By Anna Clark.
It may not have as much placemaking pizzazz as a new bike-share or downtown arts district, but unless a city prioritizes basic service, people will not want to build roots in it. From safe drinking water to solid public schools, brass-tacks urbanism is the not-so-secret secret about growing a healthy city.
That’s what Laura Reese, a professor at Michigan State University, is finding in her years of research into the impact — or lack thereof — of faddish economic development policies. A forthcoming book that Reese is writing with Gary Sands of Wayne State University lays this out, and seems to build on their previous worktogether on how cities that are home to the “creative class” were no less likely to be spared the pains of the economic recession as less creative cities. Reese and Sands are not arguing against all the innovations in today’s urbanism, per se, but they do suggest that projects like riverwalks and casinos are isolated initiatives that can’t make up for a city’s inconsistent trash pickup or broken street lights. Compare it to an old house: New windows and a fresh coat of paint are great, but it won’t compensate for a sinking foundation and ragged roof.
This includes the utterly unsexy work of building an infrastructure for criminal justice. In downtown Detroit, a $300 million half-built “fail jail” still stands as a monstrous reminder of poor urban planning. Plenty of community leaders — including Quicken Loans CEO Dan Gilbert — think this is an opportunity to get the jail out of downtown once and for all. At a time when Detroit is trying to revitalize its urban core, they argue, who wants an imposing jail in the middle of the action? But as I wrote before, providing a centrally located jail is part of the fundamental responsibility of a city to serve public safety. The current jail is in the midst of a rising entertainment district, yes, but it is also near the courts, police department, bail bondsmen, law offices, public transportation and parking structures — a vast interconnected network that serves a practical purpose and can’t be easily replicated elsewhere. And besides, much as any other member of the community, the city must serve the people who work in, have family in and serve time in jail.