Good Urbanism In Downtown Detroit

When I was in Michigan last week on vacation I took a trip to downtown Detroit with my girlfriend Libby to go ice skating at Campus Martius Park and dine in Mexicantown in the city’s Southwest side. Campus Martius park re-opened in 2004 after undergoing a major upgrade to coincide with the recent opening of a large new building overlooking the park — Compuware building which included Detroit’s first Hard Rock Cafe and a Borders book store, considered a good sign for the city’s downtown economic vitality.

In my opinion the park was an unqualified urban success. The crosswalks and curbing surrounding the park were pedestrian-friendly and not an afterthought, and the park contained not only the small ice rink but also Michigan’s only Au Bon Pain, both busy with customers, as well as a water fountain topped by a seasonal holiday tree. In the short time we skated a wedding party arrived for photos in front of the fountain and all sorts of people were there to skate, watch, or mill about. (Click the picture for the full site plan.)

While much of the rest of the city is an unfriendly environment for pedestrians (due both to deliberate planning decisions, depopulation and economic trouble), at its heart was a nucleus of vibrant, successful urbanism. (To quote one blogger on the park: “It just seems so “big city.” I mean, Borders, Hard Rock Cafe, Compuware World Headquarters and an ice skating rink–in Detroit. Pinch me.”) Whether or not a comprehensive tourism and development strategy can be built on pleasant urban spaces I have no doubt the small rink and park will eventually fully repay any public cost through the revenue from the skating ($7 for admission, $3 for skates) and taxes from the increased economic activity in the area.

In doing some googling I came across a quote by landscape architect Paul Friedberg in an article in Cornell’s alumni magazine about his life where he sums up his philosophy of successful urban space:

“People give space its energy,” he says. “Space by itself can be beautiful, but people give it excitement. Rockefeller Center without ice skating, without people hanging around it, would be very dull. Animate it with people and you’ve got a beautiful, dynamic space.”

This sentiment echoes many other urban theorists, and brings to mind for me Jane Jacobs, who argues in a chapter she calls “The uses of neighborhood parks” in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities that “people do not use city open space just because it is there and because city planners or designers wish they would,” urging city planners to fill their parks with activities to draw human activities and connect them to vibrant streets. She concludes “Every city district could probably enjoy rand use an outdoor park ice rink if it had one, and provide a population of entranced watchers too … city parks are not abstractions, or automatic repositories of virtue or uplift … they mean nothing divorced from their practical, tangible uses.”

It seems the park has also been well received by Detroiters, also. One blogger goes so far as calling it a ‘turning point’ for the city:

Sometimes those who live, work, or frequent downtown [Detroit] tend to forget how much has taken place these past few years. Todd’s visit was somewhat of a reminder to me on just how desolate things were just a few years ago. In all honesty, Campus Martius was the turning point for this city. It has become the central destination and proved just how significant when literally thousands turned out for the tree lighting a few weeks ago. I heard complaints from many about how crowded it was, it may drive some away in the following years. Yet people not coming around because its too damn crowded is definitely a problem new to Detroit and one I will gladly accept.

While I am not optimistic of any serious urban renaissance for Detroit as long as it is the largest city in a state with a stagnant economy and highest jobless rate in the nation, where the vast majority of urban development continues to be at the fringes of the metropolis due to racism and deliberate public policy choices. Yet the park should be celebrated as a constructive and pragmatic approach to revitalization. My only complaint: the music selection for the skating seemed a bit off. The Motown hits seemed appropriate, but some of the more recent pop tracks have not aged as well. Since it’s only their second winter, I suppose I should cut them some slack to fine-tune their selections.

See more of my photos of the Campus Martius skating rink.

Author: Rob Goodspeed