By Jay Walljasper

Detroit, of all places, has struck a mighty blow for the radical idea that cities are for people, not just for cars. This is startling since no place has believed so fervently as Detroit in the glory of automobiles. And no place has labored with such dedication to accommodate them in every possible way. And no place has paid such a steep price for it. Smooth, wide, fast roads now criss-cross the city, and over the past fifty years Detroit has watched as more than a million of its residents have taken those roads out of town–permanently. Suburbs now sprawl endlessly across the Michigan landscape, and few people living there ever come back to the city for a visit.

The ice rink was a smash hit right after the grand opening of Campus Martius in November 2004. Image © Rundell Associates.

That’s what makes the resounding success of Campus Martius–a new downtown public square built with the help of PPS–so remarkable. It’s a great public space, brimming with life, in a downtown that many people had given up for dead.

In 2005, having been open only a year, Campus Martius had hit a home run with public space advocates, designers and, most important of all, the people of Detroit and surrounding communities. People were coming back downtown to hear concerts, watch outdoor movies, admire the ever-changing flower gardens, delight in the fountains, meet a date at the Park Cafe, or simply sit and relax. A big attraction for everyone was to rub shoulders with all the other people there.

“Going back 300 years, Campus Martius had always been Detroit’s gathering spot,” explains Bob Gregory, a former General Motors executive who oversaw the planning of Campus Martius. But in recent years, Gregory admits, it had been a gathering spot only for vehicles.

Detroit 300, a civic organization coming together to celebrate the city’s 300th anniversary in 2001, raised $25 million to create a town square as a birthday present for local residents. “We put this green dot in the center of our plans to revitalize downtown,” Gregory remembers, “so we called in PPS to help make it a reality.

“It changes the image of Detroit in everyone’s mind. They see the square on TV, hear about what’s happening there and they see Detroit differently.”

“We wanted a place that was green and that was a center of activity for downtown,” he continues. “But we didn’t want a place that was tranquil and beautiful, but there was nothing to do.” Gregory says they hit on the idea of a lively town square by looking at examples like Rockefeller Center and Bryant Park in New York, and many European city squares.

“Over the last year, the park has delivered on its promise to be a gathering spot for everybody,” Gregory says with unmistakable pride in his voice. “People call it ‘beautiful’ and say it looks like ‘a real city.’ It changes the image of Detroit in everyone’s mind. They see the square on TV, hear about what’s happening there and they see Detroit differently.”

Five hundred million dollars of new investment has flowed into the area since plans for Campus Martius were announced, including a new office building across the street, new retail shops, and loft developments in many of the area’s old buildings. Most significantly, the Compuware computer firm moved its headquarters and 4000 employees from the suburbs to a new building near the square. “Compuware would not have come downtown without the park,” Gregory notes. “They didn’t want just a building. They wanted a lively district, where their workers would have things to do.”

Several major downtown streets were re-routed to make Campus Martius a place that works for pedestrians. Image © Rundell Associates.

A key accomplishment of Campus Martius has been its ability to attract visitors of all kinds. “We’ve been surprised by how many people from the suburbs are coming here,” Gregory notes. “The quality of the space attracts everyone from rich to poor. The programs are all family-oriented. One of the measures of a good place according to PPS is if you see women and kids using it. Well, that happens in Campus Martius. Everyone is there.”

More than 200 events, ranging from the Detroit International Jazz Festival to a story hour for kids, are held over the summer. But the square’s popularity also extends to the winter, which in Detroit lasts from November through April. The fountains splash all winter. The ice rink is open–and crowded–125 days a year. A large holiday tree is decorated, and lit up in a gala public ceremony. And the Paris-style park chairs, which can be moved so people are able to find a nice place to sit in the sun or away from the wind, are kept out all year.

One of the most remarkable things about Campus Martius is how its creators managed to reroute several busy downtown streets, disrupting the flow of traffic to create a new place for pedestrians. How did they pull that off, especially in a place that affectionately calls itself the Motor City? Gregory says the assistance of public officials, especially former mayor Dennis Archer, made it possible.

“We had his support over the objection of transportation people who said you can’t change the traffic patterns. They always have all these studies and standards that quoted about why rearranging streets couldn’t be done. But the mayor’s office was solid and we did get it done.”

So even in the Motor City it’s people on foot (and ice skates), not in cars, that are bringing new hope to the heart of town.