Detroit's unofficial footpaths could play important role in land development, researchers say

Posted at 9:38 AM, Sep 24, 2019

DETROIT (WXYZ) — One researcher at the University of Michigan is urging city planners to look at the footpaths of people who already live there.

UM's Joshua Newell and Alec Foster of Illinois State University mapped 5,680 unofficial footpaths in the city of Detroit. UM says that's 157 linear miles of trails visible from space. About 23 square miles of vacant land exists in Detroit, which is roughly equivalent to the entire island of Manhattan.

Researchers discovered a 70 percent decline in the total length of footpaths on Detroit's far east side between 2010 and 2016, with almost half of the lost footpaths on publicly owned land.

The reasons for the changes varied by neighborhood; according to researchers, sometimes, new land ownership meant fences and development on land that was once vacant. Other times, the land where the footpath once stood became unkempt and so overgrown that it was unusable, even for a footpath.

"When traveling in Detroit, doing work on urban gardens, I was struck by all the footpaths," said Newell, associate professor at U-M's School for Environment and Sustainability and in the Program in the Environment. "There is so much vacant land, we are not going to be able to develop or simply enclose all of it … so why not think about reaffirming and formalizing how people are already using these spaces?"

The vacant land is spread throughout the city's roughly 140 square miles, and the footpaths are residents' way of dealing with this reality, creating shortcuts to school, bus lines and other places they need to go.

The idea of people creating footpaths that become official roads is not new, researchers say. Many of the paved roads in Michigan can trace their origins as pathways made by Native Americans before European settlers arrived.

Researchers say that when the paths disappear, as happened in Detroit's lower east side because of changes in land ownership and path abandonment, there is lost opportunity to use the land in an organic way, including the voice and wishes of the people who already live there.

"These paths are the neighborhoods expressing their desire for how the land should be used by walking across it," Newell said.

View more about the study here.