MOR & Co.

The Way Down

our thoughts on life outside in the cities we love

The Case For Open Space


23.4 sq miles of open space.

This past Thursday Detroit Future City hosted their fourth talk in the DFC Ideas series focused on making the case for “Open Space” within the city of Detroit.

"We are trying to push back on that whole Christopher Columbus narrative..." responds Kathryn Underwood, City Planner for the Detroit Legislative Policy Division, to a large crowd of attentive Detroiters this past Thursday at Gleaners Community Food Bank. It’s a concept that often takes most outsiders a moment to understand as they examine the contrast between mainstream media’s portrayal of the city to where it actually stands today. We are not a blank slate or “country to be conquered” here in Detroit. Wonderful, determined individuals have been working for many years on the complex and complicated issues the city has been facing. And working hard.

23.4 sq miles is, in some way, proof of that hard work. That enormous number represents the amount of vacant land that Detroit currently has thanks to the efforts of its’ individuals. It grows with every additional blighted house that we take down along with the potential for new agriculture, recreation and infrastructure.

While most might conjure images in their head of parks and gardens, open space can mean so much more. While we’re all for a lazy day on Belle Isle here, extremely grateful for the tree-lined streets and love walking by the “Bark Park” we have over here in West Village - we would argue that it SHOULD mean more for our city. We’re capable of more.

The community gathered at Gleaners on Beaufait St. in the neighborhood of Islandview to discuss how productive uses such as agriculture, solar energy creation, natural areas for recreation, stormwater infrastructure, trails and greenway connections, as well as vegetated buffers between industrial spaces and highways are all potential outcomes for the twenty three square miles of opportunity within the city limits.

For Detroit, the abundance of unused land is a unique value proposition that most other cities could never imagine due to their current density. Thanks to the work of DFC and their strategic planning, the city has a starting point to inform a cohesive, city-wide strategy, drive density and equitable growth, stabilize neighborhoods, and transform vacant land into an amenity but opportunity doesn’t come without it’s own challenges.

Who will pay for the continued care of the land? Who is in charge of it should something go wrong? If we create land-based businesses that individuals come to rely on, will we be able to keep them as open space as the city continues to grow in years to come?

The challenge, says Underwood, is to gracefully balance the city government's ability to lead and their ability follow and/or facilitate.

"We tend to be fragmented in our investments… (I) challenge our city officials to think bigger and more cohesively..."  Guy Williams remarked, President & CEO, Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice. He urged officials to be more consistent with making sure that sustainability and resiliency is include in any master planning that happens, that it’s comprehensive, updated frequently, of a high quality and useful for all of Detroit.

The top concern with local officials seems to be financial sustainability but to say that open space can’t generate tax revenue and financial returns for Detroit isn't quite true. We already know that simply maintaining safe, open spaces usually results in an increase in property value for surrounding homes and businesses and that greenways and recreation areas reduce costs when it comes to generational healthcare. Jackie Bejma, the Executive Director of Land Inc. says she what really needs to happen is the “green-lighting” of a variety of sustainable, land-based businesses that can provide reliable jobs for residents of the communities in which they exist. This requires commitments for maintenance and long-term use that are often new types of conversations for city officials.

Todd Scott, Executive Director of Detroit Greenways Coalition made reference to a more recent addition to the conversation; Enrique Peñalosa, accomplished public official, economist, and former mayor of Bogota, Columbia. Peñalosa commented earlier this year on how city planning should try to emulate the “Ready, Aim, Fire!” approach but too often we are stuck in an “Aim, Aim, Aim....Aim, Aim, Aim…” pattern. Scott sees progress though. When they started out Detroit had just over 13 miles. This year we have over 200.

Few had the answers to last night’s questions but all were hopeful that the resilient, insanely creative minds of their fellow citizens would be able figure it out as we go.

Last night’s event held strong to their core goal of moving Detroit to action - truly getting you individuals up and out of their seats and into the community - instead of the “let’s talk AT them” model that so many fall back to. The inspirational DFC event concluded with tours of the nearby Earthworks Farm and the Beaufait Belt Line Greenway, two projects that are contributing to Detroit's growing open space network.

MOR & Co. is firmly rooted in our vision of helping to build a world in which being outside is a safe, healthy, positive choice for all humans and we are incredibly excited to be a part of the #openspace movement happening here in Detroit.