Placemaking: Rebuilding Detroit and Its Neighborhoods by Design
Kemba Braynon, AIA
February 23, 2018
Although the dictionary has yet to include placemaking among its numerous entries, there is no shortage of definitions online. The Project for Public Spaces notes that “placemaking inspires people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of every community.” And Wikipedia describes placemaking as, “…a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces.”
The popular term has even inspired its fair share of critics who often note that placemaking has been around for decades, and has only enjoyed renewed popularity because of the ubiquitousness of unmemorable public spaces. But what does this term actually mean for those interested in creating dynamic public places in the heart of their community?
At its population peak in the 1950s, the city of Detroit had over 1.8 million residents and the built infrastructure to support them including single family homes, apartment complexes, schools, commercial districts, and places of worship. But the city’s population loss has had many casualties, most notably its residential neighborhoods. And at the heart of its neighborhoods are schools and their surrounding parks and playfields. In the last fifteen years, the city has closed down more than 100 schools, with more slated for future closure. One approach to address the trend was a community-based design project that invited residents to generate ideas for the adaptive reuse of shuddered schools in their neighborhoods.
The project started in 2009, during the height of public school closures, and focused on two vacant schools, one on the east side (Edmund Atkinson School) and one on the west side (Kosciusko Elementary School). The process started with a simple question: What would you like to see here in place of a vacant school building? The responses were surprisingly similar, given that the question was asked of two different communities divided by Detroit’s downtown. During the course of several meetings facilitated by architects, planners and historic preservationists, residents requested a multi-use community space that included edible gardens, recreational facilities, health clinics, continuing education, trade schools, and studios for dance, gymnastic, art, film, music and cooking.
LEFT: Kosciusko Elementary School
Located on the west side of Detroit, once served the Rouge Park neighborhood. It was constructed in 1955 and has been closed since 2007.
RIGHT: Edmund Atkinson School
Located on the east side of Detroit, is in the Krainz Woods neighborhood. The National Register-listed Atkinson School was constructed in 1927 and closed in 2007. It was purchased in 2010 and after a 6 million dollar renovation effort it reopened in 2010 as Legacy Charter Academy.
But reimaging and reinventing public spaces in the heart of our community necessitates action of some sort, which was the question that was raised during one of the final sessions. “Now what?” one of the residents asked. “Is there any money to actually build what we’ve designed?” And the unfortunate truth was that there wasn’t. The project’s focus was to generate ideas for the reuse of vacant school buildings, not to generate the financial means to implement them. But the exercise wasn’t entirely futile. A few years later, the city decided to encourage the development and reuse of dozens of vacant school buildings by amending the zoning code to permit additional uses of shuddered schools. I was invited to weigh in on the proposed text amendment, and I remembered the resident’s question of, “Now what?” Although the ideas generated during the community-based design project weren’t implemented, the collaborative process had generated a list of ideas for reusing vacant school buildings. And as a result, the community’s efforts were translated into actual zoning policy, permitting nineteen new uses of former school buildings.
There are numerous recent examples of not just designing but implementing the creation of public spaces in answer to the “Now what?” that can often leave us feeling discouraged. In neighborhoods throughout Detroit, vacant lots and alleys are being transformed into spaces that benefit the surrounding community.
In Poletown, volunteers helped to transform an overgrown outdoor space into a food market venue. On E. Vernor Hwy, Challenge Detroit Fellows created proposals on how to transform the vacant lot behind the Downtown Boxing Gym into a useable outdoor space with input from those affiliated with Downtown Boxing gym as well as local residents. Included in the designs were an outdoor classroom, stage for community programs and green water infrastructure to help with storm water run-off.
Perhaps the most wide-ranging example of placemaking currently taking place in the City of Detroit is the city-based neighborhood revitalization effort which has reached over 60 residential neighborhoods. Quinn Evans Architects is pleased to be involved in two of the neighborhood revitalization projects in the City of Detroit—Islandview/Greater Villages and Jefferson Chalmers. And while each effort is as unique as the neighborhood it encompasses, the general strategies are focused on commercial corridor improvement, green storm water infrastructure, rehab development and historic preservation. While architects and planners are involved in the city-wide neighborhood revitalization effort, input from the residents themselves plays a major role in defining the future vision of each community. At the heart of each neighborhood effort is the coordination of planning with existing community groups and residents tasked with providing innovative solutions for making livable and vibrant spaces that the city can implement.
Even Belle Isle, one of the most well-utilized outdoor spaces in the city, has benefited from placemaking efforts. In recent years, community reflection sessions and collaboration between non-profits, city, and state agencies has helped to shape the direction of restoration efforts on the island park, including the re-opening of the Belle Isle Aquarium, the revitalization of the north beachfront, and the restoration of numerous and historic buildings and picnic shelters.
Although its definition may vary, collaboration is at the very heart of placemaking. Regardless of the locale, each one of us has a part to play, no matter how small, in creating memorable spaces in the heart of our community.