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Core City salvages pieces of Detroit’s history to create an urban forest.
“Ideas don’t land, they emerge,” began Julie Bargmann, ASLA. At the corner of Grand River and Warren avenues in downtown Detroit stands a group of renovated post-industrial buildings, rising abruptly amid the remnants of a long silent commercial corridor. Within the cluster are the new Ocher bakery, the Magnet restaurant and a network of new small offices and businesses. The anchoring of the cluster in the center is Downtown Park.
In design and execution, Core City Park is an urban woodland. It formalizes the naturalized typologies of Detroit with a real sense of care and intentionality. The park deftly blurs the sense of boundaries through a grove of deciduous trees and an intermittent carpet of native ferns and violets. The site is furnished with found relics and leftover building materials, all of which establish clearings and resting places in the groves. An industrial railway line occasionally rumbles down the street.
In the traditional sense of landscape architecture, where there are outdoor rooms with specific programs, this space allows you to escape without leaving the park. Core City Park distributes clusters of lush greenery that frame and connect a network of groves and glades to characterize a wild landscape within a fixed urban typology. Grand River Avenue and surrounding buildings create a permeable edge that helps Core City Park blur the binaries between public and private, open and intimate, wild and formal. The urban and natural duality of this park bears witness to an effective landscape marriage that fully invites the context of Detroit (and decontext) to enliven and enlarge a central green space.
Core City Park is the result of a collaboration between Julie Bargmann’s Dirt Studio and a local promoter, Philip Kafka, founder and president of Princely concepts. Charlottesville, Va.-based Bargmann met Kafka in Detroit, and they immediately identified a kinship in using a landscape-focused approach to development that seemed a perfect fit for the city of Detroit. “In my experience, it’s far too rare to have a client – it’s not a client, it’s a collaborator – that you trust,” Bargmann told me. “I couldn’t believe he trusted me. And he [said], ‘We’ll find out as we go along.’ It was a confidence in a basic vision.
Within two weeks of Bargmann and Kafka meeting, Core City Park was born and under construction. The site originally housed Engine 12 and Ladder 9 of the Detroit Fire Department in the late 1800s. The buildings were eventually decommissioned and demolished in 1976, in response to Detroit’s declining population . The site has remained empty and unoccupied since then. When I asked how the project started, Bargmann replied, “He asked me, ‘What would you do?’ I said, ‘Dig! There is something below. The wooded intervention gives new life to the land by first bringing to the surface the buried spirit of the site. The ground plan is a mixture of fine gravel, concrete and other aggregates from the old fire station. Interchangeable brick pavers intersect right through, seamlessly connecting to the pale concrete boardwalk.
Kafka pointed to the larger concrete seats in the glades of the groves. “These are from the walls of a bank vault, and this dated stone is from the fire station – there was a lot of history hidden underneath when it was a parking lot.” They commented on how they wanted to respond sensitively to Detroit’s recent characterization. How do you reuse aspects of the site without making it ruined porn or industrial chic? How to highlight a historical materiality and maintain a local familiarity?
The development approach serves as a micromodel that combines a small public space with a high-density, small-scale commercial and retail presence. Throughout the city, small public spaces support local businesses by helping to establish place, especially in a city with vast passive landscapes. Core City Park adds to the portfolio of precedents in Detroit that define place through the synergy of open public space with commercial activity that continues to evolve even as businesses change or transition.
Bargmann and Kafka have a great designer-developer relationship that many people in either profession would covet. Their mutual admiration highlights the merits of finding allies in design and the design process that can help strengthen our ways of thinking about landscape architecture in the urban context.
The park’s urban woodland typology is one they say they hope to pursue in future projects together in Detroit. DIRT Studio and Prince Concepts are collaborating on a master plan for 20 acres in the same neighborhood that centralizes housing in a park-like landscape. Their aim is to eliminate ideas of fixed circulatory patterns on a neighborhood scale, weaving people between public and private property. The project is landscape driven in the sense that there will be sufficient development to support and subsidize the landscape features. It rejects urban density and introduces a new typology of a bucolic cityscape that embraces Detroit’s vacancy.
Land and the perception of property are touchy subjects in Detroit. Local stewardship is a core strength of the various neighborhood residents and block groups, especially after years of divestment. Here, in a city where development is moving both fast and slow, living in a park typology already exists for many residents. “Parkland is already there, but he doesn’t have a readable presence that extends beyond melancholy,” Bargmann commented.
The history of the land here in Detroit is checkered, but today it reflects a long history of loss: loss of homes, neighbors, people and sense of place. Many of the residents who remain continue to be faithful stewards of the land and the memory of what once was. Bargmann and Kafka experienced local pushback around their projects and plans. “People here think the park — the untouched, untended landscape — belongs to them,” Bargmann said. In a way, it is.
There is a new design challenge for this blueprint. How to intervene as little as possible in the landscape to encourage progress? How can you help neighbors feel that this project is still theirs, but with change? How do you gradually change a place, but in a way that remains familiar to people who have lived without change?
It’s a delicate dance, especially in cities with alarming racial and socioeconomic barriers, but Bargmann and Kafka have developed a relationship that allows him, as a landscape architect, to direct how development hits the ground. . So far, Core City Park has been successful, and surrounding programs have incorporated equity models that create public good from this private space. Ocher Bakery offers discounted food and drink prices after 4:00 p.m., a small change that democratizes cafe culture, but brings a diverse group of new and quirky Detroiters to the forest.
Ujijji Davis, ASLA, is a Detroit-based landscape architect and urban planner.
Customer Prince Concepts, Detroit. Landscape architect and lead designer Julie Bargmann, ASLA, DIRT Studio, Charlottesville, Virginia. Consulting Architect Ish Rafiuddin, Undecorated, Detroit. Community involvement Daisuke Hughes and Jess Hicks, Ocher Bakery and Astro Coffee, Detroit.