5 ideas for creating public spaces for everyone in Detroit

What are Detroit's most welcoming public spaces? Ask any random Detroiter and it's likely they'll list the Detroit RiverWalk and Eastern Market, both widely cherished, yet markedly different, places where the people of metro Detroit congregate. So what makes them so successful at bringing people together?

It was that question that brought a diverse and curious group of people to the DNR Outdoor Adventure Center on a rainy Wednesday, Nov. 18, for "Where Detroit Comes Together: What We Can Learn from Eastern Market and the Riverfront," a Model D Speaker Series event.

The discussion was moderated by Chad Rochkind, principal of design firm Human Scale Studio, and featured a panel that included Dan Carmody, president of Eastern Market Corporation; Ceara O'Leary, designer at the Detroit Collaborative Design Center; and Mark Wallace and William Smith, respectively the president/CEO and chief financial officer of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy.

Here are a few takeaways from the event for those planning, managing, or simply using public spaces in Detroit.

Ask the people what they want.

Public space is useless without users, so it's important to get input from the public during the design process.

"We were very intentional in asking people what they wanted to see," said Mark Wallace about the Riverfront Conservancy's initial discussions with people when it was first considering building the Riverwalk 10 years ago. "We hosted over 100 meetings before a shovel entered the ground."

Eastern Market has been around for over 120 years, so it has the ability to learn from people who already use its spaces. As a part of their visioning process for the next 20 years, Market officials  and design consultants have been busy talking to the diverse group of people who use the space to inform their plans.

"From truck drivers to retailers to people who drive down for Flower Day, one of the greatest things about Eastern Market is that it has such a diverse group of stakeholders," says O'Leary.

Programming and management of public spaces are as important as design.

When it comes to public spaces, design matters. Need proof? Take a stroll through the concrete hardscape of Hart Plaza on your way to the RiveWalk and notice the difference between the two spaces. Yet as important as design is, the programming and management of public spaces are just as valuable.

"We talk about getting design right, but it's really important to get a 50/50 balance between programming and management," Dan Carmody told the audience. Eastern Market has done this by offering a wide variety of events and programs ancillary to its core services, the daily wholesale market and weekly retail market on Saturdays.

At the Riverfront Conservancy, Mark Wallace and his team are trying to shift from being a programming driver to a programming host. "We want people to bring the party to us," he said.

Embrace (and be wary of) "authenticity."

"Authenticity" is a buzzword that's bandied in conversations about urban spaces. But what does it mean, exactly? It's really a matter of interpretation.

For the folks at Eastern Market, being "authentic" simply means that the market continues to be itself -- a year-round public market and food neighborhood.

For the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, pursuing "authenticity" on the Riverwalk would be folly. "For us, 'authenticity' would mean cement factories on the riverfront," said Wallace, referring to the space's long history as a place where heavy manufacturing, from ship building to the making of rubber tires, took place.

That said, the Conservancy is interested in new ways of celebrating its long history, including installing markers that honor the river's legacy in manufacturing, as well as its role in the Underground Railroad. Eastern Market, too, is interested in celebrating its history. The organization plans to start by collecting oral histories from market-goers and vendors.

Embrace informal uses of public spaces (within reason).

Since the state took control of Belle Isle, many of the park's users don't feel as welcome on the island as they did when it was managed by the city. Carmody has noticed an uptick of activity at the market on weekend evenings he attributes to the changes on Belle Isle. He referred to what he calls the "Friday Evening Gentleman's Club," a weekly informal gathering at Shed 5 where men park their cars, sip out of brown paper bags, and enjoy each other's company. While the market doesn't necessarily encourage that kind of activity, it embraces it. "Those are wonderful uses of the market we don't try to discourage," said Carmody.

Don't let a space become a victim of its own success.

According to William Smith, the area along Detroit's riverfront has experienced over $1 billion worth of investment in the last decade. With such investments come development pressures, but the RiverFront has no plans to change it's core function of serving as an amenity to all Detroiters. "We went very hard on the safe and inviting aspects of our design," said Wallace.

For Carmody, tenant mix is an important part of Eastern Market's ability to remain welcoming to all. "We're not going to become an upscale foodie hall," he said. "There will be that element here, but there will also be food for everyone. I spent most of my career in downtown development trying to get owners make their rust-bucket storefronts look like buildings you see in Birmingham, but I realized that if we do that in Eastern Market, we could lose up to 30 percent of our customer base because they no longer feel welcome."

"Where Detroit Comes Together" was a part of "10 Years of Change," Model D's year-long series celebrating its decade of publishing in Detroit. Read other stories in the series here. Support for "10 Years of Change" is provided by the Hudson Webber Foundation.

Matthew Lewis is Model D's managing editor. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjlew.

All photos by Doug Coombe. To view more photos from the event, click here.
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Read more articles by Matthew Lewis.

Matthew Lewis is a writer and former managing editor of Model D. He's currently the communications officer for the New Economy Initiative.