Don't squeeze out tree town's greenery
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.