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Elements of Urbanism: Detroit International Riverfront

Despite being the poster child for economic blight, Detroit appears to be getting this one right.

Published September 24, 2007 in Learning From      6 Comments    Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article


What is the Detroit International Riverfront?

The Detroit International Riverfront is the result of a not-for-profit agency known as the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy.  The Conservancy was formed as a result of a 90-day visioning study by Mayor Kwame M. Kilpatrick in 2002.  The basic purpose was to revitalize a former industrial riverfront by linking private sector redevelopment with a 5.5 mile public interactive greenway.


The International Riverfront is more than just a greenway.  It's being designed to stimulate redevelopment of the entire riverfront.  All projects planned in this area will be designed to fit in with their surroundings.


Detroit International Riverfront Photo Tour

Constructed in 1975, Hart Plaza was built as a part of a previous redevelopment plan.  This 14 acre waterfront downtown hardscape is the traditional location of summer music festivals and rallies to celebrate championships won by local sports teams.


10 years ago the waterfront was dominated by vacant industrial structures, such as this, and cement silos.  Today, these structures are being converted into lofts, restaurants, bars and new businesses.




Renaissance Center

The Renaissance Center originally opened in 1977.  In 2003, it was purchased by GM, who then renovated the five-tower complex into their corporate headquarters.  This renovation also included tearing down the walls that surrounded it at street level and opening the complex up to its surroundings.  On the riverfront, GM also funded this public promenade, which connects the riverwalk to its street level retail businesses and GM's free vehicle display museum.


The Riverwalk

The first 2.6 mile continuous section of the riverwalk opened on June 6, 2007.  When complete in 2012, it will connect with the places discussed above to form a 5.5 mile public greenway along the Detroit waterfront. 

The Riverwalk also includes interpretive plazas focusing on areas where signature historic events took place, a kids carousel, covered seating areas, concession stands, and wi-fi.  Funding for the riverwalk comes from local corporate foundations and individual donations.

For more information visit:


Even in the most difficult economic conditions, coordinated planning works.  Also, when properly visualized, it does not take decades to secure funding and enjoy the results.



September 24, 2007, 10:52:22 AM
I have been to Detroit for the last two years for the Detroit Electronic Music Festival. I really love the downtown area.  It's is also going through a resurgence. But you can still get affordable condos unlike our insanely priced downtown living. The RenCenter is amazing. It's open 24 hours and you can walk through it to the parking garages, hotels, etc across the street. The Riverfront park is great for big events. It is also interesting to note how Detroit embraced the techno dance movement and brought 10's of thousands of people to there city, as opposed to Jacksonville's city council which promised there never being another large scale dance music event because it woke up one members wife.

big ben

September 24, 2007, 08:34:10 PM
is that a monorail along the river?  that's awesome.  i thought it was a good idea to have a scenic monorail, instead of one that cuts through buildings, which could also be scenic, but probably not as nice as a riverfront.


September 24, 2007, 09:24:42 PM
That monorail is the Skyway's boondoggle sibling, the Detroit peoplemover.  Both took tons of money to build and have long suffered for ridership, but the Peoplemover's fortunes have turned around since the city's NFL and MLB teams built new stadiums near it's stops.  It also goes into buildings and garages as opposed to being connected to them by sidewalks.  Overall its still a bust, but with all the revitalization happening in downtown there is now talk of extending it to New Center (sort of like a Midtown) and Wayne State University's main campus.  If that ever happens, its fortunes will probably turn around for the better.


September 25, 2007, 08:47:47 AM
Isn't it linked with other regional transit systems?


September 25, 2007, 10:03:16 AM
No.  Detroit had a small downtown streetcar line in operation a few years back, but it was shut down.


September 25, 2007, 10:21:57 AM
No regional rapid transit in Detroit. The Trolley was strictly a show piece and not really more then a tourist attraction. It was equipped with classic American cars from Europe, but they were extreme narrow gauge. That single fact made the system incompatible with anything else around and also made expansion not really practical. Finally, due to redevelopment issues, the thing closed and the cars are on the market or sold. They could be converted to standard gauge (I hear that one has) but they'll look awful narrow. They would be a perfect fit for something like St. Johns Town Center, more then a downtown system or link.

The Detroit Department of Transportation is still way ahead of us. The Detroit People Mover, an elevated box on "go kart wheels", is another horizontal elevator. Just like Jacksonville, but with a few Miami Metro-Mover like twists. It is FINISHED, and makes a huge circle around the downtown core. It goes into or near most of the major downtown venues. It connects with a large regional metro city bus system, which feeds it from the suburbs. Also, Detroit lobbied and got a regional network of Amtrak operated medium-high speed trains. Perhaps the most interesting development in this bastion of the Automobile god, is a new study for a regional Transit system that is leaning toward LIGHT RAIL as the savior. If Detroit indeed falls on the alter of LRT and repents of it's past sins for salvation, the ground will quake in distant Seattle and San Diego, and windows will rattle in Kennebunkport and Key West. If it happens, ladies and gentlemen, the drinks are on me!

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