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With the right planning, Detroit's vast empty space could be an asset

Aug 24, 2015

The Next Idea 

In Detroit we have a real chance to do things with our land that no other major city in the world has ever done. From  growing food  and  producing solar power to planting trees and improving public health, Detroit’s 23 square miles  of vacant land  offers a future full of possibilities.

Connecting Detroit's East Side neighborhoods with a greenway trail network would go a long way toward building a more inclusive Detroit, says Guy Williams of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice.
Credit Courtesy of Detroit Greenways Coalition

That was the mood and topic of discussion at the latest “Ideas for Innovation” event hosted by Detroit Future City. Some excellent questions arose from this community conversation that are worth continued consideration as we examine how best to transform  Detroit’s vacant land into an open space amenity. Some include:  

  • If we come up with plans and develop the open spaces in our neighborhoods, how do we protect them from future development?
  • Who’s responsible for maintaining these spaces in the long-term?
  • How will all of these projects interconnect?

These questions all point to the need for a citywide master plan and open space plan that offer a shared vision for the future, as well as room for communities and neighborhoods to plan within it.

This doesn’t mean we have to start from scratch, however. As the Detroit Future City event showed, there are plenty of projects already underway and plenty of people who have been working hard on land use issues in Detroit for years.    

So what’s the Next Idea?

As we wait for a master plan to come together, there are many projects that we can choose to focus on in the meantime. But with limited resources, we need to find one that’s both actionable and capable of manifesting the long-verbalized commitment to Detroit’s neighborhoods.

The project that excites me the most is the complete build-out of the Eastside Greenway Network.

Four years ago I was part of a group working to develop a plan to connect the neighborhoods on the eastside of Detroit. All of us knew the vision was grand, and conventional “wisdom” called it unattainable. Yet today we’re still working hard and our vision hasn’t changed.   

The plan’s key focus is on developing the greenway’s network of 12 distinct trail segments. These segments would crisscross neighborhoods that range from elegant to forlorn, densely populated to sparse, low income to high income, wide-open to streets filled with majestic structures.

What we are longing for is leadership that not only appreciates the value of these ideas, but is also willing to muster the political courage to make them happen.

The nearly 18 miles of trail would connect every Eastside neighborhood to places like the RiverWalk and Eastern Market, the Midtown Loop and Gleaners Food Bank.

The total projected investment for the project varies greatly from $31 million to $189 million. The price differential represents the range of amenities and safety features that can be installed. A basic system with little lighting, cameras, and minimal safety features at street crossings could be built at the low end of the scale. Our group recommends a higher level of amenities, such as those on the RiverWalk, for example.

Recently, the new director of the City’s Planning and Development Department, Maurice Cox, said the people of Detroit should dream big. He’s right, that’s why big ideas have already been brewing here for a while now. You could hear them at the DFC event. What we are longing for is leadership that not only appreciates the value of these ideas, but is also willing to muster the political courage to make them happen.

Mayor Duggan and his team are to be commended for how they have taken head-on, and made significant progress on, some of our most vital city services, such as restoring lighting, improving emergency response times, and stabilizing our bus system.

Michigan’s Iron Belle Trail is on its way to connecting Belle Isle with Wisconsin more than 900 miles away. This took leadership, courage, planning, and commitment. I think we have all that here in Detroit, too.

The Eastside Greenway Network is an opportunity to show Detroit’s neighborhoods that they can be part of the comeback. It would have an immediate impact on the local economy and our families. Plus, if the trail development conversations share the same agenda as the master plan in future community meetings, they could also go a long way toward ensuring an inclusive master plan.  

Imagine in 2020 a Detroit where thousands of people a day will have the freedom of safe movement and cost-free mobility across more than half of the city. That’s not far away.

This network, with its trails, open space and bike lanes, would unite us as a community in ways previously unheard of. If we are clear-sighted, we should be able to see that this would contribute to a Detroit that connects and uplifts and values everyone.

Guy Williams is president and CEO of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice

Join the conversation in the comments section below, on Twitter or Facebook, or let us know your Next Idea here.