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Detroit Revitalization Fellow: Dara O'Byrne

Detroit Fellowship on Belle Isle
Detroit Fellowship on Belle Isle
Dara O’Byrne grew up in Grosse Pointe Park but found her calling in the City of Detroit. She had been passionate about environmental issues throughout her childhood and after high school won a cancer research internship at Wayne State University.

"That's where I got engaged in the urban environment," O’Byrne says. "It just made sense that one way to save the environment was to improve the way we create our cities." That idea stuck with her while studying Environmental Policy and Behavior at the University of Michigan, and then informed her work at the Northwest Environmental Education Council after moving to Seattle.  

Detroit stuck with her, too. When she and her boyfriend decided to get married, they flew home from the West Coast to hold the wedding at Belle Isle.  Back in Seattle, O’Byrne enrolled in a Master's program at the University of Washington's Department of Urban Design and Planning where she says, "my passion for planning was still focused on Detroit."

Yet she and her husband also loved living in Seattle, "where almost everything we needed was right in our neighborhood within walking distance." They discussed staying permanently, but when their daughter was born it seemed time to move back to Detroit.

O’Byrne was then a planner with MAKERS architecture, an urban planning and design firm where she helped cities, counties and neighborhoods throughout the Puget Sound region create more sustainable communities. She hoped to do something similar back home. 

That opportunity arose through the Detroit Revitalization Fellows program -- a Wayne State University project (funded by Kresge FoundationFord FoundationHudson-Webber Foundation, the Skillman Foundation and Wayne State) that matches rising professionals with organizations working at the forefront of Detroit revitalization efforts. O'Byrne is one of 29 Fellows, chosen from a field of 647 applicants from across the country.

She’s now working with the City's Planning and Development Department to update design standards for commercial streets as part of the effort to revitalize Detroit’s neighborhoods. Restoring the walkability and strong neighborhood retail that Detroit once enjoyed is part of the plan. "We need more pockets of urban villages -- residential density paired with commercial density throughout the city."

Detroit’s famously wide streets pose a challenge to creating a pedestrian-friendly environment, she says. "But if we start to re-envision these streets as more than just for moving cars -- widening sidewalks, adding bike lanes, planting street trees -- we can have more of these kind of neighborhoods." 

This is key to O'Byrne's vision of keeping and attracting families in urban areas, which was the subject of her Master's thesis. "This is important to people my age. A lot of people I knew in college have moved to places like Chicago, Boston, and Seattle because you can raise families in dense, walkable neighborhoods with all of the desirable urban amenities nearby."  

This is part of the reason O’Byrne and her family chose to live in West Village. It is just three miles from downtown and has easy access to Belle Isle and the Riverfront. West Village is also becoming more walkable with new businesses and restaurants slated to open this summer. "But it's really the people that have made West Village feel like home," says O'Byrne. "We have wonderful neighbors and we have connected with a lot of other young families in the neighborhood, which has made us feel like we are part of a great community."  She also loves being close to family, with her sister living just a few blocks away, a brother-in-law living downtown, and parents living in nearby suburbs.   

Detroit's changed a lot in the years she's been gone, reports O'Byrne. "Midtown was not the hot spot it is now. When I worked there after high school, there were very few places to go out for lunch. It wasn’t even called Midtown." 

"People are fiercely proud of Detroit," she says. "Even newcomers, and people like me who moved away, we are proud to call this city home."

Jay Walljasper, author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, is a Senior Associate with Citiscope and Senior Fellow with Project for Public Spaces.
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