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Posted on Thu, Aug 1, 2013 : 12:30 p.m.

Don't squeeze out tree town's greenery

By Guest Column

The tree-loving tradition and the special ambience of Ann Arbor have been under attack for a long time, but the city now seems to be at an important crossroad. Ann Arbor's greenery has created an ambience that has raised its quality of life and enhanced its economy; however, these qualities have attracted businesses and developers. Paradoxically, these interests threaten Ann Arbor's special qualities, a sort of “kiss of death”. I will outline some of these issues and call for changes in planning.

Increasingly, merchants feel entitled to occupy public sidewalk space for outdoor seating creating unpleasant congestion, even forcing pedestrians out into the street. Outdoor seating along the streets also subjects customers to air-borne dirt and fumes. Better outdoor solutions are needed The same interests wish to bring more large convention business to Ann Arbor, but these would be best served in Detroit which badly needs that economic activity.

Another increasing trend is to construct new buildings closer to the streets thereby removing the green setbacks eliminating not only the trees but all greenery. That creates concrete-/brick-lined canyons. As the city-center residential population soars in numbers and vertically in taller buildings, there is no effort to implement neighborhood green spaces where these people can go to relax, exercise, enjoy the outdoors and develop a sense of community. Ann Arbor has outstanding parks and natural areas, but these are very limited in the city center. Developers need to contribute more. Those controlling the development process have shown resistance to soft lines and complex patterns of green spaces and parks in favor of a concrete/brick world of hard lines. The resistance to the Allen Creek greenway and a park next to the downtown library are two prominent examples of these problems.

This development is choking Ann Arbor. In the longterm, it will choke the businesses who push them for short-term gains and reduce the vitality of the University of Michigan.

Why is this natural green ambience important? Abundant scientific evidence indicates that urban green space and plants mingled with buildings not only help to purify the air, but these natural environmental components absorb noise, are aesthetic and have psychological benefits including stress reduction and improved cognitive functions.

Experience has demonstrated that the Public needs to have more role in city planning. The whole process needs to be better informed and serve longterm Public interests more, not primarily developers and special interests. In particular, the Downtown Development Authority has demonstrated its limited ability to think in the Public interest, and it needs restructuring. The proposed $200,000 expenditure for “planning” seems likely to serve as a cover for more of the same. As Albert Einstein famously noted "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."

Of course, some development is needed; however, better information (openness) and more environmental vision are needed.

Larry Nooden
Ann Arbor



Tue, Aug 6, 2013 : 3:56 p.m.

I am intrigued by the original idea in this essay that the vibrancy of a pedestrian-friendly downtown is poorly served by pushing the buildings up against the sidewalks and spilling restaurant tables onto the sidewalks. Crowding up the pedestrians may give an illusion of activity, but it renders the walking experience less pleasant. Contrary to Hiefje's vision, that does not attract people downtown.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 12:04 a.m.

Excellent letter. I've mentioned the documentary, The Greenest Building, before in these comments. Tells how Portland, Oregon has reused buildings, kept people employed, and preserved history and nature. Really great and under an hour. The library has it I believe.


Fri, Aug 2, 2013 : 10:55 a.m.

Silly me, I thought the idea was to reduce sprawl and make a dense walkable downtown. The greenbelt was supposed to prevent anyone from building one of those nasty subdivisions near the city of Ann Arbor. The downtown was supposed to get dense and tall, making it easy for people to live and work without cars. The parks were going to be out of the downtown proper, so that the density stayed up, and the sprawl would stop. There was supposed to be a transition from the very dense (for a small town) core to the neighborhoods of single family homes, which would get in fill houses added to increase the density, without changing the character of the neighborhoods, and the rental homes for students would eventually return to single family homes. The city was to be surrounded by a ring of green, mostly organic farms that would provide local produce for the people in the city. No one would build near, but outside the city limits, keeping the people in a tight little community that was walkable with lots of local produce. Now it sounds like some people don't want that vision and so they are suggesting no more density downtown. The greenbelt goes forward increasing the people moat around the outside of the city. It almost feels like the real feeling is "I got mine" pull up the ladder we have enough people on board. I know that is not what the author means, but if you take the A2D2 story, this story and the various greenbelt stories over the last year, this is what it feels like sometimes. Unlike Detroit or Flint or Saginaw, Ann Arbor is attractive to people, they need to live somewhere if they are going to come to the area, unlike other places, Ann Arbor does not have hundreds of empty foreclosed houses. If the community wants to sustain its economic miracle then it needs to provide a rational way to grow. Balance is important, green, density, greenbelt, subdivisions, in fill, all have a place.


Fri, Aug 2, 2013 : 2:42 p.m.

Well said. Add to that the fact that you also need to have a viable transportation system, which does include automobiles. Trains, buses bikes and shoes may be valuable parts of that system but so are cars. You cannot always sacrifice the needs of commuters and residents for a reasonable system of roads which allows people to get in, out and around the city. Families are not going to go in large numbers t to stores and movies by bikes and buses. Nor are large numbers of people going to bike any significant distance to work, especially in the winter. Unless you are willing to subsidize a very extensive bus system cars will be a vital part of the transportation system. Neglect any critical part of any system and you will eventually have serious problems with that system.


Fri, Aug 2, 2013 : 4:10 a.m.

one of the reasons I love Ann Arbor so much is the fact that, throughout it's history, this town has had citizens who were invovled and concerned with making it a better place to live, not just for themselves, but for future generations. The citizens of the 60's & 70's were involved, I am told, with making a substantial effort to make sure there were plenty of trees planted. It made us who we are today; tree town! I love walking down W. Liberty in the summer when it's covered by a canopy of trees! If you are downtown, on the top level of any parking structure, you look west and north and you see nothing but trees, with the occasional roof or church spire poking through the foliage. It's one of the examples of what makes this town unique and a great place to live. Well written article, I agree with the sentiment 100%!


Fri, Aug 2, 2013 : 4:04 a.m.

PLease be sure to send a copy of this letter to the A2D2 planning facilitator, I believe that this opinion is shared by many others, and needs to be part of the A2D2 planning process.


Fri, Aug 2, 2013 : 2:39 a.m.

I agree, Larry!! Now if only the powers that be will listen.


Thu, Aug 1, 2013 : 8:38 p.m.

Agreed, but we still have too may parks that we cannot afford to maintain. Keep the trees, stop funding all the parks and turn them over to the neighborhoods or sell them off.


Fri, Aug 2, 2013 : 4:13 a.m.

that's a big NO townspeak, to selling off the parks or to stop funding them. Preventing overdevelopment is one of the underlying elements of this guest article. You don't prevent a thing when you go selling off city parks. Who are you going to sell them to? DEVELOPERS..... SMH


Fri, Aug 2, 2013 : 12:13 a.m.

Rallying neighborhoods to help care for parks is a good idea. I think the citizens would rise to the job. For many of us, the parks are a wonderful feature of AA. Downtown "parkettes" don't have to be large to give a sense of nature and a resting space both mentally and physically. (They do have to be maintained.)


Thu, Aug 1, 2013 : 8:33 p.m.

Please do go to the top of one of the evil developers parking towers and look about. Looks pretty dang green to me. I bet the end of your nose is void of trees. I suggest looking further.


Fri, Aug 2, 2013 : 1:08 p.m.

The thing is we don't live at the top of parking towers. That's not the view that's important.


Thu, Aug 1, 2013 : 7:51 p.m.

I don't know why we need public art when a beautiful tree or other landscaping would be so much more attractive and cheaper.


Fri, Aug 2, 2013 : 5:40 p.m.

Use the art funding for nature's art. Support and maintain Ann Arbor's beautiful trees.


Fri, Aug 2, 2013 : 1:32 a.m.


Linda Peck

Thu, Aug 1, 2013 : 8:32 p.m.

I agree, and softer and healthier, easier to live with. Don't get me started, I may not stop.


Thu, Aug 1, 2013 : 7:25 p.m.

DogGuy is short sighted (and short tempered?) Modern life and urban life needs soothing (as does DG?). Greenery helps all that as well as the air quality. How about some stepped back designs and vertical gardens and green roofs?

Linda Peck

Thu, Aug 1, 2013 : 8:31 p.m.

That would be way far advanced thinking for Ann Arbor's current decision makers, vertical gardens and green roofs. Currently, we are seeing the abstract art made of metal, a definite statement in the "other" direction.


Thu, Aug 1, 2013 : 8:09 p.m.

how about the drunk young people [did I say college students?] stop breaking lower branches off of the smaller trees planted around town?

Nicholas Urfe

Thu, Aug 1, 2013 : 5:49 p.m.

"In particular, the Downtown Development Authority has demonstrated its limited ability to think in the Public interest, and it needs restructuring. The proposed $200,000 expenditure for "planning" seems likely to serve as a cover for more of the same." Well said. The DDA is out of control, and it is completely ignoring the people who live in this town.

Dog Guy

Thu, Aug 1, 2013 : 5:20 p.m.

AARRRRGH! One more call for "psychological benefits including stress reduction and improved cognitive functions" and I shall start throwing heavy things!

John of Saline

Thu, Aug 1, 2013 : 7:24 p.m.

Nah, it's the lack of public art.


Thu, Aug 1, 2013 : 5:39 p.m.

You obviously don't live around enough greenery.


Thu, Aug 1, 2013 : 5:03 p.m.

I guess the bequest of $6 million back in the 1960s for trees has finally run out, eh?

Linda Peck

Thu, Aug 1, 2013 : 5:02 p.m.

Larry Nooden, than you for your comments. I appreciate them and agree with them. I have been concerned, too, with the trend to high rise, concentrated living taking over the green areas and spaces for walking. I am also concerned with the lack of forethought of planting many many trees with little bags hanging around their trunks, a very unnatural situation for sure, and then not ever filling the bags or providing for the care of the trees. At the very least, the City of Ann Arbor could have contacted the neighborhoods and asked for volunteers in care-taking. That was not done, as far as I know. It seems to be poor planning and wasting money. Now, many of these little trees are dead. What a waste of life and money.


Thu, Aug 1, 2013 : 7:17 p.m.

I too, was wondering about all the building being built so close to the streets, with only a sidewalk. Driving on Huron to the curve on Washtenaw is like driving thru the Grand Canyon!


Thu, Aug 1, 2013 : 4:58 p.m.

"...development is choking Ann Arbor." Hmm...Ann Arbor isn't quite Manhattan, and the author isn't quite Jane Jacobs. Looking around, this city is about as bucolic as you can get without unpaving the roads and resorting to horse-drawn carriages.

Jordan Johnstone

Thu, Aug 1, 2013 : 4:41 p.m.

Wow, what a great piece of writing! Great story idea. Larry you are completely correct with wanting me green spaces down town.