January 4, 2017

Community-led design is helping revitalize Detroit’s most infamous ruins

Because you can't reimagine a city without its residents at the core

In this 2013 file photo, from Flickr user Johnathan Nightingale, Michigan Central Station is windowless and abandoned. Today, neighbors in its southwest Detroit community are working side-by-side with city officials and designers to improve the area surrounding the historic building, which saw its last train in 1988.

A strange quirk of socially engaged design in our current urban age is that while most cities can take development for granted, post-industrial cities like Detroit are still simply grateful that it’s happening, or remain frustrated by stagnation and decay. So while designers in other cities are able to argue and advocate for green building standards and public art and other socially generative features, in Detroit there is still an overwhelming presumption that any development is good development.

So the question becomes: how do you spur the right kind of socially conscious development, rather than simply protesting bad proposals? Further, how do you ensure that communities are brought along for the ride, and that changes that occur respect physical, social, and historical contexts?

We had these questions in mind when we set out to rethink the future of a particular plot of land, one of great cultural significance to Detroit: the area around Michigan Central Station.

Even if you don’t know much about Detroit, you’ve probably seen Michigan Central Station, the iconic example of ruin porn. What you might not know is that this abandoned architectural landmark sits between two of Detroit’s most dynamic neighborhoods, Corktown and Mexicantown, and is fronted by an awkward patch of green called Roosevelt Park. This park was designed as the grand entrance to the station, but since the building became vacant—train service ceased in 1988—the park fell out of use as well. The daily average foot traffic to Roosevelt Park is only 74, according to data from Trulia, and most of those are people who park their vehicle inside the park and walk to the Corktown commercial corridor. Surrounding the park are vacant parcels and a series of abandoned buildings, many of which have remained vacant for decades.

We hope our work inspires other designers to consider the benefits of engaging the community on the front-end.

Members of Detroit's southwest community gather for a workshop in a repurposed church adjacent to Roosevelt Park. Photo by Human Scale Studio

We thought it would be a good idea to reimagine what Roosevelt Park could look like if it was designed to be a place where people lingered and played. We had a number of goals in mind: 1. Create a destination that links Corktown and Mexicantown, rather than dividing them. 2. Reframe the city’s psychological relationship to Michigan Central Station, regardless of whether it remains abandoned or gets developed. 3. Thaw frozen speculation by signaling significant investment and thoughtfulness in the public realm.

So we approached the communities of Corktown and Southwest, as well as a number of government officials, and they agreed to meet at Assemble Sound, a recording studio and performance space based in a repurposed church adjacent to Roosevelt Park. During this workshop, attendees were asked to consider three aspects of future park design: access, form, and activation. By having residents from two neighborhoods who have different views of the park work side-by-side with government officials and designers, we were able to get past issues that have divided these communities and get close to a common vision that could be implemented.

We held a second workshop two months later during the first-ever Open Streets Detroit, an event that was attended by more than 10,000 people and shut down Vernor Highway that cuts through the heart of Roosevelt Park. During this workshop, we asked the public at large to consider three different physical layouts of Roosevelt Park that emerged from the findings in workshop 1, and how various uses could fit into each.

We will soon be able to share the final designs that emerged from this community-led design process. In the meantime, we hope our work inspires other designers to consider the benefits of engaging the community on the front-end. We firmly believe that the future of urban design is about facilitating the dreams of various stakeholder groups, rather than merely advocating for one.

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.
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