Center for Urban Studies in the news

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Historic floods fuel misery, rage in Detroit

City officials have repeatedly pointed to climate change as the main culprit in last month’s flood, when Detroit was overwhelmed by as much as 8 inches of rain in less than 19 hours. Weather stations in and around Detroit set records for the most amount of rainfall within a 24-hour period during the storm, according to the National Weather Service. Thousands of basements were flooded, causing widespread damage and prompting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to declare a state of emergency. The White House has since issued a disaster declaration, freeing up federal funds. The storms offer a foreboding glimpse of Detroit’s new reality in a warming world: flooding intensified by high water levels on Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes. And the floods have also churned up debate about the management of Detroit’s aging flood-control system and whether officials are taking steps to harden the system against what’s becoming a regular drumbeat of record-setting storms. Lyke Thompson, a professor of political science and director of the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University, agreed. “The people in the city that are better off live in neighborhoods that have better infrastructure for removing the water from the neighborhood,” Thompson said. “And whites left the city in droves decades ago, so most of the city of Detroit is occupied by people of color. So, if the city has a problem, they have a problem. And the city has a problem.” Detroit’s outer suburbs, he said, are on higher ground with newer infrastructure, while lower-lying neighborhoods experience flooding and leaks on a regular basis. Those same houses, he said, are getting “whammy after whammy because we’re having repeated 100-year floods, and the residents can’t cope with it.” Thompson and other researchers have documented those trends in a study that found recurrent residential flooding in Detroit is far more prevalent than previously thought, disproportionately affects Black residents and may contribute to a greater incidence of asthma. Of the 6,000 homes in Detroit surveyed, researchers found almost 43% had experienced flooding, and neighborhoods like Jefferson Chalmers are especially vulnerable.
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The road not taken

Jeffrey Horner, a senior lecturer in urban studies and planning at Wayne State University, has studied the effects of freeways that cut through Detroit’s largely residential Black Bottom neighborhood and Paradise Valley, a mostly commercial district, east of the city’s central business hub downtown. “The I496 (Lansing) expressway, much like I375 in Detroit, went where it did because it was the most politically defenseless area, by far the most African-American district in the city,” Horner said. The pattern repeated itself around the country as the interstate highway system spread. Horner thinks the breakup of a black community and resulting diaspora was a mixed blessing at best. “I’m not questioning that it’s a good thing for Lansing to be integrated, but the loss of black districts and dispersal of the African- American community was also a loss,” Horner said. “In Detroit, we not only lost people’s homes, but a lot of the black-owned businesses. I’m not so sure that this was necessarily a good thing.” Horner said today’s urban planners have taken these hard lessons to heart. “Everyone is getting the importance of community now,” Horner said. “That whole thread is coming from the slowdown of suburban growth.” Many of Horner’s students loathe the isolation of the suburbs and want to live where they don’t need a car. They long for walkable, close-knit neighborhoods like Lansing’s lost I496 enclave. “It’s really changing fast, at least in Detroit,” Horner said. “Local community building is something that’s been lost, starting with the building of all these freeways.”
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Lead levels drop in Michigan kids after Flint spike. But so does testing.

“Lead is still in all these older homes in Michigan, and until it is substantially abated or these homes are removed from the housing stock, there is still a hazard to kids,” said Lyke Thompson, director of Wayne State University’s Center for Urban Housing. In Detroit, at least 10 percent of kids in eight of 27 city ZIP Codes tested positive for elevated lead levels. Many are in some of the city’s oldest and most blighted neighborhoods, such as the Virginia Park neighborhood in the city’s 48206 ZIP Code, where 19 percent of tested children had elevated levels last year. Thompson has led efforts to test children in that Detroit ZIP Code and another, 48214, where 16 percent of children had elevated lead levels last year. He said 85 percent of the 1,000 homes he’s tested in that neighborhood were positive for lead. It’s one of several initiatives in cities like Detroit and Grand Rapids, but remediation efforts are expensive.
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Hart Plaza next for a redo? Planners hope to liven up acres of asphalt

Thousands of music fans packed Hart Plaza this weekend for the annual jazz festival, but for much of the year, Hart Plaza remains largely empty. In an important way, the problem with Hart Plaza is not just the emptiness of all that concrete but the lack of activities immediately surrounding it. Jefferson remains a barrier, while the Renaissance Center, even after its redo in recent years that saw the creation of the Wintergarden and waterfront plaza, still remains something of a fortress on the river. The great European plazas that inspired places like Hart Plaza, the civic squares in Venice and Siena and other cities, tend to be surrounded by engaging buildings that make the plaza themselves natural gathering spots. That's what's missing here. "Hart Plaza is less of a design issue and more of a demand issue — we need a reason to go there," said Robin Boyle, former chair of urban planning at Wayne State University. Now the City of Detroit is beginning to mull how to enliven Hart Plaza, including whether to scrap the current design that hails from the 1970s and start over with something entirely new.
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Opinion: I-375 was a mistake. Here's what we can learn from it

Using urban freeway building as a reason for demolishing black neighborhoods was seen as accomplishing two goals at once — in other words, it was deliberate, not incidental. This is precisely what happened with the construction of I-375 in Detroit. Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, two vibrant African-American neighborhoods, were simply scraped off the face of the earth to accommodate the new urban freeways, Lafayette Park, the Detroit Medical Center, and, decades later, Ford Field.