Thanks to the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, this year’s Convention attendees had the chance to be wowed by the transformation of Detroit’s waterfront during two mobile workshops and a general session with Conservancy CEO Mark Wallace. While our largest city’s efforts are of course larger than what most of our communities will undertake, many of the lessons from their experience can translate to smaller places.

Convention attendees gathered at the start of an urban bike and walk trail

The Dequindre Cut connects from the Detroit Riverwalk two miles north to Eastern Market along a former rail right-of-way.

Plan long-term, work incrementally

Convention attendees gathered around a landscape model

The Conservancy’s Mark Pasco discusses the plans for West Riverfront Park

Conservancy staff noted that they do not own the property that the Riverwalk or Dequindre Cut sit on, instead relying on a network of 99-year easements across a patchwork of privately and publicly-owned properties. In fact, after 16 years of work, this effort is still ongoing, and the Conservancy doesn’t yet have control over all the land needed for the ultimate vision.

This experience will be common to riverfront, lakefront, or trail projects in many communities—and that’s okay. Parts of Detroit’s Riverwalk have been completed and in use for a decade, offering great public spaces even while other pieces are still being put together. Treat these projects as a marathon that may take multiple generations of elected or staff leadership to complete: start with the parts that are available, build momentum, and expand from success.

Don’t give away public access

One missing link in the Riverwalk has been the segment in front of the Riverfront Towers condominiums. Built in the early 1980s on parcels that went to the water’s edge, the condo association was unwilling to allow use of their frontage for the Riverwalk; the conservancy was ultimately able to negotiate a boardwalk in the river to go around the towers’ property. A Riverwalk or similar linear park effort can easily be stymied by a holdout property owner like this—communities should do what they can to avoid having to face these situations.

Where public land along a riverfront or other such feature is sold for development, the community should maintain a public frontage in essentially all cases: where selling rights all the way to the water may boost the value to that single developer and therefore the one-time benefit of the sale price, maintaining it in the public trust provides broader public value in perpetuity. Similarly, any negotiation of development incentives for waterfront property should consider access rights, even if no trail or Riverwalk plans currently exist. If a property is sold or developed without such rights, another chance at that discussion may not arise for several decades.

Design or adapt the space to the people who use it

Children playing in the GM Plaza fountain

This was not the intended use of this space, but the designers followed the users, and it worked.

Wallace noted that the fountain in GM Plaza, in front of the Ren Cen, was originally envisioned as a sculptural element, rather than an interactive feature, but was quickly adopted by kids as a play area. (A development that could have been predicted by anyone who knows small children!) Rather than trying to obstruct access to the water feature, the Conservancy realized this unintended use was a bonus—but that water features which kids play in need more care taken for water quality, requiring an upgrade to the water supply for the fountain.

A learning process over times of how people want to use the space can be a good thing, and can be anticipated and planned for, rather than treated as a mistake. Temporary pop-ups, or a limited initial construction phase can allow some time to see what people like, or what’s not going to work as planned.

Make programming easy

Placemaking is about people, and nothing attracts people like other people. Making it easy for events large and small to use a space gets residents and visitors accustomed to visiting and adding that place to their routine. This means a place like the Riverwalk needs active management and a clear, easy process for event approval. This doesn’t mean a mandate to say “yes” to everything, because of the need to ensure access to all, provide for public safety, event cleanup, etc., but the requirements placed on an event should be clear and easy to meet, with fast turnaround from place managers.

Natural areas and real estate development aren’t incompatible

Conflicts often arise during discussions of vacant land, especially along water, around perceived zero-sum trade-offs. Dedicating new parkland can be seen as a missed opportunity for economic development or new housing, while construction along natural corridors draws opposition as antithetical to nature. Detroit’s Riverfront shows these purposes can thrive in coordination, with a variety of amphibians, reptiles, and birds in restored natural areas alongside new homes for humans.

Tour group photographing a great blue heron perched on a light fixture in front of new residential development

That’s an actual heron on the lamppost, not some concocted sculptural element.

In reaching this balance, the design of both aspects is important. Natural spaces that support wildlife (and stormwater management) doesn’t mean either a grassy lawn or just leaving be an overgrown farm field, but requires attention to scale, grading, plant selection, and creation of contiguous corridors. Not to mention education–as Wallace and other Conservancy staff noted, having high-functioning natural ecosystems can involve fielding complaints from park users who think the space is overgrown with “weeds”.

New construction can have the broadest benefit if it prioritizes multi-family apartments or condos, targeted to a mix of income levels, over stand-alone house construction. Additionally, where the footprint of development is large enough to include new streets and blocks, avoid placing long continuous block faces towards the water or natural area—a block pattern that has frequent streets or alleys perpendicular to the natural area will allow the greatest access for residents further into the neighborhood.


While Detroit’s Riverfront has benefited from substantial private donations, some of the funding sources used are available to other communities statewide:

All of these grant programs have an April 1st annual application deadline, and require that the local government applicant have an adopted 5-year Recreation Master Plan on file with DNR. Communities interested in applying should discuss their projects with MDNR grants staff well in advance of the deadline.

New ways of getting around our communities keep popping up: Lyft now claims to be available for ridehailing statewide, bikeshare systems are active in half a dozen cities (and under consideration in others), and now…

Electric scooter sharing has arrived in Michigan.

Bird scooter photo from Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons license

You heard me right: scooters.

Last week, Bird Rides Inc. deployed e-scooters in parts of downtown Detroit. Anyone (with a smartphone and credit card) can take a ride by using Bird’s app to find and unlock an available scooter, zooming to their destination at up to 15mph, and then leaving the scooter anywhere it won’t be a nuisance for the next rider to find and use.

Like some bike-share systems, these scooters are “dockless,” which means they can be picked up and dropped off anywhere, rather than only at defined (and costly) stations. Not only does this mean scooters could end up in odd or problematic places, it means the companies deploying them don’t need to do any construction or make significant capital investment, so may skip even a conversation with municipal staff—just, poof, one day the vehicles suddenly appear around town.

It’s too soon to have a good understanding of what impacts these vehicles will have—but it’s exactly the right time to think about nudging those impacts in the right direction. Before e-scooters (or e-bikes) hit your downtown is the best time to think about managing any downsides if (when?) they arrive locally, and to push them to improve mobility broadly within your community.

Fortunately, resources are emerging that can help communities navigate these issues:

  • Alex Baca recently wrote a primer on dockless bikeshare for CityLab and a followup Q & A with—both aimed at city officials trying to wrap their heads around these systems, and most of which is immediately applicable to e-scooters deployments as well. Baca formerly ran a bikeshare system in Cleveland, so has hands-on operational experience with some versions of these modes.
  • NACTO just released version 1 of their Guidelines for the Regulation and Management of Shared Active Transportation, which outlines recommended standards for issues like operation of vehicles in the public right-of-way, vehicle maintenance, provision of usage data, parking expectations, and programs to provide equitable access to low-income residents.
  • Detroit’s DPW has issued initial guidance on how the city’s existing nuisance and right-of-way codes are likely to apply to e-scooters, including expectations around their maintenance, placement, and use, with the caveat that this first interpretation is likely to change as the city gains direct experience with the vehicles.

That caveat, “subject to change at any time and without notice as understanding and experience continues to develop,” is a good summary of the overall approach communities will need to take towards these new transportation devices. Let us know what challenges your community encounters!

The pre-feasibility study looked at several routings for coast-to-coast service, as well as connections to existing Amtrak services.

The pre-feasibility study looked at several routings for coast-to-coast service, as well as connections to existing Amtrak services.

Rail service connecting Detroit, Ann Arbor, Lansing, Grand Rapids, and Holland?  Yes, please! With the amount of travel we do just between the League’s Ann Arbor and Lansing offices—let alone across the state—it’s easy to see the benefit of the “Coast-to-Coast Rail” service described in a new ridership and cost estimate study.

The study is the product of nearly five years of work by the Michigan By Rail coalition, in partnership with MDOT and local transit agencies across the state. It dives deep into current travel patterns and the conditions of Michigan’s existing rail network to evaluate the costs and benefits of several possible routings across the state.  Their conclusion: that new train service running 4 to 8 daily round-trips at maximum speeds of 79-110 miles per hour between our state’s major cities is possible, and would be popular.

Forfeit hours of my life to staring at the bumper in front of me, or relax on the train?  Hmmm, tough choice.

Dedicate hours of my life to staring at the bumper in front of me, or relax on the train? Hmmm, tough choice.

This service could give me back 2 hours of productive time every time I need to go to Lansing for a meeting, rather than spending that time staring at the freeway in front of me—I’m writing this blog post from the bus on my morning commute, after all—and the ticket would certainly be cheaper than mileage + parking. Outside of work, when we take the kids to visit family in Grand Rapids, they’d certainly be happier riding the train than stuck in their carseats for two hours and change.

The study says I’m not alone–over a million people a year could be expected to use an 8-round-trip, 110mph rail option on any of the three routings examined. The preliminary financial analysis shows this ridership could actually let the service run a strong enough annual profit to cover Michigan’s capital costs of getting it up and running–not something that can be said of most road projects!

Of course, the real potential of this rail service relies on coordinating it with other pieces of the travel network to address the “last mile” question: how do I get from the train station to where I’m really going? Unless my destination is within half a mile of the station, I’ll need to pair the train service with something else: bikeshare or Uber or a seamless connection to local bus service, if I’m going a couple miles; something like ZipCar at the train station if I’m going a bit further.

The Dearborn PlacePlan included a look at how the new train station could support new mixed-use development.

The Dearborn PlacePlan included a look at how that city’s Amtrak station could support new mixed-use development.

What happens around the stations will also be important to making the service successful: people who live or work or go to school within that half-mile or so from a station are the most likely to use it regularly. Of course, the proposed service connects places that are already major activity centers, which contributes to the positive ridership forecast.  But there are also plenty of surface parking lots, vacant industrial buildings, and similar potential near many of the suggested stations, providing good opportunities for upcycling to active uses.

Obviously, it will be a decade or more before the Coast-to-Coast service can be up and running—but spending that time to look at the land use and connecting transportation networks around the stations will be critical to cities and their residents getting the most of this opportunity.