Redevelopment of Detroit 's Riverfront


Last updated: April 18, 2005



Many cities have turned to the improvement of blighted waterfronts as an attempt to stimulate local economic development. A myriad of waterfront redevelopment strategies have been employed throughout the past half century, and cities have seen these efforts produce mixed results.

In this paper I examine the historical importance of the Detroit River for the City of Detroit and its residents. I introduce the broad range of issues facing the riverfront today, and the ways that these issues might be integrated in redevelopment efforts. Finally, I address current plans for redevelopment of the Detroit riverfront and highlight a series of relevant objectives and concerns brought forth by these proposals.


History of the Detroit Riverfront:

Wayne County was first settled along the Detroit River by groups of Native Americans. The river offered these earliest settlers agricultural opportunities, bountiful fish populations, good hunting, and efficient means of transportation. European explorers reached the Detroit River in the 1600s, and the French established a fort on Detroit in 1701. By 1760 the English captured the fort from the French, and merchants from France , Denmark , Holland , and Germany began to settle the area. In 1796 Captain Moses Porter accepted the British surrender of Detroit to the Americans, and by 1812 the U.S. – Canadian Border was clearly delineated.

Commerce along the river was important for the development of Detroit and Southeast Michigan . The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 allowed for efficient access to the East Coast. In the 1850s the Soo Locks were constructed, facilitating the shipment of iron ore from Lake Superior . The 19 th and early 20 th century riverfront boasted a thriving industrial base, including steel and lumber mills, transportation companies, chemical plants, and ship building facilities.

As industry grew along the river and into the city, Detroit 's population swelled and its economy developed. Pollution of the river worsened, and by the 1940s the river became a less desirable place to recreate. Belle Isle, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead in 1880, was the origin of the 1943 race riot that lasted 36 hours and took the lives of 34 Detroiters. Crime, pollution, and the blight associated with urban decay and deindustrialization has scarred the riverfront from the mid 20 th century to the present day.


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Current Issues Shaping the Detroit Riverfront:

Today, the Detroit riverfront serves many disparate uses. It is the busiest entry to Canada , and the bridge and tunnel are heavily traveled at all times of day. Boat travel along the Detroit River is extensive, and several ports are in operation. Industry still relies on this water route, and several industrial businesses continue to prosper along the riverfront. A series of parks and plazas dot the riverfront offering recreational opportunities and pedestrian access to the river. Between these thriving nodes however, the river is wrought with blight and abandonment. Many contend that the disjointed nature of the riverfront's composition keeps visitors and residents from enjoying much of the city's thirteen miles of riverfront.

Many residents consider the riverfront to be one of the city's most undercapitalized assets. Proponents of Detroit's riverfront redevelopment efforts argue that the riverfront serves as the city's ‘front door' and that by transforming this unique natural feature the city can help transform its image from that of a derelict post-industrial city. A series of riverfront studies and redevelopment proposals have emerged throughout the past half-century and nearly all of them have proposed the same basic formula for rehabilitation; connecting the disjointed riverfront with a pedestrian-friendly greenway.

These greenway proposals have attempted to address a series of issues and challenges that confront strategists in the present day:



The environmental concerns associated with the pollutants plaguing the Detroit River are a serious concern facing any redevelopment efforts, let alone the prospect of transforming the river into a healthy place for bathing and recreating. Throughout the past half century industrial and municipal pollutants discharged into the lake have been curbed, as a set of preventative and treatment programs have been enacted. Though there is quite a bit of work to be done, great progress has been made through the efforts spearheaded by nongovernmental organizations (such as the Greater Detroit American Heritage River Initiative and the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy), as well as federal, state and local agencies. It is widely believed that the integration of a continuous greenway into the current park infrastructure can help contribute to this ongoing campaign. An eco-sensitive greenway design, utilizing softscaping strategies and a careful integration of existing fish, animal, bird, and plant habitats can facilitate an environmental improvement to Detroit 's riverfront.



Proponents of the Detroit 's riverfront redevelopment argue that existing riverfront offers great economic opportunity. A strategy such as a greenway could potentially link existing economic forces along the riverfront, and a serious beautification campaign could help attract other market players through increased demand. Advocates charge that conditions for redevelopment along the riverfront are ripe due to its central location within the metro-Detroit region, convenient access to critical transportation arteries, potential as a recreational attraction, existing economic resources, and unique historical significance.



Currently, the Detroit Riverfront is unsafe in most locations. Greenway proposal have advocated measures that could help mitigate this problem, such as increase security patrols and improved lighting. Most importantly, it is believed that a greenway proposal that can integrate new and existing residential, commercial, recreational, and industrial activities into a round-the-clock active space will help produce a spatial and social makeup that is less conducive to criminal activity.


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Riverfront Redevelopment:


Currently, there are a series of public and private projects that are being planned and/or implemented to improve the Detroit Riverfront:

Maharas/Gentry Park

UAW-GM Riverfront Joint Training Center

Saint Aubin Marina/East Riverfront Greenway

General Motors Global Headquarters

Detroit Riverfront Promenade Improvement Project

Riverside Park Promenade

Port Authority Public Dock and Passenger Terminal

Rouge River Gateway Project/Oxbow Restoration

River Rouge's Belanger Park

Lincoln Park 's Council Point Park

Trenton 's Linked Riverfront Parks Project

Wayne County 's Elizabeth Park Riverwalk

Grosse Ile Greenways

Brownstone Woodruff Corridor Bike Path

Brownstown-Flat Rock-Rockwood Trail Project

Allen Park Project

Ecorse Project




The challenge of redeveloping Detroit 's historic riverfront is being actively pursued. Only time will tell whether the long-proposed greenway strategy will help resolve the great economic, environmental, and safety challenges facing the riverfront today, and whether these improvements will serve as the true economic catalysts that its proponents think they may be. For the mean time it will be interesting to see how private and public interests come into play, and how cohesive a resolution might be produced by the tactics currently employed.


For Further Research:

Jacbson, Judy Detroit Riverfront Connections: Historical and Biographical Sketches of the Eastern Lakes Border Region , Clearfield Company, Baltimore , 1994.

Building the Riverfront Greenway: The State of Greenway Investments along the Detroit River , Greater Detroit American Heritage River Initiative and Metropolitan Coalition Project, 2001

Partners for Progress: The Land and the River , Report of The Interagency Task Force For Detroit/Wayne County Riverfront Development, Office of Economic Expansion, Michigan Department of Commerce, June, 1976.

People and The River: Increasing Recreational Opportunities on the Detroit/Wayne County Riverfront , Wayne County Planning Commission, September, 1977.

Corley, Albert Canadian America Relations Along the Detroit River , Wayne State University Press, Detroit , 1957.