Blog: Sarah Szurpicki

Sarah Szurpicki is a Detroit area native and Co-Founder of the Great Lakes Urban Exchange (GLUE), an online networking and journalism effort to build regional identity and share information among young urban leaders from cities around the Great Lakes region. Sarah will be writing about how our region can benefit from exploring solutions that have been implemented in cities facing similar challenges.

Post No. 3

At GLUE's inaugural conference, we took an "alternative" bus tour of Buffalo, led by community organizers deeply familiar with Buffalo's vacancy problems, blight, poor historical planning, poverty, and political dynamics. After the tour, representatives of other Great Lakes cities reflected on how familiar parts of Buffalo seemed. I heard repeatedly, "I saw my city, over and over."

Fortunately, we saw some urban success stories as well. One of them was Elmwood Village, a charming, walkable neighborhood where far-sighted community development schemes have created a consistent and inviting atmosphere.

"You have to build and maintain a sense of place," said Justin Azzarella, Executive Director of the Elmwood Village Association (EVA). "When you break up the urban fabric, people leave." 

About ten years ago, Elmwood's sidewalks, streets, and curbs were crumbling.  EVA, then a fledgling organization composed primarily of area businesses, saw an opportunity. EVA wielded clout as a community coalition to demand that, when the City repair the infrastructure, it narrow the streets and widen the sidewalks.  Traffic slowed, and room appeared for sidewalk cafes.

EVA has since developed design guidelines, involving consistent building scale, planned mixed uses, building orientation, parking lot restrictions, and other parameters. 

They've built a broad base of support through the public planning process, that includes the people who live and work in the neighborhood - not just those who already have connections to decision-makers. They've also created initiatives, like the facade improvement matching program
, that help businesses follow these guidelines in a time when the economy makes it difficult.

Imagine if Woodward, Cass, and Warren were narrowed around Wayne State and the DIA - an area whose existing assets already draw a decent amount of pedestrian traffic. Imagine the area if cars weren't speeding through at 50 mph, if storefronts were consistently welcoming, and if all buildings were "oriented to the pedestrian." Design has been used in Elmwood Village to attack fundamental economic issues that face Detroit as well.

Some will argue that Detroit doesn't even have the resources to do more than patch its infrastructure, let alone take the next step on good design.  But there are little changes happening all over our city, and at all levels, we need to make sure that each of them is as far-sighted as EVA was ten years ago.