Walk with us, part 3: the lay of the land

This is the third in a four-part series co-authored by Kimberly Williamson and Matthew Piper exploring walkability and the El Moore.

So far in our series, we’ve looked at how walkable life will be for residents of the El Moore and explored the myriad benefits of walkable neighborhoods, from the individual to the social to the environmental. This time, we’re considering walkability in the Motor City more generally, a subject that, as you might expect, provides plenty of opportunity for frustration and discouragement — but also for hope.

Last month, Model D reported that Detroit’s “walk score,” a leading metric of cities’ walkability, had risen 2.2 points since 2011, to 52.2, making it the 18th most walkable big city in the country. That’s some good news, relatively speaking, for those of us who advocate for a more walkable Detroit. But as the article mentions, what’s motivating the change is development in Detroit’s bourgeoning downtown (and in our neighborhood, Midtown). But what about the rest of the city, which still struggles with the ravages of widespread disinvestment and decline? We recently sat down with local urbanist (and avid Detroit walker) Francis Grunow for his take on the state of walkability in Detroit more widely.

The reality: we’re already walking

Detroit, as we all know, became a city built for cars, and driving is, at this point, a powerful habit for its residents. When it comes to getting from here to there, even traveling across relatively short distances, getting in the car and driving is many Detroiters’ first instinct. But despite this, Francis emphasizes, many people do walk here. It’s just that, as a rule, they walk when they have to walk: because they can’t afford a car, because the busses are unreliable. “So people do walk,” he says, but, through auto-focused thinking and decision-making, “we make that experience untenable.” Anyone who’s spent much time walking in Detroit knows what Francis is talking about: desolate parking lot landscapes, dangerously wide streets, derelict highway crossings at a dehumanizing scale….

Photo 2010 by Linda on Flickr

Francis tells us that when walking in the New Center last winter, he happened upon an area of the sidewalk that had been made completely inaccessible by a huge mound of snow — snow that been plowed out of the way of motorists but plopped right in the middle of the pedestrian right-of-way. He got around it by walking in the street and then through an alley, following a long divot made by the feet of dozens of pedestrians — people who, like Francis, had had to navigate around the snow mound and who had collectively forged their own pedestrian passage.

The challenge: design for cars or design for people?

Auto-oriented development is a hard habit to break. Francis speaks of decades of “missed opportunities, over and over again,” in Detroit in which city government, private developers, and even car-happy citizens advanced suburban-style, auto-centric developments instead of working toward more typically urban, pedestrian-scale places. Citing the Meijer store recently built on the west side, with its sprawling, suburban-style parking lot along the street that, he points out, you’d never see in a city like Chicago, Francis says, “You’re never going to make a compelling place if all you do is recreate things that are going on in 50 miles in every direction.”

And while we continue to suffer in Detroit from what Francis refers to as “impoverished thinking” when it comes to development that considers the needs of pedestrians, the good news, as he sees it, is that more and more people here seem to be getting around to asking a fundamental question: “What’s more important, me in the world or my car in the world? And if it’s about me in the world, these decisions are not that hard to make. People have been making them in other places for decades. And it’s also important for people to understand that it’s not either/or. It’s not like the cars will go away if you make a nice way to walk.”

The future: taking steps together

When we ask Francis what he thinks about the prospect of a more walkable Detroit more generally, he answers, after a sigh, “It’s really hard.” To be considered walkable, as we explored in our first post, a neighborhood needs to have a variety of different places to, well, walk to. In addition to the mental shift mentioned above, there’s the additional challenge that the level of disinvestment in so many Detroit neighborhoods means that it’ll take a long time — decades, likely — to build back up to the extent that more people will choose to get out and about on foot. And then (as if we needed another challenge!), there is the problem of knitting these neighborhoods together, so that the walkable “edge” keeps being pushed farther.

But, he points out, there is intentional movement in the direction of walkability in a handful of neighborhoods besides downtown and Midtown. He mentions the Vernor and Springwells corridors in southwest Detroit, Jefferson East, the Villages, North Rosedale Park — places where the streetscape is intact and where local leadership is committed to making decisions that promote and support walkability.

SW streetscape.jpg
Springwells & Vernor in SW Detroit

And for the rest of the city? Francis’s last point is about inclusion. It’s about how the high-profile walkability of downtown and Midtown can act as a catalyst for the rest of the Detroit, instead of functioning as a divisive symbol of those neighborhoods’ exceptionalism.

He speaks of the opportunity we have in the more pedestrian-friendly areas of the city to share the experience of walkability with all Detroiters, so that they are inspired to envision and advocate for street-scale urbanism in their own neighborhoods. Describing a common Detroit small business scene, Francis paints a picture of a business “in a building that’s been all bricked up for 50 years and people drive in and you buzz them in in the back. This messes with your idea of what commerce can be. ‘Oh, putting stuff in the display window encourages people to buy it, not steal it.’ These are fundamental ideas, and there are hundreds of miles of opportunity in the city for that kind of thing, but they may have to start in these seven miles or so to be understood here. When it catches on, it’ll be like, ‘Oh! Oh! Of course!’ But those people will have to experience it, too. They’ll have to be in this realm and see that business is done in this way so they can take it back to their neighborhoods, to their friends and families.”