How Detroiters are reimagining public space, one g...

How Detroiters are reimagining public space, one garden, streetlight and patio at a time

Filling in the gap between what residents deserve and what the city provides is something of a Detroit tradition, for better or worse.

oudolf garden planting belle isle

Photo of Oudolf Garden planting on Belle Isle. Credit: Ryan Southen Photography

Across Detroit, changes are sprouting up in green and public spaces. Within those growing gardens, new drinking patios and guerrilla road projects, there’s an underlying tension between the people who live in a city and the systems of power that regulate the built environment. Recent protests against racial injustice have called attention to the ways overpolicing restricts use of public space, but changing the urban environment is always political, and the pandemic has only underscored the role residents play in shaping the city.

Nowhere is that more evident than in a recent call to action from a group of Grosse Pointe Park residents to remove the obstacles at the city’s border with Detroit. “Like the infamous 1947 Birwood Wall in Detroit, they represent visible lines of demarcation,” Bianca Garcia, Graig Donnelly and Frank Joyce wrote in an op-ed for BridgeDetroit. “For us, the barriers reflect an old way of thinking in the Pointes. They are not just symbolic like a Confederate statue.  They restrict access and they send a you-are-not-welcome message” to Black Detroiters seeking entry to the majority white, wealthy suburb.

The writers suggest a philanthropist could fund removal of the road blockades, or City Council could allocate money from the city budget for the project. Or, they propose a third way: “Give us your time, your labor, your backhoes, your shovels, your wheelbarrows, your trucks and your support. This fall, one hard working weekend on Alter and one on Mack to get the project started. Then remove all the rest in the spring — the traditional time of new beginnings.”

Does removing those blockades sound entirely legal? No, but that’s not an accident. Citizen-led urban interventions — sometimes called tactical urbanism — are often outside the law. They reflect the difficulty of making grassroots changes under rules that don’t serve residents and frustration with inaction from public officials — and can also present a blueprint for change.

Near Detroit’s northern border, a group of parents in the Green Acres neighborhood recently bought and installed a speed hump to force drivers ducking traffic on major thoroughfares to slow down on Lichfield Street. Multiple residents asked officials for traffic calming measures. When that didn’t work, they DIYed the project.

The city’s Public Works Department removed the speed hump a few days later — but earlier this month, workers came back and installed a city-sanctioned one on Lichfield. And yesterday, Mayor Mike Duggan announced an expansion of the speed hump pilot program, with plans to install 4,500 more next year (adding to the 1,775 installed in 2018-2020). The Green Acres parents might not have done it the “right” way, but their way got it done.

With pandemic-fueled urgency and political will, it’s become obvious that city code doesn’t have to be a barrier to changing things up. In a matter of months, the city created a new program to make it easier for restaurants to serve on the sidewalk and to get street closing permits. Those relaxed restrictions serve businesses, but they also serve people searching for new, safe ways to gather. Sidewalks and vacant lots have become places where loitering is encouraged, whether all along the Avenue of Fashion, where Live6 donated patio furniture to businesses on the strip; outside Bodega Cat in Southwest, where an organic parking lot tailgating spot sparked crowdfunding to create a gathering space; or in East English Village, where residents’ desire for a neighborhood shopping spot led to a community group starting a weekly farmers and retail market.

Filling in the gap between what residents deserve and what the city provides is something of a Detroit tradition, for better or worse — whether neighbor-led initiatives to prevent dumping in vacant lots, mow untended parks, secure vacant homes or clear snow from alleys and sidewalks. In her book “DIY Detroit: Making Do in a City Without Services,” academic Kimberly Kinder catalogues pre-bankruptcy, resident-led interventions in the property market, public works and public safety that were borne out of necessity. She cautions against idealizing those efforts, describing “self-provisioning in response to disinvestment” as “a weapon of the weak” — aka, Detroiters who don’t have the power to hold the city to account or spur structural reforms. But despite that grim characterization, “collective stewardship” meant “people took charge of gray space and inscribed it with new forms, functions and ethics.”

Rendering of We Lit Avalon! solar street-lighting and public mesh wifi project, currently seeking crowdfunding.

In Highland Park, which has suffered even worse disinvestment than Detroit, the eco-community Avalon Village is crowdfunding to build five solar-powered streetlights (DTE Energy repossessed the city’s streetlights in 2011). But rather than solely replacing a city service through private funding, the crowdfunded streetlights will also serve as a free public mesh wifi network. When residents steer urban design, they envision infrastructure that serves and sustains neighborhoods.

Even more institutionally supported projects can have a radical edge — like the Oudolf Garden on Belle Isle, where planting began late last month. Acclaimed Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf’s garden, intricately designed with native perennials and grasses, is springing up in a spot previously used as grandstands for the Belle Isle Grand Prix, an event that has been criticized for restricting public access to the island.

“When [Oudolf] saw this grass space in the middle of what we call the heart of the cultural district of Belle Isle, he’s the one who had us stop the car, and he said, here’s where my garden should go,” Oudolf Garden Detroit member Maura Campbell told Detroit Is It. “He says, ‘I build gardens to bring people in; I don’t build gardens to keep people out.’”

Resident-led urbanism is about so much more than (still valuable) space for recreation, entertainment and shopping, something corporate versions of placemaking often miss. It imagines a city where residents can be safe, healthy, housed and fed, just as a starting point. Like the project from Wayne State students Alyssa Rogers and Emily Eicher — they collaborated with the owner of a lot at West Vernor and Morrell in Southwest to install a community fridge for people to take the food they need and share what they can. Criticism aside, we’ve been expecting a Detroiter to jump on this beneficial bandwagon — and here’s some guidance if you’re thinking about putting one in your own neighborhood.

Because “in your own neighborhood” is really the point here. What do you and your neighbors need and want? You could talk to your City Council rep or find a foundation to fund it — and maybe it’s something you shouldn’t have to fight for. But sometimes, you can round up a few friends and shovels and reshape Detroit space to serve Detroiters with your own two hands.

Kate Abbey-Lambertz is the co-founder and editorial director for Detour Media. She leads editorial strategy for the signature Detour Detroit newsletter, The Blend and special projects, while shaping Detour’s membership program, audience development initiatives and design. Kate was previously a national reporter at HuffPost, where she covered equitable cities and urban issues. She launched HuffPost’s Detroit vertical, serving as reporter and editor, and has reported on Detroit for a decade. Follow her on Twitter: @kabbeyl