By John Davidson
When it comes to city planning and urban environments, Detroit isn't usually the first place to look for examples of how to do it right. Not that there hasn't been some creative revitalization downtown in recent years, but significant sections of the city's core were abandoned or razed long ago, and remain that way—part of Detroit's troubled history, which it is now struggling mightily to overcome.
Part of that tension is playing out on the city's waterfront. Like Philadelphia, Detroit has a sizeable, underused waterfront, which is in the process of being renewed and reinvented as a center of civic life and pedestrian use.
The Detroit River, like the Delaware River, was once a bustling center of shipping and commerce. In the early 20th century, the river was dubbed "The Greatest Commercial Artery on Earth," with more shipping tonnage passing through the Motor City than either New York or London. Later in the century, as everyone knows, the city fell on hard times and the river's industrial might declined. The waterfront languished there as it did in Philadelphia—a unique urban asset cut off from residents and the life of downtown.
But Detroit, ever the city committed to renaissance, began to change things. In 2003, the powers that be commissioned a study that resulted in the creation of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy (http://www.detroitriverfront.org ), a public-private partnership whose stated purpose was to clean up and improve the city's waterfront. It identified an area designated as the Detroit International Riverfront, which extends from the Ambassador Bridge to the Gabriel Richard Park, just east of the Belle Isle Bridge, about a five-mile span of waterfront next to downtown.
The DRFC's efforts have thus far focused largely on the RiverWalk, a continuous expanse of parks, promenades and green spaces. The East Riverfront, a 3.5-mile span from the Joe Louis Arena to Gabriel Richard Park near Belle Isle, has seen the lion's share of development, which began in earnest in 2007. Since then, various public spaces have been opening along the river and connecting waterfront landmarks like the Renaissance Center, GM Plaza and Tri-Centennial State Park (http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,1607,7-153-10365_24648-94491--,00.html )with a patchwork of wide promenades, parks and large pavilions.
The development of Detroit's riverfront actually stands in contrast, in terms of scale, to much of the rest of the city. Built to service the automobile, Detroit is not laid out with pedestrians in mind: wide swaths of pavement cut through downtown, making travel by vehicle a near necessity. Not so with the new RiverWalk; it is in every way built to a human scale, catering to walkers, bikers, strollers and joggers.
Once you get away from the waterfront, much of Detroit is built for vehicles. In contrast to the walkable, pedestrian-scale riverfront, Detroit has many wide, multi-lane streets cutting through its downtown.
And if Detroit's experience is any indication, then it just might work.
John Davidson is the managing editor for Keystone Edge, a website that covers the new economy in Pennsylvania. Prior to that he wrote and produced digital video for digphilly.com. Davidson moved to Philadelphia from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where he was a general assignment reporter for the Times Leader. He has also worked as a reporter for newspapers in Chicago and Alaska, his home state. Contact the reporter at