Detroit, meet Zurich: A city-to-city chat

Nadia Halim, March 13, 2014

(Photo: Former industrial buildings being demolished to make way for residential developments in Zurich. Photo by Marie-Anne Lerjen.) 

Jane’s Walk is all about conversations. In addition to the walking conversations that happen on sidewalks around the world during the first weekend in May, we’re working on fostering dialogues between people in different cities who share common interests in city-building and community life. For this blogpost, we asked two organizers -- one in Detroit, Michigan, U.S.A., the other in Zurich, Switzerland -- to discuss life in their cities, via e-mail.

Marie-Anne Lerjen, of Zurich, writes: Jane's Walk is just one of my walking projects. I founded an Agency for Walking Culture in Zurich two years ago. I invite people to come along on experimental guided walks that deal with the perception of the city. I am interested in architecture and urbanism, in working with artistic walking methods to generate different points of view for discussion.

Madhavi Reddy, of Detroit, writes: I moved to Detroit two years ago from Toronto, Canada. I am part of a neighborhood planning team that brought the Jane's Walks to Detroit; this will be the third year we host a walk. Last year, we supported a few other groups to plan walks in their parts of the city, and we're working to engage even more neighborhoods this year.  


Marie-Anne: So, I will make a start. I have never been to the United States. I have heard about the economic problems in Detroit, but I had to check a map to find out where it is. I imagine the feeling of living in Detroit is absolutely the contrary of what we are experiencing at the moment in Zurich. Here, private companies have been building a lot in the last years. Huge former industrial areas are being transformed into newly built housing, which is mostly expensive. It is therefore quite difficult, and is getting more difficult, to find a place to live in Zurich, even for middle-class people. So our problem is gentrification.

The Jane's Walks I have done, and will do again this year, focus on areas near my home that are in a state of current or latent transformation. I think it is important to be informed about what is being planned. For example, this year we will talk about a huge new residential development, which started construction last year and which is expected to house 1,000 new inhabitants when complete. Nearby, there is an area where squatters live (unusual in Zurich), where I also want to drop in and discuss.

In Zurich, lots of things are really well organized by the city government, and life is comfortable. So it’s not so easy to make people start initiatives, or think about what they want their city to be.  

My question to you: What is the actual feeling of living in your town?

Madhavi: I wish I could attend some of your walking initiatives in Zurich! It all sounds so interesting.  

How does it feel living in Detroit? This is a very interesting question. I think spending time in Detroit means you'll probably feel every feeling, each day! This could be because I've only lived here for two years and I came from a very different city. Parts of Detroit are thriving. The people and things happening in those parts feel electric and empowering. You walk down the street and see a community rebuilding itself. But other areas experience such marginalization that it often feels overwhelming. I am happy to say that, for me at least, the energy of people trying to create positive change wins out in the end. I hope this answers your question!

The walks I've been involved in organizing are in Greenacres and Sherwood Forest, a neighborhood on the edge of the city that has very few vacant houses. It’s mostly single family homes built in the 1920s. We are bordered by very busy streets (8 Mile, Woodward, Livernois), but live a quiet life.  Our goal to date has been to show people who don't know much about Detroit that there is more to the city than all of the challenges that you see and read about. We have tried very hard to get people from the surrounding cities to attend.  This year, we will be walking on Livernois Avenue, a commercial area with many shops --  some closed, others open. This area has benefited recently from small-business incubation programs, and revitalization programs to increase walkability. Other walks have concentrated on a historic street, an area that will become a green thoroughfare, and a community in the southwest.  

 When I think of Zurich, I think of public transportation. This is an issue that is very important to Detroit, as our public transportation system has many challenges, including lack of funding and safety issues. The city has plans in the works, including light rail and revitalizing the current bus systems (local and regional). I'd like to know your feelings about public transportation in Zurich. What do you think makes it work so well?  

Marie-Anne: I am glad that you’re optimistic about Detroit. I can imagine that it’s a huge city and the different parts are developing differently.

The public transport system in Zurich, and all over Switzerland, is really well functioning. If you live in the city, you can get around perfectly easily without a car (we don't have one). The next bus or tram station is never far away, and the frequency is high. It's amazing. Why does it work so well? There is a continual investment. It's well organized and smoothly interconnected; therefore, it's used by many people. Lot of people who live far from downtown, or in other towns, use public transport to commute to jobs in the city, and inhabitants of the city use it to go out for leisure activities.

Don't think there are no cars here -- there are a lot, and we have traffic jams. But the buses often have their own lanes, so you reach your destination faster by bus (or tram). That's great. (I also like to get around by cycling, but for bicycles, the conditions are not so good: too much traffic.)

If you want to know more about the Swiss public transport system, you can find an English-language brochure (PDF) about it on this page


A Jane's Walk in Detroit. Photo by Barbara Barefield.


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