Mind the Gap: Detroit design ideas for those in-between public spaces

"We shape our public spaces, thereafter, our public spaces shape us." - Winston Churchill

Wyatt, an eigth grade student at the School for Creative Studies, wants to turn the unused railway tracks behind Michigan Central Station into a pathway with gardens, fountains, sculpture and seating. Adrienne wants to fill the Rosa Parks Transit Center and city buses with poetry to promote literacy. David wants to turn his alley garage into a neighborhood gathering place.

These were some of the dozens of submissions to Mind the Gap, a public design ideas competition for “in-between” spaces in Detroit. The project was part of the first-ever Detroit Design Festival presented last week by the Detroit Creative Corridor Center.

The premise of the competition was this: We are all designers of our public realm. Every day we walk by vacant spaces in the city – dark alleys, empty surface parking lots, boarded-up storefronts. What if we imagined them filled with people and activity instead of sitting there looking all sad and sorry? What could we see?

Architects and planners call these spaces the "missing teeth" in our urban fabric. As buildings are torn down or abandoned, our streetscapes take on a gap-toothed appearance. Sometimes it's the smallest slivers of space that can make the difference between a vibrant, walkable neighborhood and a place that feels uninviting or unsafe. 

So we asked Detroiters to share creative ways to help stitch our urban fabric back together. Sure enough, people responded with dozens of really great ideas.

A skate park in a vacant lot. A playground filled with life-size games. A colorful light installation in a dark alley. A freeway turned into a greenway. A former train line turned into a bike trail.

Some submissions – like a cricket field in a surface parking lot, or a raw food bar in a downtown skybridge -- live only in someone’s lovely imagination.  Others – like an alley art gallery in Southwest Detroit, or a sculpture garden in New Center -- are real projects underway in the city. 

All are clever ways to transform empty or underutilized spaces into public places that people can use and enjoy. To see the top 21 ideas submitted, click here.

These ideas, both real and imagined, demonstrate the importance of public space -- not just for a "pretty" city, but for a city that values civic engagement and the exchange of ideas. As the legendary urban activist Jane Jacobs once said: "We do need places to come together. Casual encounters with one another are important in learning trust.”

Last week, Bradford Frost addressed this little matter of trust in an eloquent op-ed for the Detroit Free Press. He called for “safe space” and dialogue to forge relationships and find common cause in our sprawling and segregated region. 

“Safe space” could mean all manner of things – from community meetings to the pages of our local newspapers. It can also mean physical places that allow for casual encounters, conversation and play.

Think about it: Any time we go to Eastern Market to shop, or to our local community gardens to till the soil, magic things can happen. We meet our neighbors. We discuss art and politics. We work together, we dream together, we share ideas and solutions.

This can happen over a pint at a neighborhood biergarten, or in between sets of live music in a storefront performance space. Finding common ground doesn’t always have to be as formal as attending a town hall meeting once a month, or casting a vote once a year. We are citizens every day. 

Lately, we have seen several great examples of Detroiters re-activating the connective tissue in our public realm: artists collaborating with building owners to fill empty walls and windows, residents pooling tools and labor to maintain public parks. In times of diminished resources, we can’t always count on government to mind the gaps. Sometimes we have to do it ourselves. 

In exchange, we ask property owners to work with us. Together, we can activate dormant places that divide when they could connect. Often, there are low-cost solutions to design and program spaces for a higher, better community use. Mind the Gap shows that there is no shortage of great ideas to bring city spaces to life.

Claire Nelson is the organizer of Mind the Gap and an avid alley-walker in Midtown Detroit. An exhibit of competition submissions can be seen at Bureau of Urban Living through Oct. 15. 

Photos from top to bottom:
Laundry Light Project by Becky Nix, bioLINIA
Woodward Windows, photo by Vanessa Miller
Alley Wine by David Knapp
Fisher Greenway by David Knapp
Dinner in Green Alley in Midtown Detroit, photo by Lisa Meshew
United Bar by David Shock appears as a thumb on the Model D homepage

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Read more articles by Claire Nelson.

Claire Nelson is the founder of Urban Consulate, a network of parlors for urban exchange. Most days you can find her in Detroit or New Orleans.