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« Housing Operative
» Detroit News Roundup for Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Detroit the second most walkable urban metro in the Midwest

There is a new report out from the Brookings Institute written by Christopher Leinberger, a professor at the University of Michigan, that surveys the top 30 metropolitan areas of the United States and ranks them by how many walkable urban areas they have. According to the Brookings Institute list Detroit comes in at number 18. But the author admits that there are some caveats in his methodology such as giving a huge area like Midtown Manhattan the same weight as a tiny greenfield suburban “lifestyle center” that is but a tiny fraction of the size. But there’s another basic flaw in the way the cities were ranked that is related to that caveat. They were ranked by the number of walkable urban neighborhoods per capita and the math looks like “4,813,013 divided by 3″ and similar huge population estimates divided by tiny numbers where being off by one makes huge differences in their rank.

So it doesn’t make much sense to take population size into account without taking neighborhood size into account. If the top Metro areas were ranked according to the basic number of walkable urban neighborhoods the list would look like this:
1. New York, 21
2. Washington, DC, 20
3. Los Angeles, 15
4. Chicago, 14
5. San Francisco, 14
6. Boston, 11
7. Miami, 7
8. Seattle, 6
9. Philadelphia, 5
10. Denver, 5
11. Atlanta, 4
12. Portland, 4
13. Detroit, 3
14. Dallas, 3
15. Houston, 3
16. Pittsburgh, 3
17. San Diego, 3
18 . St. Louis, 2
19. Minneapolis, 2
20. Phoenix, 2
21. Baltimore, 2
22. Cleveland, 1
23. Cincinnati, 1
24. Sacramento, 1
25. Orlando, 1
26. Kansas City, 1
27. San Antonio, 1
28. Las Vegas, 1
29. Columbus, Ohio, 1
30. Tampa, 0

Detroit would be tied for 13th and Detroit is basically in the same class of cities as Philadelphia, Atlanta, Portland, Dallas, and Houston. But there are other problems. Some of the cities’s downtowns are listed as a walkable urban neighborhoods but some are not and downtown Detroit is not. Some of the criteria used to determine if a neighborhood is counted is whether or not it requires significant public or private subsidies to get all new developments going. We know that some of the major real estate developments in downtown Detroit going on right now do require some help whether it’s favorable financing or a sweet land deal from the city of Detroit. Of course other huge developments like the casinos do just fine. But another neighborhood in Metro Detroit is also specifically listed as a district that is not currently at critical mass but will probably be within the next decade. That walkable urban neighborhood is downtown Royal Oak. Royal Oak is comparable in many ways to the other two Detroit locations outside the city of Detroit, which are Ann Arbor and Birmingham. They are all somewhat similar in size, have significant regional retail, restaurant, and entertainment components, and Royal Oak has had several downtown residential high-rises in the past and several more have been recently constructed adding greatly to the downtown residential component. Downtown Royal Oak also has the institutions that come with being the downtown of the city of Royal Oak as well as the Oakland Community College. It’s served by passenger rail and frequent bus service along Woodward Avenue, although farther from Woodward and closer to the train station than downtown Birmingham. The Detroit Zoo is also adjacent to downtown Royal Oak. So there’s plenty of variety in and around downtown Royal Oak and you’ll see plenty of people walking around there and I don’t think the real estate developments happening require public or private subsidies so I don’t know why Royal Oak wasn’t included. It really ought to be.

Another Metro Detroit walkable urban area that wasn’t listed is downtown Windsor. No surprise there. Windsor is always left off these kinds of surveys but in reality it’s a huge pedestrian-friendly neighborhood just south of downtown Detroit, much closer than Royal Oak, Birmingham, or Ann Arbor. And downtown Windsor really encompasses a lot of adjacent neighborhoods that are also urban “city” neighborhoods like Chinatown, the University of Windsor, and Via Italia. These unique areas serve metro Detroit as well as lots of American young people within a three-hour drive extending well into Ohio. Even including all of greater downtown Windsor at a single neighborhood (like how Midtown Manhattan is just one) and Royal Oak we get a score of five for Detroit.

Detroit should be tied for ninth place.

Another place that was mentioned specifically in the report was the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, a walkable but institutional area without much neighboring pedestrian activity, which is a shame although Warren is trying to create a downtown from the ground up not too far away. But a lot would have to change for this to be included in the list in the future.

But other suburban locations are also approaching critical mass and may one day be included. Pontiac already has the regional employment and entertainment but they need to work on improving the local economy, maybe having more diverse residents downtown, and more people walking. They were a lot better off before rerouting Woodward Avenue around downtown. Northville’s downtown is one of the most charming in the area with regional serving retail, dining, services, and entertainment. They need to capture a larger proportion of the city’s office population. On the other hand, New Center in Detroit has the huge office buildings and theaters that serve the region but could use more retail. When the Center for Creative Studies expands into the Argonaut building things might change. There are already many high-rise residential buildings just north of New Center. And downtown Ypsilanti and adjacent Depot Town and Eastern Michigan University had a huge daytime population of students and faculty, and a lot of people living in the surrounding areas, and although the university is a regional institution, downtown Ypsilanti could use more regional serving retail. And then we have a walkable strips like 9 Mile Rd in Ferndale and Michigan Avenue and Warren Avenue in Dearborn. These are really equivalent to the Short North in Columbus where there is just one road where all the nonresidential activity exists. The Short North was included in the list because otherwise Columbus would not have had any neighborhoods listed.

In conclusion many metro Detroit semi-pedestrian neighborhoods are close to reaching a point of critical mass and several notable ones should already be considered at that stage. Even without including those, Detroit has the second most walkable urban neighborhoods in the Midwest behind Chicago and ahead of St. Louis and Minneapolis.

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« Housing Operative
» Detroit News Roundup for Tuesday, December 11, 2007