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Alexa Bush, planning director Maurce Cox, and Lynn Ross from the Knight foundation speaking to some of the youth at Thorncliffe Park in Toronto.
Alexa Bush (in white), City of Detroit Planning Director Maurce Cox and Lynn Ross from the Knight foundation speak to Thorncliffe Park youth while in Toronto.

August 23, 2018

Creating walkable neighbourhoods in motor city: Q&A with Alexa Bush

Alexa Bush is an Urban Design Director, working with the City of Detroit Planning and Development Department for the past three years. She was part of the group from Detroit who visited Toronto back in July for a Learning Journey with Reimagining the Civic Commons.

We chatted with her to learn more about what Detroit is doing to integrate density into their city and what they took away from their visit to Toronto.

What was something that stood out to you from your Learning Journey experience in Toronto?

To us, it was really interesting to see and understand a little bit more about the interplay between the grassroots and government. It was interesting to see what is happening at the community level and how it interfaces with governments at any level, whether it be local or municipal.

We were really struck with the advocacy and passion of folks working at the grassroots level in driving forward change. People were really trying to move things forward and push the city to innovate in ways that felt very authentic and grounded in community.

The Scadding Court Community Centre in particular stood out to us quite a bit. It explored the idea of how social enterprise plays a role in a lot of what we do. I know that at a municipal level, the city doesn’t entirely control the strings of all the funds it receives. It is really interesting to see in that model how the social enterprise helped create another way of supporting and funding programming that really was in the hands of that group more directly. We saw that funding didn’t have to be one or the other, but actually finding this wise blend of partners and sources that enabled some really fabulous programming.

We feel we have some of those pieces in our community, so it really caused us to stop and think: how can we support those people at the grassroots level? It’s really a blend of social entrepreneurship, philanthropy, public and private all combined into one.

A group of people sit in Dufferin Park.
Civic Commons Learning Journey participants in Dufferin Park

What is something you think Canadian cities could learn from Detroit?

We’re in a really interesting point in Detroit having come through municipal bankruptcy just a few years ago. It really forced us to consider how we work at the municipal government in a resource-constrained environment.

I think in the U.S. model, the vision of a prosperous city is a very top-down, tax-revenue driven, big capitally-funded entity. That’s still not our reality in Detroit. So we have had to ask: What does a new mode of local government look like? We are taking an approach that is much more focused, rather than it being 100 per cent top-down from the city, on a collaborative model both with other stakeholder partners and the community. How do we open up a dialogue to become a lot more horizontal with how we think, a lot lighter on the ground and think a lot more about the testing of ideas before we spend very limited capital dollars?

I think we are in a different mode than Toronto and other Canadian cities where you’re in a much bigger growth mode. Our low-growth mode has forced us to adapt and has offered us a very different way to interact with our citizens and the public at large to be a much more collaborative partner as a local government agent, rather than a top-down driver of different capital improvements, programs or strategies.

Where do you think the future of our cities are going? Where is Detroit headed?

I think we really see a lot of the current trends pushing people to want a walkable lifestyle, or at least the option to walk. I think for quite some time in the U.S., the motives have been the opposite – Detroit being the epicentre of the motor city. The ideal was really, “I want my own piece of land and my single-family house with my white-picket fence.”

But that’s changing for different generations. Baby Boomers are saying: “We don’t necessarily want the big house, we don’t want to drive and we don’t want to be in this commute.” Millennials are even more interested in this walkable, urban life.

That’s really where we’re pushing in Detroit, trying to retrofit our city. We’re trying to think strategically about where we can insert a little bit more density and more walkability in some of our neighbourhood centres outside of the downtown. How do we grow essentially the supply of a much more walkable, dense community within our fabric? Because that’s a different modality that exists in a lot of our suburbs.

How are you going about doing that?

We’ve selected a certain number of commercial corridors across the city. These corridors tend to anchor anywhere from two to seven different neighbourhoods. Within each of those we’re focusing on half a mile to mile-long stretches to really create these nodes where it’s easy to walk. These nodes might link into a bus network or into a broader bike network. Rather than trying to invest a little bit everywhere, we’re creating these critical nodes of density that complement the rest of what we have, which might be single-family homes or more strip-oriented retail. We’re inserting mixed-use, low to middle density multifamily housing to start to diversify the fabric of our city through these very geographically-targeted insertions of density.

Learn more about Reimagining the Civic Commons’ Toronto Learning Journey over on 8 80 Cities’ blog.