Tearing of the Urban Fabric

Detroit’s downtown street grid in 1896. Block edges that have since been lost are highlighted in yellow.  Source: B. Ryan

As Detroiters visit a festive Campus Martius Park this holiday season, they might be inspired to imagine how downtown felt in the 1920s, when the buildings were new and the streets were bustling.  Many of downtown’s streets and historic sites do look much the same.  But visitors might not realize how many sites are missing—not just buildings abandoned or demolished, but city blocks that are altogether gone, vanished beneath a highway, office complex, or casino.  In fact, over the course of the 20th century, the downtown area lost over one third of its original block frontage—block frontage which has not been replaced.

In looking for some data on streets, I found myself revisiting a study by Brent Ryan, now a professor of urban design at MIT. While the study is a few years old, it is still as relevant as ever, especially as Detroit ponders how it can revitalize its downtown.

The street grid in 2002.  Many streets were removed, resulting in restructured blocks.  New block edges are in yellow. Source: B. Ryan

By analyzing historic street maps, Ryan found that Detroit’s core (defined by the four-square mile block surrounding downtown) lost 37% of its original block frontage between 1896 and 2002.  (“Block front” refers to the perimeter of a block, or a street front.)  The original streets were reconfigured to make way for urban renewal, highway construction, road widening, megaprojects like Cobo, and merely large projects like parking garages.  This is not entirely new news—Detroiters have long understood the effects of urban renewal—but 37% is a pretty astonishing figure.

In other words, Detroit lost 37% of its storefronts, sidewalks, and street space where economic and civic life once took place.  This was not just the shuttering of businesses, but the intentional dismantling of the physical foundation on which businesses where built.

What does this mean? If Detroit experienced more deterioration of the urban fabric than did other cities, it will have to work even harder to overcome the effects. While no one expects a return to the 19th century street grid, new projects that begin to piece the city’s streets back together should be welcomed. I would love to see a grassroots project that reclaims some of the city’s lost block fronts. At the very least, we should be conscious about the effects of scale, and we should be wary of development projects in the city’s core that create more holes in the fabric.