Walkable City: Get On Your Feet, Detroit

It's one of those warmish spring days that are like crystal -- bright and shiny with sprinkles of sparkle bobbing up from the Detroit River -- and the pedestrian traffic milling on the RiverWalk looks optimistic.

This little patch of idyll on this completed stretch of the RiverWalk is where Detroit resident and middle school teacher Khristina Scruggs, 25, sits on a bench reading without sunglasses.

"I walk through the Downtown, and of course the riverfront," she says, but she's quick with a response to whether there are a lot of other areas in Detroit that she fines walkable. "Not nearly enough," she says.

Walkability in Detroit comes in pockets -- often parts of the East Riverfront, Midtown, Greektown, Southwest Detroit, Eastern Market, Hamtramck and Downtown areas. But new efforts are in the works to expand those areas, and link the pockets to create more safe, well-maintained places for people to bike, walk, blade or board through town.

Next big things

The next big thing is the Dequindre Cut, a walking and biking path that dips below street level and lies on a stretch of abandoned rail line. The path will link the Riverfront area, Layfayette Park and Eastern Market. It officially opens May 14. (Model D will host its speaker series that day, too, discussing bikes and trails in the city. Check the next issue for details.)

David Knapp, a Detroit resident and architect with Albert Kahn and Associates, says that while projects like the Dequindre Cut are a good start, true walkability in Detroit is a long way off. "I think it's one of worst walkable cities," he says. "There are pockets, but these pockets are too scattered."

A better public transit system would help, he says. While he points to the East Riverfront area, Downtown, Southwest Detroit and Hamtramck as having nice walkability, without a mass transit system to help link it together, a truly walkable city isn't likely. Even something as simple as a shuttle linking downtown with Detroit Metro Airport would bring more foot traffic to the city, he says.

For Knapp, good ideas can't be the only ingredient in a pedestrian-friendly cocktail. You need one part diversity, another part density, a splash of aesthetic sensibility and a great big heap of public investment.

Scruggs also would also put safety and appearance in that mix. She says if people don't feel safe, they won't walk in many areas of Detroit. The collection of abandoned factories and buildings -- relics of an era built on a faded industrial dream -- that dot the city's landscape don't help things, she adds. "You don't want to walk looking over your shoulder."

Good bones

But here is where the city runs into a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg situation: Creating more walkable areas in Detroit might bring more people, but it's the lack of people in some parts of the city that makes walkability such a hard-to-reach goal.

"I think what we need in the city is more action," says Malik Goodwin, director of project management for the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. "You need to have a reason for people to want to walk."

There also needs to be more businesses and destination spots, like restaurants and nightclubs within the walkable hubs, he says, which is why business attraction and retention needs to be a top priority.

One respect in which the city is blessed, says Goodwin, is that its infrastructure is sound and has a unique street design and a generous mix of historic architecture for foot and bike travelers. "The street grid radiates," he says. "It offers people a chance to discover areas of the city they wouldn't see by automobile."

Sue Mosey, who heads Midtown's University Cultural Center Association, agrees. "The basics are here," she says. "We have many urban parks -- many need to be reclaimed and improved -- and we also have Belle Isle and now the RiverWalk. Other assets such as Eastern Market and the cultural institutions cannot be replicated and can all be incorporated into this type of system."

Mosey says streetscape improvements, such as the major ones UCCA has been spearheading in Midtown, are vital to creating a walking Detroit.

"You need density and an attractive streetscape to make folks want to get out and walk," she says. "Restoring the tree canopy in neighborhoods, adding, improving and maintaining parks, building greenways, adding bike lanes, improving sidewalks and lighting -- all are critical elements to making an area pedestrian friendly.

She also says little things like community gardens help, too, because they "encourage more neighborhood activity and engagement." (For more on Midtown's newest community garden, click here.)

Goodwin says the city is brimming with pedestrian potential. "Somebody once characterized it as having good bones," he says. "We just need to build upon that."

And the city is building. In addition to the Dequindre Cut, walkability-minded projects in the works include:
  • RiverWalk: About three miles of this pathway along the riverfront are complete, from Joe Louis to Gabriel Richard Park.
  • Greenway bike paths: One of the more visible projects is the Midtown Loop, which aims to provide a path around the cultural chunk of Detroit, and will begin construction this summer. Another is the Corktown-Mexicantown Greenlink, which recently got City Council approval. Construction is planned to start in the fall.
  • Woodward rail: A proposed 3.4-mile light rail system will run along Woodward from Hart Plaza to New Center.
Hey, it's the Ham Tram

The architects of Detroit's pedestrian-friendly future also may want to look at the City of Hamtramck, or as its Director of community and Economic Development Jason Friedmann calls it, "another neighborhood in Detroit."

In its 2.1-square-mile melange of cultures, business and residents, Hamtramck has the whole pedestrian thing down pat. Its 30,000 residents can walk to bars, restaurants, stores and places of worship.

"One of the things we have that's unique, along with Southwest Detroit, is the density," says Friedmann. "When we have a new store come in, we don't necessarily have to have more parking. Fifty percent of the residents do not drive.

"I think because of that, we've been able to attract more younger folks and more artistic folks."

Friedmann hopes a  revived bus-shuttle system will help attract even more of those types of folks. Though Friedmann is calling it the "Ham Tram," the project doesn't have an official name yet.

Two buses will loop Hamtramck, then make stops along Woodward, near the New Center area, and along points near Wayne State University. The plan is being funded by the city of Hamtramck, and Friedmann hopes it will attract more students to live there. The aim is to make the bus shuttles free or as close to free as possible. The shuttles are expected to start service in August, in time for Wayne State's fall semester, he says.

Suburbs to urban living

Walkability is important because it is part of what attracts people to a city.

Being in walking and People Mover distance from so many things to do was part of the draw for Glenn Pulice and his wife. The couple recently from Bloomfield Township recently left 1.4 acres of suburban affluence, shed a large chunk of their belongings (and Pulice calls that "liberating") and settled into a 1,700-square-foot loft near the Fox Theatre.

"We found ourselves downtown all the time, so we figured why not just move downtown?" he says. "There's so much going on."

He believes that with better public transit, more suburban dwellers will venture downtown -- some to live but more to play.

"To me, walkability is access to the entire locale of the city," he says. Look at cities like New York and Paris, he adds. They wouldn't be as walkable without the Metro or subway. "All those people are healthier," he says. "Even though they take the Metro, they take the Metro to walk."

Mosey, meanwhile, thinks the next decade will be crucial to whether Detroit becomes a pedestrian-friendly city or not.

"To make Detroit a more walkable city will require a substantial investment in more infrastructure, housing and commercial services and goods," she says. "It will be a work in progress for the next decade and with the right type of targeted investments, it will work here as it has worked in many other downtown areas across the country."

Megan Pennefather is a local freelance writer and contributor to Model D. Send feedback here.


On the Riverwalk, Detroit resident Kristine Scruggs

A couple on a morning ride under the Jefferson over pass on the Dequindre Cut

Warehouse District

On Monroe St. in Greektown

Hamtramck Welcome sign

Bars, restaurants and retail stores along Joseph Campau in Hamtramck

All photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.
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