The Road Back


In the 1950s, the definition of success in metro Detroit and across the country was owning a home in the suburbs. Everyone, it seems, wanted a bigger slice of the planet.

But the American dream of having a four-bedroom colonial in a neighborhood where the developer named all the streets after the trees that had been cut down had its price. Utility lines had to be extended, pollution levels went up and, in the case of metro Detroit, commuter rail transit was replaced by freeways.

We had our elbowroom, but we lost our cultural identity. By 1985, downtown districts such as Royal Oak, Birmingham, and Rochester were overshadowed by a growing number of suburban shopping malls, strip centers, and palatial office complexes. And getting anywhere — a restaurant, a hardware store, an apparel boutique — required a trip in the car. The result? We typically lived in three bubbles: the suburban home, the suburban office center, and the vehicle we traveled in. We slept the rest of the time.

Downtown Detroit became an afterthought. It was a place where you went to conduct business, but rarely visited to take in anything else (plus, recall that the riverfront was a mess, with little to offer). And if you didn’t live in the suburbs, well, you really didn’t live anywhere. It didn’t help Detroit that then Mayor Coleman A. Young used Eight Mile Road as a racial border dividing the central city and its suburbs. But as long as home values increased every year, not much was going to change.

By 2005, the bubble burst. Home prices began to fall, fueled, in part, by lax mortgage oversight. Gas prices started to rise, jumping to almost $4 a gallon in the summer of 2008. Right around the corner was the global financial meltdown. We’ve been playing catch-up ever since.

Some community leaders, however, saw the writing on the wall.

“The tide began to change (in 1996) when downtown districts began to adopt New Urbanism standards that enhanced our sense of place,” says H. William Freeman, a partner in the law firm of Freeman Cotton & Gleeson in Bloomfield Hills, and an expert in real estate law. “Downtown Birmingham was among the first, bringing in planners Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk to develop a 20-year master plan that called for building within an appropriate urban scale and promoting walkability.”

Today, our downtown districts are coming back as new residents find the conveniences of living, working, and playing in an urban setting irresistible, if not highly efficient and more green. We’ve stopped moving outward, and we’ve learned that there are added costs to living too far out.