Shaping a 15-Minute City Vision for Detroit and Cleveland Using Data-Assisted Modeling

How master plans in the two cities hope to transform their historic, and historically underutilized, waterfronts.

7 minute read

February 19, 2023, 9:00 AM PST

By Trevor McIntyre, Jason King

Waterfront walkway with benches and Detroit skyline in the background

Real Window Creative / Detroit waterfront

Bedrock Detroit, the largest commercial property owner in downtown Detroit and one of the largest in Cleveland, is playing a critical role in transforming the economic fabric of the historically underutilized central waterfront districts in both cities.

With the help of Bedrock, owned by Dan Gilbert, owner of Quicken Loans and the Cleveland Cavaliers NBA basketball team, the waterfronts in downtown Cleveland and Detroit are set for transformational redevelopment into '15-minute' urban neighborhoods. As these neighborhoods take shape over the next 15 to 20 years, they will offer an optimal mix of mixed-used residential, commercial, and infrastructure development that will support economically and socially robust communities. 

In December 2022, Bedrock unveiled its long-range master plan for Cleveland, which would transform 35 acres of the downtown riverfront along the Cuyahoga River into a walkable neighborhood featuring compact, mixed-use districts with housing closely connected to amenities like grocery stores, cafes, parks, and schools. 

While the specific design elements of the buildings and public spaces that will spring from the master plan are being led by world-renowned architect Sir David Adjaye, a major part of the development process that will unfold over the coming years has been the use of an innovative data-driven urban planning approach conducted by Arcadis IBI Group. This approach uses data and parametric modeling to provide evidence-based solutions to identify optimal placement and uses for Bedrock’s hundreds of properties along the banks of the Cuyahoga River.

The same parametric design principles were used for Bedrock’s 15-minute neighborhood development project on Detroit’s waterfront. In that city, which has a well-documented history of demolishing predominantly Black neighborhoods or leaving them neglected and disconnected from the rest of the city through racist and discriminatory planning policies, Bedrock wants to take a leading role in rectifying the wrongs of the past.  

Those efforts will start by stitching several downtown Detroit neighborhoods back together. This includes Black Bottom, where barriers such as the I-375 Freeway extension bored its way through the neighborhood in the 1960s. The plan proposes demolishing and replacing the freeway with local streets, bike paths, and sidewalk connections that can actually bring people and communities together.  

As further efforts to refurbish and develop new buildings, infrastructure, businesses, and amenities to properly serve the current and future needs of the community are being developed for the Detroit waterfront, a keystone of Bedrock’s long-term vision is to ensure that the path to private property ownership is accessible to the Black communities that have been most affected by past injustices. 

Algorithms linked to design principles and community feedback

With the help of our data-driven design expertise, Bedrock has set a course to achieving the goal of building a sustainable, livable, walkable, equitable, and viable 15-minute neighborhood in downtown Detroit. Of course, the data and algorithms are intricately linked with proven urban design principles and community feedback to provide a strong foundation for district planning and modeling. 

In essence, a 15-minute neighborhood is a dense, walkable, amenity-rich community where everything you need for everyday life is within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from where you live. A decidedly ambitious concept, pproviding everybody in a community with what they need when they need it isa very difficult goal to achieve because every community has its own unique agglomeration of needs.

At the same time, it’s important to understand that individual needs aren’t necessarily unique—e.g., no community can be complete without having schools, health care services, barber shops, and cafes within its boundaries. But figuring out the precise mix of services, amenities, and infrastructure needed by any specific community requires an objective assessment of a huge number of variables. 

Add in the challenge of mapping out and controlling urban traffic and transit flows to maintain the 15-minute optimization of the neighborhood or community in question, and one can see why this is a process that is most efficiently performed with the assistance of computational modeling.

For Bedrock’s 15-minute city projects in Cleveland and Detroit, we looked at a wide range of possibilities for futurepopulation growth within different demographics and mapped out an urban development plan that would provide a path toward the best-case scenario for economic and social growth within each community.

Local nuance and expertise

In both Cleveland and Detroit, we worked closely with local planning firms that knew the street-by-street social and economic nuances of each city. Such granular local knowledge about the history and current state of virtually every street we were looking at was extremely helpful in developing a planning algorithm whose datasets encompassed intelligence gathered from first-person local research as well as relevant precedent data from other cities.

Our initial analyses included a thorough mapping of the demographics, land use, amenities, transit, and economic opportunities in the local areas under consideration. We then compared our quantitative data with qualitative feedback we received from Bedrock and a wide range of community stakeholders to get a full picture of the deficiencies, opportunities, and aspirations that could be addressed within the scope of an urban planning model. 

The model produced through this parametric process was then further developed to project population growth and quantify, locate, and generate program-specific development to realize the goal of complete community development. The planning purview considered a wide breadth of social and equity-based services that would be required in the new community, a historically sensitive but necessary approach given the class and racial inequities that have long existed in both Detroit and Cleveland.

Besides making room for small business enterprises, artists, and creative makers to flourish, the urban development plans for these areas need to ensure that residents have a safe haven in which to live, work, and play. A healthy neighborhood jobs, engagement programs for youth, and a wide range of social support programs for adults of all ages and backgrounds. Having a clear sense of this responsibility allowed us to analyze community-level data in a way that would provide a clear perspective on exactly how much of what kind of services and businesses should be apportioned throughout the newly developing communities.

Comparative data as a starting point

We created a baseline starting point for a generative approach to the planning parameters for Bedrock’s proposed new waterfront communities in Cleveland and Detroit, based on a large database of comparative data from compact, walkable, amenity-rich neighborhoods in other parts of the world. 

Every time we do this, we gather reams of new data points and knowledge that can be used to further refine the algorithms for future applications. The key thing to remember, though, is that data-driven design tools prompt and assist designers in doing their work more effectively and efficiently. Computer models can never replace the essential human element of urban design that is guided by lived experience and emotion, but they can enhance and improve it.

Because the potential to introduce a broad range of sustainable civic benefits is so great as these cities reemerge from the vicissitudes of the past, we have to remember cities are in a state of constant flux. Population growth and densification will continue over time and, as they do, there will be new demand for services and infrastructure to keep communities healthy and vibrant. Given the inherent variability of parametric modeling, the models we create for cities can be ‘living’ master plans with the ability to update as cities change.

Complete communities

As designers and planners, our experience and expertise guide us. The tools outlined above help us look at many more solutions and drive our decision-making process based on the evidence that past successes have taught us. Complete communities are based on compact, walkable, and sustainable neighborhoods that offer the goods and services we need locally in a human-scaled and comfortable setting. The buildings define the spaces, the spaces are a healthy mix of active uses, and the activities that offered between buildings are thoughtfully orchestrated to create urban experiences that are satisfying and memorable. People thrive, businesses grow, spaces mature, and great places are born.

Trevor McIntyre is Global Director, Placemaking with Arcadis IBI Group in Toronto. He is responsible for leading the landscape architecture and urban design practices across the firm. A planner, landscape architect, and urban designer for more than 20 years, he has led a vast number of projects in the U.S., Canada, Europe, the Middle East, South America, and Asia.

Jason King is Director, Parametric Design Lead with Arcadis IBI Group in Austin. He is an architect, planner, and parametric/computational designer with two decades of experience in designing cities. He draws from a background in architecture, spatial analysis, algorithmic design and optimization, active transportation, and sustainable land use.

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