July 19, 2017

How an ambitious community-led design project is renewing this historic Detroit neighborhood

A collaboration between designers and residents will turn a neglected park into a thriving public space

Residents are working side-by-side with city officials and designers to reimagine Roosevelt Park, an area that connects two neighborhoods in southwest Detroit, just in front of the city's iconic train station. Illustrations by Assembly Design Studio

Earlier this year, we shared the story of the beginning of our community-led design process to transform a park from an underutilized public space into an icon that reframes our relationship to Detroit’s most infamous architectural ruin: Michigan Central Station. The timing for this effort could not be better, as the owners of the building recently announced their intention to start activating the station through events for the first time in decades.

In our January article, we promised to share renderings of the Roosevelt Park project that emerged from our process, and we are excited to present some of the results today.

But before we do, we’d like to take a step back and ask a fundamental question: Why produce plans and renderings at all?

It’s a question we pondered quite a bit during our engagement process with residents. There’s always the risk that these images will get stuck in people’s minds too early, and that people will fall into camps of support or opposition before there’s anything tangible to respond to.

But without plans and renderings, we are talking about mere mist, and people are far more likely to project their fears onto things they cannot see: the boogey man that lingers beneath well-meaning words.

We decided to share renderings with the community as a symbol of trust and respect. We have asked the community to trust us through this process, and we know they understand the nuances of shifting timelines and expectations. Given that this is a community-led effort, not a government or corporate one, we determined that organizing people into a campaign of positive change was one of the most important things we can accomplish.

What’s more, we found that when we presented our plans as snapshots in time—as images that would mutate based on the very conversations we were having—then people were not only willing to contribute, but they were thirsty for the grassroots planning process.

We’ll walk you through our design process below, with the knowledge that all of this is still very much a snapshot in time and will change as we continue the conversation and design process.

As a grassroots effort, we are trying to demonstrate that the marriage of community-led design and high design is possible.

We developed three plans based on the comments and concerns we heard during our first workshop last summer, which we wrote about in our previous article.

Central to all of these designs is the desire to improve connectivity between two historic Detroit neighborhoods: Mexicantown and Corktown. This was a constraint that we challenged ourselves to address. Armed with these three plans, we presented them to the community at-large during the second workshop last September.

Plan 1

In this plan, a widened median for Vernor Highway, a main artery connecting the two neighborhoods, and two major park parcels define a park that’s similar to what exists there today. However, the scheme also improves access and safety by eliminating secondary roads through the park. New pedestrian-friendly intersections, perimeter car-park lanes, and protected bike lanes improve access and connectivity, while more precisely coordinating the way in which bikes and cars make left turns from Michigan Avenue toward Mexicantown.

During Workshop 2, participants distributed activities into three major areas. Those activities included a parcel for cultural programs, a heavily planted median, sports fields and playgrounds in the southeast parcel, and a naturalistic garden and pond in the southwest. While these are valuable improvements upon what’s there today, everyone at the workshop felt the scheme was lacking in identity and cohesion.

Plan 2

Here, we re-route Vernor Highway to intersect with 14th Street at a 90-degree angle and extend 16th Street southward to generate vehicular circulation that is responsive to the underlying urban grid. This simple move also creates a safer intersection at the corner of 14th and Michigan Avenue, where pedestrians today navigate a perilous crossing into Roosevelt Park.

The new park divides into two secondary parcels, which community members activated with sports fields to the east and west of Michigan Central Station. A pedestrian and bike-only mall anchors the third and largest land parcel to re-enforce the Beaux Arts axis of the train station’s original approach, putting people before cars in a unified park area. This walkway doubles with straight and meandering paths interacting like two jump ropes. The park’s formal hardscape is in direct dialogue with the former Station’s main façade—a relationship with the history of the place that community members had spoken of preserving in some significant way. Alongside are more informal garden areas, preserving existing trees and incorporating new landscape elements with more active uses, such as playgrounds and an outdoor move venue placed by workshop participants.

Plan 3

This is our fully unified vision for Roosevelt Park and it ties all of today’s disparate parcels into a single plot. Vehicles navigate around the park, but not through it.

All participants in Workshop 2 applied lessons from the two previous schemes to fine-tune the use and activities envisioned for this plan.

The scheme emanates from the concept of a ripple, starting on the northwest corner of the park toward the east, south, and west extremes where slight undulations in the topography rise and fall to form a gorgeous landscape of diverse experiences.

The ripple originates in the northwest portion of the park, where participants aptly placed a pond feature. A gateway and playground anchor the northwest corner where a number of the main paths that cut through the park originate. Community members programmed a diagonal path moving in the east-west direction as a flexible, temporary drive where food trucks might enter the park for special events or where a farmer’s market might set up on a weekly basis. At the center of the scheme, an amphitheater nests itself into the ripples (with the imposing facade of Michigan Central Station as its backdrop). The perimeter of the park comes to life with sports fields and playgrounds meant to be readily available to the adjacent neighborhoods, which may someday feature increased housing options.

Enter Detroit city officials

After Workshop 2, we held a third workshop in March for high-level city officials as well as residents and local business owners from Corktown and Mexicantown. The city’s Chief Landscape Architect, the Design Director for the Central District, and the Chief Development Officer for the City of Detroit attended.

Community engagement is not a box to be checked off but the foundation of a healthy process. Community voice is not something to be discarded; it is the expression of our co-creators.

During this workshop, we updated everyone on the process up until that point, shared the community’s preferences and concerns, and we ran through the 3 different plans.

We also asked people in attendance to prioritize the purposes for reimagining the park, and we provoked them to think about the ethical redevelopment goals that a project like this might achieve.

Where we stand today

After three workshops and numerous one-on-one meetings with city officials, we also presented our plans to the full membership of the Cortkown Business Association and the Mexicantown Community Development Corporation. We even held office hours at local cafes and bars where residents were free to come and learn more about this effort and give their feedback. We estimate that close to 750 people have touched this community engagement process in person.

As a grassroots effort, we are trying to demonstrate that the marriage of community-led design and high design is possible. This process might be slower and have more twists and turns than top down dictates, but we are confident that as the process continues, the park’s redesign will better reflect the aspirations of the neighborhoods nearby, while embedding ethics into the DNA of any surrounding development that may emerge.

To formalize all of this, a group of local residents are forming a new park-specific nonprofit that will steward the process into the next stage, and the city of Detroit has given us the green light to move ahead with our community-led process.

Our hope is that this will provide a model for other large-scale design efforts throughout the urban world. Community engagement is not a box to be checked off but the foundation of a healthy process. Community voice is not something to be discarded; it is the expression of our co-creators.

The world that emerges from this process is one that is fluid, participatory, and ever evolving, just like society itself. Public space and public processes should not be things that happen to people, but should happen with them. When we do this, we’ve found that people are more than willing to jump in, get their hands dirty, and push the bounds of the possible.

In these uncertain times dominated by the politics of fear, the processes of neighborliness and love are not optional; they are vital to the health of our communities and their abilities to thrive.

Chad Rochkind and Omar Toro-Vaca

Chad Rochkind is Principal of Human Scale Studio, a firm that exists at the intersection of community engagement, tactical urbanism, and long-term change. He is one of Metropolis Magazine's "New Talents" and a winner of the Knight Cities Challenge.

Omar Toro-Vaca, a San Francisco-based designer, trained in architecture and public policy, is a Principal of Assembly Design Studio. Assembly's practice is based in people-centered, design thinking while providing creative solutions to problems commonly found in the built environment.