Monday, June 20, 2016
My Town Detroit-20 Minute Neighborhoods
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan recently introduced the idea of rebuilding Detroit around the concept of the 20-minute neighborhood, where folks can walk or bike to everything they need outside of work.
Great idea, but could it work in Detroit?
For those who have never heard of it, a 20-minute neighborhood is an active, safe, walkable, convenient, predominantly residential neighborhood. A place where people can get most of their day-to-day goods and services — shopping with good food, access to transit, parks and schools — within a 20-minute walk. According to the Portland Plan of 2009, 20-minute neighborhoods have three basic characteristics: a walkable environment, destinations that support a range of basic living needs and residential density. Or as they say in real estate: “rooftops.”
This concept is certainly not new. Before the turn of the 20th Century, before the automobile, the “walkable neighborhood” was the norm. And even in the 1920s the idea of the “neighborhood unit,” where most services would be available within about a quarter of a mile, was the basic building block of the U.S. suburb. But how things change.
By WWII, and the emergence of widespread car ownership, the city was being stretched by lower and lower density development. By the 1950’s the auto-dependent suburbs were on over-drive and the very thought of walkability was far from the minds of the developers or the home buyers. The two or even three-car garage was far more important than the sidewalk, or the neighborhood store. Need a quart of milk or a pound of sugar? No problem. Jump into the car, scoot down the cul-de-sac and drive three miles to the A&P or Kroger.
But for many that suburban idyll is changing and the new home buyers, the millennials, want to find a tighter, more dense, more interconnected and certainly more walkable place to put down their roots. And the mayor sees that sort of place, that authentic urban neighborhood, as a model for Detroit’s recovery.
Can this work? Perhaps. Where there’s existing residential density, close to some shops, a local park and perhaps an elementary school then the Portland conditions will hold. So the mayor’s initial target neighborhoods: L6 (Livernois and McNichols), Southwest Detroit and West Village on the east side might work. But the key to extending the concept is density. Are there enough households, with sufficient disposable income, to sustain the shops, the local services? Are there enough children to keep the school open and thriving?
Herein lies the rub. The 20-minute neighborhood needs a residential density of somewhere between 15 and 20 households per acre to support local retail. Outside of the downtown/Midtown corridor and a select number of more dense, occupied neighborhoods, most of Detroit has a lower residential density.
So is the idea dead on arrival? I’d argue not so, but Detroit’s neighborhood renewal needs to be packaged and sold in a different way. Twenty-minute walking access to shops and transit will likely take a while so the benefits of upgrading existing vacant homes, of filling empty lots and building some medium-density housing needs to be sold on other, noncommercial, benefits of density. The benefits of walkability and improved health and well-being should be highlighted. Sustainability, recreating a sense of place and building a safe, welcoming community for the young and old alike can all be promoted as authentic advantages of bringing density back to Detroit.
When the rooftops come back, shops and service are not far behind.
Robin Boyle is a professor of urban planning at Wayne State University.
Does your nearest city offer this option? Is there any planning going on for the desire of younger people to live this way. Detroit is a sprawling city with large areas vacated for various reasons. Downtown has not been a place where people chose to live until very recently. What is your nearest city like?