Letter from the Editor: Green Room

R.J. King
R.J. King

Spring is around the corner, and even COVID-19 can’t stop the advance of warmer weather. In fact, nature is stronger than anything we can imagine.

Since Detroit was founded in 1701, we have covered acres of land for homes, buildings, roads, and infrastructure, often with the idea that Mother Nature could somehow be tamed. But she doesn’t let up. Sun, wind, rain, ice, and snow come in steady cycles, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.

Rather than fight nature, we should more fully embrace its reinvigorating powers. As more people venture outdoors again, it’s clear that wide open spaces will be preferred over dense, urban settings. Consider last summer, as the pandemic raged across the land, northern Michigan residences and resorts experienced a surge in usage and patronage. Downtown districts, however, didn’t fare as well.

For years, cities have invested millions of dollars to transform fairly staid concrete environs into lively entertainment and recreational zones. Propelled by private and public investment, Plymouth, Northville, Rochester, Utica, Grosse Pointe, Detroit, and other downtown districts have added or enhanced their streetscapes, parks, fountains, landscaping treatments, and all manner of sports, educational, and entertainment venues and settings.

But what good are the improvements today if fewer people can enjoy them? To restore the adoration and usage of urban squares, new planning and infrastructure goals should be adopted that embrace nature like never before.

Champs-Élysées rendering
Age Of Enlightenment: A reimagined design of the Champs-Élysées in Paris. // Rendering courtesy of Philippe Chiambaretta Architecte, Paris

For example, even with all of the improvements in downtown Detroit over the last two decades — three new stadiums, a revived theater district, new shops and restaurants, enhanced casinos, and more office and living spaces — the central business district is still a concrete jungle. Yes, places like Campus Martius Park, Capitol Park, Cadillac Square, and the riverfront have been greatly improved, but now we need more green room to attract people.

Streets should be redesigned for a new age of safety, well-being, and autonomous mobility. On the latter point, as more vehicles become part of a connected infrastructure of sensors that will confine vehicle and pedestrian traffic to dedicated lanes, there’s a huge opportunity to add larger sidewalks filled with gardens, statues, fountains, playgrounds, art exhibits, and year-round store and restaurant sheds.

Speaking of sidewalks, as autonomous and connected vehicles become more widespread, do we need traditional traffic lanes, bicycle paths, sidewalks, and curb cuts anymore? Or are we at an inflection point where smart planning will lead to a new age of urban and suburban enjoyment that extends to streets and alleys?

To peer into the future of urban infrastructure design, explore the transformational study of the Champs-Élysées in Paris by Philippe Chiambaretta Architects, or PCA-Stream. The firm transformed the famous avenue into a lively promenade that embraces multimodal transportation needs, reduces nuisances like noise and heat, and improves air quality and overall well-being. The study, along with an engaging video, can be accessed at https://bit.ly/3cR8I0C.

Rather than stick with what’s worked in the past, our gathering places should be, as the study notes, “an urban laboratory bringing together researchers and (planners) in order to create more sustainable, desirable, and inclusive cities.”

— R.J. King, rjking@dbusiness.com

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