A Tree Grows In Detroit—A Lot Of Them

Sometimes a blank slate is one of the best catalysts for creativity. Perhaps that’s why we’ve been seeing a lot of innovative green building designs coming out of Detroit, one of the cities that has been hardest-hit during the Great Recession. From post-apocalyptic golf courses to net-zero garage conversions to containerized condos, the Motor City has been a magnet for provocative designs to help fill in voids left by failed industries.

One of the greenest ideas, in a literal sense, has to be The Forest, which recently won the top prize in the 2012 Detroit by Design competition. The idea from New York City architecture firm atelier WHY, couldn’t be simpler: Take an open riverfront plaza in the heart of downtown and turn it into a dense, primeval urban forest.

Aerial view of proposal via atelier WHY

Aerial view of proposal via atelier WHY

Designers Hyun Tek Yoon and Soo Bum You of South Korea chose Hart Plaza, an already popular downtown landmark located on the edge of the Detroit River, as a place to turn back time to an era when most of the region was covered in thick groves of trees. From the edges, the park would appear to be a mysterious, natural forest. But inside the design includes several intimate spaces containing sculptures and small clearings that would be accessible via raised pedestrian walkways and bridges.

“The city needs space to breath,” the designers write on the atelier WHY website. “The city is far too compact to communicate with people and nature. Public spaces and nature are not enough.”

The cantilevered "knoll" section would provide a series of covered spaces overhanging the Detroit River. Image via atelier WHY.

The cantilevered “knoll” section would provide a series of covered spaces overhanging the Detroit River. Image via atelier WHY.

One of the focal points is the “knoll,” large cantilevered structure on the riverfront that would rise gently like a natural hill and become an open plaza to provide unique views of the city skyline and river activity. The angled portion of the knoll would be a vast green roof that could be used as seating areas for large-scale outdoor concerts and events, or as a central meeting place for park visitors.

Inside the knoll, the design includes a glass-in space for cafés, a visitor’s center and an auditorium. Directly underneath the cantilevered section, the structure would provide a covered space to protect a portion of the riverfront walkway from rain and snow. All of the levels would be connected by an open-air escalator that can carry visitors from the waterfront up through the café space and to the top of the knoll roof.

Hart Plaza, as it looks today. Image via DetroitYES.

Hart Plaza, as it looks today. Image via DetroitYES.

Of course, the problem with the design is that Hart Plaza is already a popular urban plaza attracting thousands of tourists who come to enjoy the waterfront and appreciate public art, such as sculptural works by Isamu Noguchi. Atelier WHY has addressed this issue by incorporating many existing landmarks into their grand plan. For instance, Noguchi’s famous Dodge Fountain, built in 1979, would remain amid the dense vegetation, although it would be ringed by a small amphitheater and walkway.

Hart Plaza's Dodge Fountain, designed by Isamu Noguchi in 1979, would be preserved in the Forest plans, surrounded by a small amphitheater. Image via atelier WHY.

Hart Plaza’s Dodge Fountain, designed by Isamu Noguchi in 1979, would be preserved in the Forest plans, surrounded by a small amphitheater. Image via atelier WHY.

However, planting an entire forest on a space currently being enjoyed by joggers, sunbathers and picnickers will undoubtedly be a tough sell. Don’t expect to see The Forest sprout on the waterfront anytime soon.

Randy Woods is a Seattle-based writer and editor with 20+ years of experience in the business publishing world. A former managing editor of Seattle Business, iSixSigma, Claims and Waste Age magazines, he has covered topics that include newspaper publishing, entrepreneurism, green businesses, insurance, environmental protection and garbage hauling (yes, really). He also contributes to the Career Center Blog for The Seattle Times and edits a photography magazine called PhotoMedia. When not working, he likes to hide out in Seattle movie theaters and attend film festivals—even on sunny days.

  • http://twitter.com/RexScientiarum Eccentric scientist

    They better be native tree species, I would really like to see that. Maybe some pawpaws along the riverfront? It doesn’t matter, people will cut them down in the night and sell the lumber for drug money (I am half serious). That city is doomed.