Sunday, January 4, 2009

Detroit - Part IV (Quasi-Burbs)

Quasi-suburbs are areas in a city that bare little resemblance to modern suburbs but function in much the same way. The main difference between these pre-WWII developments and their post-WWII counterparts is the lack of intended isolation. Quasi-suburbs have through-streets and easy to navigate street grids. Their commercial areas are separate from their residential areas and they emphasize greenspace and moderate density. They contain too few people for a city and too many for a suburb. 95% of Detroit was once made up of these places.

After the construction of the highway system in the 1950's, the white flight, the riots, the drugs, the attempts at "urban renewal" and the lack of money for upkeep, these neighborhoods were left decimated. The following pictures are from the Brush Park area--very close to downtown--and show three adjacent blocks.
This is a typical view in Detroit. A handful of abandoned buildings, a handful of occupied buildings, all sitting in the middle of a field. It is a stark reminder of the wealth that some in Detroit once enjoyed. We can take a look at the two development options these places face.

The next block over would have been better off left alone. It was cleared to make way for a new development. This is the very worst of suburban design. Fences are installed to keep people out and trees to keep their eyes out. The basement fill is dumped around the perimeter to act as a further barrier. It is as if this place is not in Detroit at all. Its inhabitants are discouraged from venturing into the city.
The only benefit these people derive from their residential location is a reduced commute. Other than the taxes they pay, they offer little to the vibrancy of the city. This is the sort of development that New Urbanism rightfully decries.

The street in the other direction is much improved but still insufficient. Decaying houses on this block have been restored to their former grandeur and new townhouses are being constructed to match the character of the existing block.
This is a special place and its residents seem well aware as evidenced by their well cared for homes and gardens. But as the area around it improves, it will become less unique and its lack of vibrancy will begin to emerge as black hole, sucking out younger generations who won't be able to avoid noticing the lack of activity.

This area is close enough to downtown that it is conceivable that it could support a healthy intermingling of commercial and residential space but it is unlikely that the neighborhood association will want anything but a return to the old days. This sort of place is the type championed by the New Urbanists--visibly urban yet functionally suburban.

There is something else going on in Detroit, something entirely different. I'll get a post up about it a bit later on tonight.

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