Ann Arbor’s Suburban Brain Problem
Suburbs are not getting really great press these days. They are properly a region outside an urban center and best known for the residential colonies formed outside major cities post-World War II (here is a Wikipedia summary). The images of cookie-cutter neighborhoods, often with transportation malfunctions, come into play. A little elitism and even racism is associated with the idea. (In Michigan, we especially think of “white flight” from Detroit and the resulting suburbs ring. In Ann Arbor, a couple of UM professors have been critical of suburbs, including Matthew Lassiter and Jonathan Levine.) Now, does Ann Arbor qualify as a suburb? I say no. Ann Arbor is simply a small city, 45 minutes or more from a large city.
Regardless, Russ Collins, the executive director of the Michigan Theater, has been chafing against the “suburban” mentality of Ann Arborites for years. (I’m pretty sure that I read this from him in a 20-year-old article, but see also DDA minutes and my report from 2005.) He has often used the word as a pejorative, especially when he is talking about what downtown should be. Just as mankind supposedly continues to operate with a “savanna brain” based in our origins on the plains of Africa, we neighborhood types in Ann Arbor evidently suffer from suburban brain, which leads us into imprudent and inappropriate yearning for green grass.
This was the main theme of the DDA Partnerships Committee on March 9 as they discussed parks in the downtown with City of Ann Arbor park planner Amy Kuras. Kuras was there to help the committee in their project to plan for development of the city-owned lots downtown. She was reviewing with them the PROS plan update. As described by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the plan was passed by Council on March 7. One of the distressing (from the DDA’s viewpoint) facts made evident by the plan is that the Central Area is rather sadly deficient in parks. The Central Area, which includes but is much larger than the downtown, is bounded by Seventh Street, Stadium Boulevard, Ferdon, and Summit Street/Huron River.
As the statistics in the plan make clear, even with the relatively large swaths of West Park and Fuller Park (soon to be a transit hub!), the Central Area is far below other parts of Ann Arbor in park acreage per thousand residents.
Note that the chart indicates open space that is not city-owned as well, though the figure of 3.7 acres/1000 residents is calculated using only city parkland. Ann Arbor resident Rita Mitchell, who has been following park matters very closely, made calculations based on addition of city and non-city open space and found that even including the additional open space, there were only 4.79 acres per 1000 residents in the Central Area. Compared to the city-wide average of over 18 acres/1000 residents, that’s not much.
Downtown has very few parks, as is obvious from looking at the map. The most well-known (Sculpture Park, Liberty Plaza) are mostly concrete with some plantings. A group advocating a “Central Park” for the Library Lot make that statement forcefully on their website. But this doesn’t fit with the DDA’s push for development on all downtown lots. So as the Partnership Committee discussed parks in the downtown, Collins’ frustration burst forth, with a statement that “the public doesn’t understand” the dichotomy between suburban and urban space. “A suburban template drawn on urban space kills the urban space!” He urged Kuras to “help us figure out how to communicate”. Kuras agreed that downtown is different qualitatively, that downtown residents “recreate” differently from “suburban” areas. Susan Pollay pointed out that the public also misconstrues what a “park” should mean. “We have to stretch the vocabulary.” She said that the word “park” can mean different things – hardscape is also valuable. It doesn’t have to be green grass.
The group discussed different types of “open space” in the downtown. University spaces like the Diag were brought up, and the proximity of West Park and Wheeler Park were mentioned. But for those “recreating” in the downtown, Main Street is open space. People throng down those wide sidewalks, dine at tables, sit on the planters. And several times a year, Main Street is closed off to traffic, so the whole street becomes open space. Kuras mentioned that contributions from developers are supposed to be used to support parks in the same neighborhood, but they are trying to find creative ways to use those contributions in the downtown. Pollay described an effort to fix up “Transformer Plaza”, a wobegone stretch of concrete filled with electrical transformers next to the Forest Street structure. They are hoping to place more amenities there to make it a place people can relax.
Another idea is flex space – maybe for some events, the Palio parking lot could be temporarily opened up and “activated”. Library Lane could be closed to make room for book reading events. Really, there are already so many open space possibilities in the downtown. If only we can get those Ann Arbor suburban brains to take it in.
UPDATE: Dave Askins, in his account of a recent DDA meeting in the Chronicle, captured Collins’ thinking this way:
“Russ Collins commented on a theme he’s often explored, namely the idea that Ann Arbor is ostensibly a suburban community and that when people talk about the downtown, often they speak of it as if it’s an urban area. But the types of parks that are effective in a suburban area, Collins said, are not necessarily effective in an urban area. In urban areas, he said, density, activity and noise are positive attributes, even though those features are considered anathema in suburban areas.”
SECOND UPDATE: The final PROS plan was adopted by the City Council in May of 2011. Download it here.Explore posts in the same categories: Neighborhoods, politics, Sustainability