Detroit earns CityHealth gold medal for its "Complete Streets" policies

Earlier this year, Detroit received a gold medal for Complete Streets in the 2018 CityHealth Report, an assessment of how the 40 largest U.S. cities rate in nine policies that indicate if they're attractive places for families to live and raise children. (Those policies are affordable housing, alcohol sales control, Complete Streets, earned sick leave, food safety, healthy food procurement, high-quality universal pre-K, smoke-free indoor air, tobacco use among young adults.)
 
Detroit received no overall medal, which means it landed less than four medal-earning (gold, silver or bronze) policies. 
 
One of the areas it did earn a medal was Complete Streets. The designation is awarded to cities with streets that allow safe access for users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and transit riders of all ages and abilities. The recent transformation along East Jefferson Avenue is illustrative of the kinds of policies that contribute to the medal. 
 
We asked Todd Scott, executive director of Detroit Greenways Coalition, about the award and its impact on Detroit children and families. You may be surprised to find out that he doesn't think Detroit deserved the gold, though can still claim progress in this area. 

Todd Scott - photo by Marvin Shaouni
Model D: What does it mean for Detroit kids that we received a gold medal for complete streets?
 
Todd Scott: I'm unclear why Detroit received it. It seems CityHealth thought that MDOT's Complete Streets policy affected all Detroit roads whereas it only affects state roads.
 
Still, the city of Detroit has been committed to building Complete Streets that work for people from 8 to 80 years of age. It has been a leader among southeast Michigan communities and is now leapfrogging other cities across the U.S.  
 
How can work around Complete Streets and a growing greenway network be game changers in terms of children and families' health and well-being?
 
Complete Streets can be hugely positive for Detroit kids. For some, safe bicycling and walking options can be viable transportation choices — an alternative to being shuttled by adults or stuck at home. Getting kids biking and walking can lead to lifelong healthy transportation habits. 
 
It can also be a low-cost recreational activity for the entire family that in many cases starts at the front door. It can provide a fun way to access local parks, schools, and other destinations.
 
From a safety perspective, Complete Streets also reduces crashes for everyone using Detroit roads. During the past 10 years, 90 Detroit youth under 18 years old were road crash fatalities either as a driver/passenger, bicyclist, or pedestrian. Another 515 suffered serious injuries. These are not statistics we should be comfortable with.
 
What strategies do we now need to get more young people using the growing Complete Streets and greenways infrastructure to get to school, jobs, and recreational activities?
 
It has to be fun and cool, but practical as well. Detroit's many bike clubs with their custom bikes, lights, and music are putting the fun and cool into bikes. As these club rides flow through the neighborhoods, you can see the reaction (and inspiration) in the eyes of many Detroiters, but especially the youth. Bikes are no longer uncool when you reach driving age. 
 
And some of Detroit's greenways are really cool, too. Who doesn't enjoying riding or walking on the Dequindre Cut or RiverWalk? These are great public spaces that are fun to be in, fun to move through, fun to be a part of.
 
There's also the practical side. We do need to build networks of safe pathways so that residents are connected to destinations. Of course the challenge with schools is they are getting located further and further away from many students due to closures, schools of choice, and charters. We need to ensure kids have schools within biking and walking distance of their homes, otherwise these options just aren't very practical.
 
How might the Complete Streets be a catalyst for improving policy in other areas where we didn’t receive any medals (affordable housing, alcohol and tobacco sales, earned sick leave, healthy food procurement)?
 
Among those areas, there's a stronger Complete Streets connection with affordable housing and fresh food. We are concerned that greenway development could raise property values and potentially displace residents. We don't want that. Investing in affordable housing opportunities along planned greenways could be one means for mitigating displacement.
 
While only anecdotal, we've spoken with countless bicyclists and recreational walkers who are realizing health benefits. For some, it was an intentional choice, but not for all. This shift towards better health has changed their food habits. Fresh and healthy food has become a higher priority for many. 
 
Detroit Greenways, as an organization, has driven the Complete Streets work, but city government ultimately approves the policies. Has the complete streets/greenways work been unique in its public-private collaboration?
 
We've been somewhat unique. In the recent past, the city of Detroit did not have the staff or funding to do what many other cities could. This created a vacuum that was filled by the nonprofits that often took the lead on planning greenways and Complete Streets projects. 

That has changed post-bankruptcy. The city's Planning and Development and Public Works departments have much more capacity for this work. Our coalition's role has shifted a bit, too, but is still filling the critical gaps in order to provide a great network of pathways across the city.

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

Read more articles by Melinda Clynes.

Melinda Clynes is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Model D. She is the statewide project editor of Michigan Kids, a series of stories that highlight what’s working to improve outcomes for Michigan children. View her online portfolio here.
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