At first glance, a Google image search for the term “Detroit” returns an alarmingly one-sided portrayal of the Motor City. Photographs of crumbling buildings dominate so much that other parts of the story – a Tigers game, a skyline view, a Diego Rivera mural – fade into the background. Scroll a bit further and one image breaks through the monotony – a beach.
For the second year in a row, there is a seasonal beach in downtown Detroit complete with sand, colorful seating and umbrellas, a beach bar, and a custom deck. It sits at the southern end of Campus Martius Park, the vibrant public space that has helped spur major reinvestment and redevelopment efforts in surrounding blocks since it opened in 2004.
The Beach at Campus Martius (launched in 2013 with the support of a Southwest Airlines Heart of the Community grant) is part of a suite of Placemaking initiatives downtown funded and managed by Rock Ventures, the Downtown Detroit Partnership, and the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. These projects embrace the spirit of Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper as they experiment with how to make downtown a more people friendly series of places. Something else ties many of these projects together – the power of the unexpected.
“Before we even started installing it, everyone was like Oh – a beach? No one understood what we were trying to do…and people said that’s not going to work, you’re crazy,” recalls Heather Badrak, Business and Operations manager for the park. But the ‘crazy’ aspect of the Beach is actually an important part of why it works so well: pictures of feet in the sand and selfies accompanied with a range of “can you believe it?” comments are all over any social media search for Campus Martius Park. Major media outlets, like 60 Minutes and the New York Times have used images of the Beach as a symbol of Detroit’s enduring energy and spirit in the midst of its serious fiscal challenges.
Watching park visitors encounter the Beach for the first time in person is a thrill for anyone who cares about cities and public spaces. Adults break into a smile, or do a double-take, and children run across the sand and start digging without hesitation. As people settle in, you start to notice the ways that the Beach is designed for comfort and activity: “Just throwing down sand is just sand – there’s nothing behind it. There had to be the entire design – the deck, the bar, the amenities…Otherwise it wouldn’t have worked at all,” Badrak notes.
Badrak understands that whimsy and ‘crazy’ are not enough to make a successful public space, but having that special mix of something unexpected that also works well for a wide range of people has been an eye-opener: “Before the lawn was the quietest place to be. Now with the Beach it’s occupied all day, every day, and even on the weekends.”
The success of the Beach has been a learning experience for everyone involved, including Meg Walker, who led the Project for Public Spaces team:
“We had a lot of confidence that office workers would be using and enjoying the space at lunch and after work, but we’ve been amazed at how it has drawn so many different groups, especially families with kids coming at all times of day and night. Great public spaces should have something for everyone to do, and the Beach pulls that off with a few simple moves.”
The Beach was partially inspired by another ‘crazy’ project — Paris Plages, the temporary urban beach that takes over a highway along the banks of the Seine every August. Paris Plages was created in 2002 with the specific intent of providing a beach destination that all Parisians could afford to enjoy. Similarly, the Beach at Campus Martius has created a summer destination where all Detroiters can eat, drink, play, relax, mix, mingle, and even dance the Hustle.
Paris Plages has had a transformative impact on Paris’ approach to public space and transportation planning citywide. Bob Gregory, Senior Vice President at the Downtown Detroit Partnership, sees a similar trajectory for Detroit. “What we’re seeing is a sort of “ripple effect” of Placemaking, starting at Campus Martius and Cadillac Square, reaching out to Grand Circus Park and beyond.” says Gregory. “And the Beach has been a key part of that energy; there is something about it that people understand instinctively.”
The spirit of Placemaking is inspiring residents to reimagine public spaces in neighborhoods across the city, and giving community advocates new tools to address tough issues. Sarida Scott, executive director of the Community Development Advocates of Detroit, is leading a Placemaking initiative in Detroit neighborhoods (funded by the Kresge Foundation) and often uses the Beach as a reference:
“Placemaking is sometimes a hard concept to grasp, because we’re in the midst of so many other serious challenging issues such as bankruptcy, and safety, and education. Placemaking can seem frivolous…but there is a place for fun and joy in our lives that we can’t forget about as we’re doing this work and tackling these other issues.”
In addition to creating valuable opportunities for fun and joy, Scott argues that Placemaking is inherently empowering and that it can help Detroit residents tackle challenges in new ways: “We want this to be driven by the community, we want to activate public spaces that the community identifies, that the community designs and has the ideas for.”
Many Detroiters are realizing that this spirit of participation, flexibility, and experimentation is the best way forward in a climate that can feel overwhelming. Placemaking doesn’t take years of planning and massive investments. In a city where challenges are in the billions, there’s something refreshing about being able to make changes simply, creatively, and cheaply. And the flexibility and inclusiveness of the Placemaking process can actually help citizens tackle complex problems in innovative ways. Rip Rapson, President and CEO of the Kresge Foundation made the point eloquently during his remarks at the 2013 inaugural Placemaking Leadership Council meeting in Detroit:
“Indeed, there is a wonderful elegance to fitting Placemaking within the larger frame. Quicker and longer, lighter and more enduring, cheaper and more investment-intensive, all fitting hand-in-glove. [Daniel] Burnham was right about no small plans, but so too is Fred Kent about not getting stuck in the ponderous, the rigid and the pretentious. Each feeds, and is propelled by, the other.”
Or as PPS’s Senior Vice President Cynthia Nikitin said on a recent visit to Campus Martius Park: “If you want to recharge your Placemaking batteries, go to Detroit and head for the Beach.”