Seeing Detroit

Detroit Map - Designing Cities Bike Ride

Henry David Thoreau famously once said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” And if good old Hank were here, I think he would have approved of this past weekend’s bike excursion. My ride cobbled together an usual set of destinations — two iconic buildings and a reclaimed vacant lot — all with the goal of seeing Detroit through new eyes.

The back story is that the hardcore business, finance, economics, and innovation classes of my “open source MBA” have taken a bit of a detour this semester. Perhaps detour isn’t the right word so much as it is a weaving back into the mix of another topic near and dear to my heart: cities. (I expect it’s well established by this point that I’m a bona fide walking, biking, transit, urbanist wonk, right?) I’m currently enrolled in PennDesign’s Designing Cities class via Coursera and am loving the lectures and readings. What got me even more excited was the first project which involved identifying major city design themes in one’s own region. (Geek? I know.) All of the work easily could have been done through Google Maps and street views, but that wouldn’t have been much fun. Saturday was a beautiful fall day, and this was the perfect excuse to get out and go explore!

It turns out that finding the first themes didn’t require much digging at all. With our radiating streets, central plazas, and arts district, Detroit is as classic an example of traditional design as it gets. Heck, Augustus Woodward’s notebook of early drawings purportedly has sketches borrowed from Washington, DC’s plan. And the world-renowned Detroit Institute of Arts? Yep, designed by a graduate of Lyon’s École des Beaux-Arts.

Modernism, well 70s modernist architecture anyway, was another easy one to check off since the Renaissance Center dominates the skyline as I look outside my front door. Multiple freeways practically dead end into massive garages and funnel in car commuters from the suburban metro area. The seven tower complex also incorporates futurist elements like the elevated Detroit People Mover.

The theme of green design, though, had me puzzled. The only living roofs that we have right now are the ones you see in the news in the form of neglected houses with trees poking through the shingles! But then I remembered conversations with friends about carbon buffers along the freeways and stormwater mitigation pilot projects. In the Cody Rouge neighborhood, 10 vacant lots were replanted with saplings capable of soaking up serious water during heavy rains. The area is prone to storm flooding, so water kept out of basements and the municipal sewer system is a very good thing.

Checklist complete and addresses and camera in tow, I grabbed my bike and headed for the door. Hitting the DIA and Ren Cen for a couple of quick photos would be a cinch. Cody Rouge, however, would involve a 24-mile trek to the far edge of the city and back. The site was absolutely worth the ride, and it was fun to see the young trees nestled into wild ground cover. Autumn hues had started to creep into their thin canopies. The neighbors were a little perplexed at first about why I was taking pictures of a vacant lot, but we chatted about deconstruction and blight the yard across the street where a house had recently been taken down. And as I unceremoniously I stomped through the lot, a massive flock of finches flushed out and flew away chastising me for breaking their peace.

Detroit Institute of ArtsRenaissance Center - Detroit Cody Rouge Vacant Land Treatment - Detroit

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