national media tended to solely focus on the bad news  about Detroit. There are many, MANY great things about Detroit. Piling on does nothing to reverse problems, it only reinforces incorrect perceptions and stereotypes.
  • Has the American Planning Association (APA) ever held its national conference in Detroit? If not, SHAME on us for never having done so!

Shall I go on?