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.