A recent trip to Toronto made one thing abundantly clear with respect to transportation networks in cities. Namely, the sizes of streets need to fit the scale of their neighborhoods.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the emerging Queen Street West area of the city. It’s a great urban place, a section of the city that had experienced a prolonged and steady decline only to have new life pumped into it by people looking to share an edgy urban environment. Similar neighborhoods include Adams Morgan in D.C. and Corktown in Detroit. What makes Queen Street West work (or, more appropriately, the one thing I am focusing on in this blog) is that the size of the infrastructure in the area directly represents the neighborhood around it. One and two story commercial buildings sit comfortably on a street that has public transit, biking, pedestrian sidewalks and only two or three lanes of traffic. The feel of the street has a decidedly “neighborhood” vibe. Quirky, too.
Contrast that vision to what one you might experience while driving down Michigan Avenue in the Corktown neighborhood of Detroit. The area is home to, among other things, Detroit’s oldest neighborhood, one of its most popular local restaurants, and a group of small businesses that survived and re-purposed themselves after the closing of Tiger Stadium over a decade ago. While the current development on this stretch of road pales in comparison to Queen Street West, many of the same elements and leverage points are abundant in both places
What isn’t the same is the street itself. Michigan Avenue is bulky at nine lanes, built for a different era. The one and two story commercial and mixed use properties that dot its landscape do not face a road that states that its a “great place to live” or “open for business” like Queen Street. Instead, the large road has turned a quaint Victorian neighborhood into a faceless drive through for motorists and a tough traverse for those on foot or bicycles.
Shrinking Michigan Avenue would have a huge positive impact for the entire neighborhood. Adding bike lanes, transit and pedestrian elements would be even better. Similar neighborhoods in cities across the world are seeing communities reinvigorated because of these simple strategies. More of it needs to be done in places like Detroit and elsewhere. It makes an urban neighborhood cheaper to maintain, better for business and more fun to be around.
Too often we see government and civic minded groups concentrate their efforts on grand plans that take decades to implement while failing to see the easy stuff that is right before their eyes. A street, a pedestrian, a bicycle, a new customer… a neighborhood reborn.