Urban Studies Center in the news

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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.