In 1805, Detroit’s progress was nearly nullified in a city-wide fire. The loss of property quickly spurred a rebuilding campaign that included a plan for the city by Justice Augustus B. Woodward, a friend of Thomas Jefferson deployed to the region to serve as a judge.
Woodward’s city plan rejected much of the previous continental grid, and instead recalled the baroque-renaissance urban tradition, tipped off by monumental axes, seemingly infinite vistas, and broad use of symmetry. Its strong geometric shapes and relationships also display a neo-classical sensibility, where use of pure forms and idealism play a vital role in systemizing the urban fabric and street hierarchy.
The main concept of Woodward’s plan involved equilateral triangles of 4,000 foot sides, which formed larger hexagons in a kaleidoscoping fashion. Since quarter-section land parcels were common in the area, the triangles were carefully sized to include nearly the same amount of land:
As a result of this relationship, hexagonal units (six equilateral triangles) of urban fabric were equivalent to 1.5 square miles.
Blocks, which were bisected by narrow alleys, varied in shape, ranging from the prismatic to the square, and the trapezoidal to the irregular. Groups of eight blocks gathered around a centralized piazza comprised right triangles which, in groups of six, formed the larger equilateral triangles.
Frequently, the city as a sacred order found representation in the interior centralized piazzas of the small triangular sub-sections, although these voids were not exclusively used for sacred architecture. In one case, this space was reserved for the city’s original French fort.
Although Woodward opted out of the continental grid system, the plan returns to the grid as the urban fabric approaches the river, perhaps as a more predictable mediator between the river’s edge and the plan’s iconic triangular system.
Street hierarchy played an important role in modulating the activity of Woodward’s plan. In Baroque expressions of America’s fresh civic realm, Grand Avenues of 200 feet in width connected nodes of great importance, such as the famous Grand Circus, or Campus Martius, while street width diminished towards the domestic scale appropriately. Tree-lined secondary streets of 120 feet and smaller streets of 60 feet were incorporated into the block system.
The plan’s main system was highly scalable (designed to repeat in a modular fashion with city growth), and multi-faceted in its insightful accommodations. Woodward believed that a thoughtful and intentional plan would set the city on a more prosperous course, and believed that Detroit had the potential to rival great Continental cities if built on the proper foundation. However, the momentum of commercial progress prevented the community from adopting a patient strategy for implementing Woodward’s plan, and a clumsy patchwork of imperfect grid patterns ultimately appeared, highlighting the city as an economic order aligned with its capitalist nation.
Today, evidence of Woodward’s plan can be seen in the map of Detroit, but only if one makes the effort. The Grand Circus, reduced to a semi-circle still terminates a monumental civil axis, but most of the buildings around the perimeter are glass high-rises in varying condition. One finds the same result at the Campus Martius, where an ornate city hall building was razed and replaced with an International Style high-rise in 1951 (municipal government functions now reside a few blocks away). These important axes are not accented with greenery or landscaping, but are rather interrupted and further concealed by the randomness of existing vegetation, as well as the undulating elevated track of the “People Mover”, Detroit’s light rail system. Commercial enterprise has annexed these spaces, but Woodward’s “spokes” (avenues radiating out of nodes) and centralized thinking causes them to remain as important urban spaces, where containment varies, but endures conceptually. As consolation for the plan’s demise, Detroit’s remarkable collection of freestanding monuments helps to articulate hierarchy of urban space, and a civic consciousness.
In the age of the Automobile, it follows that the “Capital of the Automotive Industry” would be transformed immensely by suburban sprawl, and the flight of the middle class. During the gilded age and into the 1920’s, Detroit was the fourth largest city in America, trailing just New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. However, an exodus to surrounding areas in the face of economic turmoil and misguided urban renewal has caused the city to fall to the eighteenth largest. Today, the city’s population hovers around 700,000 residents, while the Southeastern Michigan metropolitan area is home to approximately 5.3 million. Detroit’s function as a demographic order is severely impeded by this phenomenon, since divide lines between economic classes and races nearly coincide. Today, Detroit’s residents are mostly African American, while its surrounding suburbs are mostly white. As an international city and border town, other immigrant populations in the region have seen significant growth in recent years, but given the city’s sustained loss of economic diversity and a middle-class preference for the suburban lifestyle, these increases feed Detroit’s suburbs almost exclusively.
Removing economic activity from the city limits has caused a hollowing blight, followed by a crippling municipal bankruptcy. The city’s financial problems have caused severely blighted neighborhoods to go unattended, fueling severe crime and urban decay. It is typical for the city to demolish entire blocks of pre-1940’s houses, leaving vacant land in an effort to reduce its maintenance burden. This land, which exists in the midst of the urban fabric of the city, has seen some adaptive reuse in the last decade, which has included large art installations and urban farming. These transformations – from urban fabric to ruins, and from ruins to anti-space, have played an important role in defining Detroit as a formal and environmental order today. As a worldwide migration to urban life continues, Detroit possesses a romantic upside for some, and economic energy is gradually returning to the city, as adventurous investors once again kick Motown’s tires. The 2016 Congress for New Urbanism will be held in Detroit, and while New Urbanism defines itself as the practice of traditional urbanism in the world of sprawl, this event will undoubtedly address the challenge of practicing a unique kind of urban planning, which is super-imposed on top of a great city’s ruins. Perhaps in this iteration, Detroit’s stakeholders can seize the opportunity that faced Woodward after similar destruction.
Image Credit: The Carnegie Arts of the United States Collection / Data from : University of Georgia Libraries / Augustus Woodward & Abijuh Hall (obtained using student access to Artstor Image Database)
Course: Urban Elements & Principles, Professor Philip Bess (Fall 2015)