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Why was Lafayette Park so successful?

One of the places I had to visit during my trip to Detroit last weekend was Lafayette Park. Designed by famed German-American architect Mies van der Rohe, it’s the largest collection of his buildings and one of the most successful examples of urban renewal in America.

Still today it remains one of the most economically and racially diverse neighbourhoods in the city and a bastion of stability within Detroit’s eroding urban fabric. But from a planning standpoint, it shares many of the same characteristics as other tower-in-a-park renewal plans. 

It was built at a lower density than the neighbourhood it replaced (the unfortunately named Black Bottom slum) and it was far more insular in terms of its relationship to the greater city. From cul-de-sacs to expansive green space areas, it’s an island in the middle of Detroit.

This recipe has created many spectacular urban failures all across the world. So why not in Detroit? One would think that Detroit of all places would suffer the same fate.

I have 3 hypotheses.

First, the fact that it’s a Mies community matters.  I’m sure it attracted and continues to attract residents simply because of who designed it. The entire neighbourhood is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Second, the community doesn’t have the same monoculture that many other master planned communities had. From the beginning, the intent was to develop a self sustaining mixed-income neighbourhood with shops, restaurants, schools and so on.

Third, I think the fact that the neighbourhood was more insular actually helped it. As the rest of the city’s fabric crumbled, Lafayette Park remained this kind of curated semi-urban space in the core of the city.

These are just some of my initial thoughts.

There has, of course, been a lot of rigorous academic thought on this topic by the likes of Charles Waldheim, the late Detlef Mertins, and others. 

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