Starting Over From Scratch In The Motor City

When a problem seems to be intractable, sometimes it’s best to start with a tabula rasa and begin again from scratch. For most urban planners, this is a difficult proposition considering how densely populated cities can be and the difficulty of finding large swaths of land for new projects.

The city of Detroit, however, has emptied out so much in the last few decades that a tabula rasa project is not such a far-fetched idea in some downtown neighborhoods. Boston-based Sasaki Associates, for instance, has come up with an ambitious plan called TechTown to replace abandoned, crumbling infrastructure with sustainable development, including pedestrian-friendly streets and year-round public activities.

A concept of the central Innovation Square that will anchor TechTown in Detroit. Image via Sasaki Associates.

A concept of the central Innovation Square that will anchor TechTown in Detroit. Image via Sasaki Associates.

With support from local institutions such as Wayne State University, Henry Ford Health System, Next Energy and the College of Creative Studies, the TechTown District Plan covers 149 acres of Midtown Detroit and will focus on the development of local entrepreneurs and startup companies. According to the nonprofit urban planning and economic development corporation, Midtown Detroit Inc., the district will be an open-air version of a technology campus, much like those built by Google and Apple. Each new anchor building will include an ample amount of common areas and meeting places to encourage collaboration and the free exchange of ideas.

Artist's rendering of the plan for Innovation Square. Image via Sasaki Associates.

Artist’s rendering of the plan for TechTown’s Innovation Square. Image via Sasaki Associates.

The first phase of the project involves the creation of a central “Innovation Square,” which will be the focal point of development on the site. The square will include bars, coffee shops, shared offices and public spaces that can host a variety of activities. The open areas can host mobile businesses, such as lunchtime food trucks in the summer and ice-skating rinks and bonfires in the winter, Sasaki said. Amenities such as climbing walls, curling lanes and open-air theater screens are also included in the master plan.

Throughout the year, the open areas would also include what Sasaki calls “collaboration cubes” — pop-up temporary offices that can be moved around as needed or set up like farmer’s market stalls, depending on the needs of the startup companies. The TechTown district plan also included ample park lands and other green spaces that are easily accessed by pedestrians and cyclists. All of the streets will include wide bicycle lanes to encourage commuting by bike or on foot whenever possible.

Aerial view of what the 149-acre complex might look like in Midtown Detroit. Image via Sasaki Associates.

Aerial view of what the 149-acre complex might look like in Midtown Detroit. Image via Sasaki Associates.

Later stages of the project involve business incubation companies that would focus on areas such as technology, health care, green building and alternative energy. To keep tabs on how much energy is being consumed on the campus, Sasaki has proposed an interactive monitoring system called the Digital Mirror, which reports the usage of electricity, water, food and other consumables to tenants and administrators of each technology cluster in real time.

“This will enable the district to more effectively manage systems at the urban scale and influence individuals to change their behaviors to optimize resources and their consumption,” according to the Sasaki plan. “The Digital Mirror could also display and celebrate achievements by the creative community in TechTown, such as patents, innovations and new technologies.”

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.

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