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.

Central Area from city website

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.

From PROS plan; click for larger image

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

16 Comments on “Ann Arbor’s Suburban Brain Problem”

  1. I wonder how much the percentages would change if you tweaked the planning areas slightly. For instance, if you take the DDA parking planning zone as the central area – e.g.

    you pick up Argo and some nice parkland along the river. And of course you’re not counting the Diag, the Ingalls Mall, the Law Quad, or any other university greenery in this calculus as presented.

  2. varmentrout Says:

    But I showed that – look again at the table and what Rita Mitchell calculated. Areas along the river were in the Central Area calculations, I believe.

  3. Rita Mitchell Says:

    As Vivienne said, the Central Area as defined by the PROS plan does include Fuller Park and other areas along the river, but not as far as Bandemer and Argo. If the extended DDA boundary were used, much of any additional open space would come from the University’s sports areas, which are not available to the general public for casual use.

  4. tree-man Says:

    I guess I suffered from Russ Collin’s Suburban Brain Syndrome because I misunderstood what Arbor meant in the name “Ann Arbor.” My bad. Now cured of my SBS, I understand that arbor really means concrete slabs and chunks of steel, and maybe, water trickling down a monumental structure of the same.

  5. Tom Whitaker Says:

    We sure seem to have a lot of people in leadership positions who seem to truly hate what Ann Arbor is. Perhaps they wish they had jobs in Chicago or on Broadway, but hey, even those huge, dense metropolises value their parks and community spaces.

    If you are one of these haters, please stop trying to make Ann Arbor into something it’s not. If you don’t like it here, then resign your leadership position and start sending resumes out to the cities you do like. We’ve been a successful, small, midwestern college town by the river for over 180 years and believe me, we’ll get along just fine without you.

    • Tom Whitaker Says:

      To be clear, my second paragraph should probably have been addressed, “To the ‘leaders’ of Ann Arbor:”
      (I was not talking to you Vivienne!)

      • varmentrout Says:

        Thanks, Tom – I’d hate to be misunderstood as preferring concrete. I definitely have suburban brain!

  6. Barbara Carr Says:

    Fisrt, Vivienne, MANY thanks for your thoughtful messages on this website.

    Second, as to this particular posting, I am not sure I understand it. However, it seems to me that quality urban environments–the ones we admire and enjoy when traveling abroad include quiet, green, shady areas with adequate seating–i.e., urban parks. The only area in Ann Arbor providing anything resembling this is the U campus and possibly the area adjacent to the Kempf House. So, if the library lot can be developed to include some kind of public open, green space it would be a great plus!
    Mr. Dahlmann had such a proposal as I recall.

  7. varmentrout Says:

    Yes, I did this post with a fair amount of sarcasm and tongue-in-cheek humor. I am very much in favor of urban parks and I think their value is ignored in many current discussions of Ann Arbor’s downtown.

  8. lulugee Says:

    Suburb think is actually what Collins and the council majority are employing when they think of downtown as THE place to “live work play”–to quote a slogan deployed by real estate developers all over the country.

    It was the deployment of overly stringent use zoning that was responsible in large part for the unlivability of the post WW2 suburbs. These places, where schools, churches, small stores, small businesses, restaurants etc could no longer be in proximity to homes, forced us into cars. Also banned were duplexes and other small scale multi family dwellings and economic segregation began to get really ugly.

    The push to build higher and higher is misguided in that it does not serve the purpose of helping “already here” Ann Arborites get out of their cars. It only helps the developers and the financial markets. There is no imperative other than that coming from the “revitalization” hucksters.

    Real urbanists would be looking at this city as a whole and trying to figure out how to return areas outside of downtown into places where people do not need to go somewhere else for bread, milk, coffee or beer. The focus on downtown is futile without the rest of the city.

    I like to use an area of Detroit I’m familiar with as an example of a very friendly, livable urban area that was tortured and killed by planners and politicians.

    All along the Michigan Avenue corridor were neighborhoods that stretched down to Vernor to the south and Warren to the north. Some were tony, but most were working class. What all had in common was the array of butchers, bakers, restaurants and bars. There were pharmacies, clothing stores, shoe stores, car repair, shoe repair, small appliance repair, laundries and drycleaners all within walking distance.

    White flight from Detroit had many causes. The exodus did not occur right after the 67 riots. It took many years of neighborhoods being neglected by the city council and mayor, of taxes being diverted to downtown development rather than maintaining and protecting neighborhoods. And in the end, the city’s successive efforts to “save” downtown have been futile because it was the people from the dying, neglected neighborhoods who kept the central city alive.

    Russ Collins and co. have a disneyesque city in mind, not a real city. Their city would be kind of like Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island–buzzing 24/7 (and especially apropos, after the destruction of the seven sisters on Fifth Ave., is the scene where those naughty donkey boys tear down a beautiful old mansion). Non stop excitement. Edward Glaeser told them towers are hip—and green too. They believe it. They are just the latest fashion victims. They’ve succumbed to a prefab, wall street friendly version of urbanism. “Welcome to Ann Arbor–Dubai on the Huron” might be a sign they would post at the city’s portals, without understanding the joke.

    • Timothy Durham Says:

      Could not agree with this more. There is a master development plan for Ann Arbor. It has just been chucked out of all DDA-led discussion.

      As for the section of Michigan Ave. in Detroit, if you read Jane Jacobs, she would have had a lot to say about how urban planners and politicians went about destroying that place. She chose to use North Boston as her example (and the people fought back and won) but the fact that Ann Arbor is currently pricing out all of these sorts of small businesses (“the array of butchers, bakers, restaurants and bars. There were pharmacies, clothing stores, shoe stores, car repair, shoe repair, small appliance repair, laundries and drycleaners all within walking distance.”) should be looked at as a major problem with the current development schemes.

      Jacobs stressed the importance of maintaining buildings of all ages and types for the reason that affordable small business rents needed to be maintained to maintain vitality and livability.

      (Watch what happens to the Middle Kingdom space.)

      Otherwise, you get all national chain stores which is the direction we may be heading.

  9. John Floyd Says:


    Your point that the city has to work for those who live here now is right on the mark.

    I’m not aware of a great city that does not exalt its green spaces, or that thinks it can do without them. Perhaps the idea of something in between a “suburb” and a 1,000,000+ city is outside of his conceptual limits.

  10. Timothy Durham Says:

    Hi Vivienne (if you’re still checking back in on this)..

    I agree with Collins when he says:

    “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.”

    If you look at successful public spaces such as Old Town Square in Prague or Piazza San Marco in Venice, etc., these are all hardscape public spaces with cafes, businesses and apartments all around. No trees, no grass, but loads of people, activity and noise. Very active.

    So just because the Liberty Plaza is terrible AND hardscape, you can’t blame the terrible part on it being hardscape. It’s terrible because it’s badly designed and ugly.

    Just as important is having the space used at all hours of the day. Eyes on the street for safety. If it is used at lunch time and not any other time of day, the record shows (Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities) that these parks turn into menacing places at all the other times and it becomes a downward spiral- like Liberty Plaza. So there has to be a mix of users there and they have to be given reason to be there at all hours.

    I would not ascribe Jane Jacobs’ viewpoint of city parks to the DDA and I don’t want to speak for Collins, but I think this is something like what he was talking about. And I agree with him, if so.


    • varmentrout Says:

      I wrote this post with a bit of a snarky tone rather than as a serious discussion of the issue. That tone was inspired by the tenor of the discussion that day at the DDA.

      I agree with you that the public space might not necessarily be a grassy area. I don’t actually have any particular design prejudices about how a park might be designed, except that it needs to be big enough and pleasant enough.

      Totally agree that Liberty Plaza is poorly designed. I’d love to see it reworked. Or what might be even better is to sell it off for development with a serious right-of-way to a bigger park on the Library Lot.

      Collins seems to want density above all. He sees cities as bright lights and tall buildings. I don’t think he was channeling Jane Jacobs.

      • Timothy Durham Says:

        The city brahmins have the “if you build it, they will come” mentality, obviously. These projects are all going to be built on spec.

        They’d be better off spending their time convincing small businesses on the periphery to move into the currently empty spaces downtown and then reworking the dreck left behind back into green spaces (Briarwood? Arborland?) in the asteroid belt around the city. THEN if there’s need for more buildings…

        If I had to guess (not knowing him personally), I might say Collins shares my disgust with how car culture dominates all Ann Arbor decisions, both public and private.

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