The Little Things

Little green chairs. Believe it or not, sometimes that's all it takes to make a more livable city. And as unassuming as a few-hundred bistro chairs are in the context of a city as large and as difficult for pedestrians as Detroit, the result can be transformative. What are a few of the little things that can make a city better for the average Jane or John?

You don’t have to go any further than Campus Martius -- Detroit’s finally realized town square-- or the recently reconstituted Washington Boulevard to talk about the yin and yang of Detroit's urban streetscapes and how they are evolving and improving.

On a recent beautiful August afternoon, I weighed in with two other urban professionals – architect Dorian Moore, partner at Archive Design Studio, a downtown architecture and design firm, and Colin Hubbell, the bike riding, bandana-wearing developer who helped lead the residential transformation of Midtown with several loft conversions and new build projects.

Opening up the table for any one of us on the subject of Detroit is a little like giving candy store keys to a kid in need of a sugar fix.

In my mind, talking about the stuff of cities in a place like Detroit is something of a lost art. Consider this: Up to three generations of metro Detroiters only understand the suburban mode of living and, unless they’ve traveled, have little to compare. Understanding the basic building blocks of real city life is not difficult, it just requires an open mind and a willingness to get out of your car and go for a walk -- or take a seat and look around.

Campus Martius: Have a seat

"I just remind them that it’s 200 years behind schedule!" says Colin Hubbell as he relates tales of people complaining about the somewhat delayed construction schedule of Campus Martius Park.

Judge Augustus Woodward first envisioned Campus Martius as the heart of a complex hub and spoke street pattern after the Detroit’s devastating fire in 1805.

While this area has always been open space, it has never been developed as a real public place or been programmed in an ongoing manner until now. Re-imagined for the city’s 300th Birthday, the Detroit 300 Conservancy legacy project finally opened up in November (2004) and has been a hit ever since, offering Detroiters access to a truly unique urban setting that has restored Detroit’s heart.

Hubbell continues, "It provides a true connection along Woodward, between the riverfront and Grand Circus Park. Campus Martius is that beacon you’ll see from the Hart Plaza. You’ll be drawn there because of the constant programming and the fact that it is within walking distance. Once you’re here, it can be the springboard up Woodward and beyond. When you start making those urban connections, walking in cities becomes fun and not such a chore."

From the architect’s point of view, Dorian Moore explains that Campus Martius, while not perfect, is certainly a big departure for Detroit and has the amenities that make it pleasant to be a pedestrian. "The human scale is something that we’ve missed the boat on in Detroit development. Campus Martius incorporates design elements which work."

He points to the sea of randomly placed chairs, scattered throughout Campus Martius. "See there, over by the fountain? You’ll notice that the chairs are more likely to be turned around facing the water within a couple of feet. Most fixed benches would be placed some distance from the fountain, but having the freedom to move these chairs gives you the option to go right up to the water."

It is hard to overstate this idea. Providing an amenity where people feel like they are being honored and empowered is not typically a Detroit response to the public realm. For many years, any street furniture that could walk would be bolted down as if to say, "We can’t trust you." Campus Martius is a welcome departure from that mentality.

And for that, we are grateful.

Washington Boulevard redux

Just up Michigan Avenue three blocks from Campus Martius is Washington Boulevard, is in the process of "rediscovering itself."

The makeover – with new tall light fixtures, flower boxes and a grassy median – harkens back to the 1920s, when the once-grand boulevard was intended to be Detroit’s answer to New York’s Fifth Avenue and Chicago’s Michigan Avenue.

The real estate tycoon brothers JB, Herbert and Frank Book realized a good portion of their dream to develop a "Fifth Avenue of the Midwest" with their own Book Building, Book Tower, Book-Cadillac Hotel, as well as the numerous other finely constructed buildings, such as the David Whitney Building and Statler Hotel.

As the name suggests, Washington Boulevard once was a landscaped divided roadway, with a formally landscaped tree-lined median and wide sidewalks to accommodate the onslaught of foot traffic. For more than five decades, it was the home to some of Detroit’s most fashionable emporia, from jewelers to furriers to haberdashers.

As Detroit declined and shopping moved out with the suburban exodus in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, city planners envisioned a new life for Washington Boulevard. This version of the boulevard was not a boulevard at all: The eastern half of the street was closed and remade as a series of public spaces that allowed for a range of activities, both active and passive.

Many derided the 1970s red metal construction that framed Washington Boulevard as the "tinker toys" or the playscape. Others said it was doomed to failure and called it an ill-conceived murderer of remaining commercial activity along Washington Boulevard because it cut down access to the east side of the street.

The '70s makeover might have been more successful in another city, Hubbell says. "If we weren’t so car dependent and had better access to mass transit, Washington Boulevard would have been OK," he says.

This redesign has a better balance for foot and car traffic, Hubbell says. "The proportions are right and work well together. Also, the details are good, with the historical streetlight replacement lamps lending a pedestrian scale and added beauty."

The transformation is about more than just historical reproductions or pretty planter boxes, Moore says.

"Feeling good in a city is about a city looking good and taking care of itself. Just being clean and well maintained is huge. Having storefronts that are actively programmed helps tremendously, too," he says. "It’s about promoting that sense of cared for urban place that can make all of the difference in terms of someone’s positive experience in the city."

I couldn't agree more.

From the ground up

Detroit could improve by additional leaps and bounds if it focused more on the little things, like valuing the experiences of people on the ground, first and foremost. Campus Martius and Washington Boulevard are doing just that.

At their most basic, visceral level, cities are about human interaction and shared experience. Cities are our communal places and spaces, formed by the sum of hundreds and thousands of cumulative decisions over the span of decades and centuries.

If there are any lessons to be learned about what makes a good urban experience, a certain theme would be that developers, planners and politicians should put people before anything else, especially cars.

The more we value the act of being in the city in our human element, and designing for people, the more value the city has as an expression of ourselves. The more value, the more resources. The more resources in play, the better off your Motown will be.

And maybe we'll be able to buy a few more chairs.

This piece originally appeared in 2005. Francis Grunow is still a Midtown resident and contributor to Model D, and he still has faith in the power of little things. Reach him here.

Photos copyright Dave Krieger
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