Mapping Detroit’s Lines of Desire: Green Infrastructure, Vacant Land, & Mobility in the Motor City.

Authors: Alec Foster*, Illinois State University
Topics: Human-Environment Geography, Urban Geography, Cultural and Political Ecology
Keywords: Detroit, Vacant Land, Mobility, Public Space
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Visible from space, informal footpaths known as desire lines crisscross the city of Detroit. Despite their prevalence, especially in postindustrial cities, no comprehensive study of desire lines exists. How extensive are they, how do people use them, and how are they changing over time? What is their potential to serve as green infrastructure and increase the resilience of neighborhoods and communities? Do they raise equity and gentrification concerns? We conducted a spatiotemporal analysis of desire lines in Detroit by combining remote sensing and spatial analysis with physical audits and interviews. Our results show that Detroit has 5,680 of these footpaths, totaling more than 150 miles. Desire lines are creative attempts to expand urban possibilities, enhance efficiency, and reaffirm agency in increasingly regulated cities. Desire lines in Detroit, however, are rapidly disappearing. From 2010 to 2016, the Lower Eastside region of the city lost 70 percent of the total length of these lines. Our analysis shows that this correlates with changes in land ownership, management practices, and population dynamics. The loss of desire lines exposes the limits of informal practices and indicates the need for connections to broader relationships of power and governance. Creative engagements with the state can formalize lines and help residents realize their rights to the city.

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