Evolution of an American Cityscape; Urban Gardens of Detroit

Rivers ebb and flow. Empires rise and fall. The mighty phoenix only rises from the ashes of its predecessor, and so on. It was impossible for me to visit Detroit last year and not have these obvious metaphors in mind. The voice-over in the Chrysler commercial says of Detroit “we’ve been through hell and back” and based on the most recent news from the Motor City, it could be argued that they have only reached a rest-stop on that long, hot road.  But to take a more garden  oriented metaphor, it’s easy to see that empires, cultures and cities, like any living landscape, are always evolving.  In an ecosystem where all the elements depend on the right mix of living components as well as the necessary input of outside forces such as light, moisture and air to survive – any change results in some kind of chain reaction that disrupts the previous balance and creates a new dynamic.

Ruins of the Roman Empire

When visiting parts of Detroit, other empires come to mind, such as this Roman boulevard

Any good landscape design takes future change into account. The only way to “stop time” in a landscape is with great amounts of outside intervention. Some intervention we think of as normal, such as pruning a shrub. Whereas, other aspects of change we come to accept as being part of a natural process, such as the increasing shade from a growing tree. The changes can be considered “good” or considered “bad” depending on your point of view and what your relationship is to that garden or place. But there’s no doubt that big changes cause big reactions. I could go on and on about evolution and transformation as it pertains to ecosystems or responsible garden design but what does this have to do with Detroit?

Detroit streetscene

In residential Detroit, some streets remain vibrant, lined with trees and American cars.

My recent visit to the Motor City was a real eye-opener to the challenges and the opportunity of such un-requested change in a major American city and the industry that built it. Detroit has been losing population for several generations but had a particularly large outflow of residents in recent years (down 25% between the 2000 and 2010 census).  This spread out city encompasses about 140 square miles, that’s a lot to work with for most municipalities. But as the population decreases and more land has become vacant it seems that the variety of ideas for new use has become more interesting, with proposals from urban timber production to zombie theme parks under consideration.

Detroit streetscene

Some neighborhoods that once held houses are now fields of open land.

I recently discussed some of my observations and experiences, visiting Detroit’s urban gardens and green spaces, as a guest writer, for Renee’s Garden Seeds blog, which can be viewed here (Rethinking Metro Detroit).  Congratulations to Renee Shepherd, by the way, for just being named one of the top ten Western garden innovators, by Sunset magazine, for her contributions to the way Americans garden from seed.

During our visit we were impressed with the organization The Greening of Detroit for the work they are doing developing green infrastructure by, among other things, providing garden resources, hands-on education and green job development (www.greeningofdetroit.com). Thank you to Detroit resident Nate for giving up his evening to share some of what’s happening, with this organization and others, in parts of the inner city.

Detroit Riverwalk

The beautifully designed Riverwalk stretches out from Detroits tallest building

Wheelhouse Detroit (www.wheelhousedetroit.com) was instrumental in setting up the personalized tour of urban green spaces and for inspiring us to view the city from two wheels, which definitely heightened the experience. Wheelhouse has other awesome-sounding tours of interesting places and happenings and I’d love to go back and take advantage of more of their offerings, such as; architecture, public art and auto heritage. I love their location, on Detroit’s beautiful River Walk, which was a delight to ramble along.

Detroit streetscene

Easy biking along a greenway through a city in transition

I can’t pretend to know all the details or nuances of what’s happening in Metro Detroit and I certainly don’t want to over-simplify the things that got them where they are or the solutions for the future. But I can say that I loved my visit to the Motor City and was inspired by what I found there.

To return to my metaphors … like any living landscape sometimes change is drastic if an ecosystem needs a new equilibrium. From many perspectives empires seem to rise or fall, but aren’t they really just evolving from one thing into another, that’s better suited to a different set of circumstances?


Heading towards the shiny Renaissance Center and downtown Detroit

Part of the importance of an empire is the influence that is felt far from the place of origin. Certainly Detroit’s legacy is well established through it’s contributions in the world of music and the automobile, at the very least. In the case of the Motor City, the transformation is only partially complete but even now there is a fascinating mix of the remains of what was and the beginnings of what can be and my visit was a wonderful peek into it’s exciting evolution.

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Categories: Places to See


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2 Comments on “Evolution of an American Cityscape; Urban Gardens of Detroit”

  1. April 4, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

    Like a phoenix, Detroit will rise again, better than ever. Thanks for the update.

  2. August 25, 2013 at 8:44 am #

    I, too, was impressed by the many possibilities that Detroit is creating for itself during my visit with the APLD this August.

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