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Suburban Mom: English(wo)man in...(Surburban) Detroit?

This is the first of our COO Michelle Drouse Woodhouse’s Suburban Mom series about placemaking - and the State of (Suburban) Place(s). In the first installment in this series, Michelle reflects back on her very urban, spontaneous life sans-kids and how both the introduction of her two daughters and her move to the suburbs of Detroit have influenced her understanding of place and the importance of mobility, inclusivity, and choice.
 

I. Am. A. Suburban. Mom.

Wow, that wasn’t easy to admit! You see, it’s a big change from my pre-kid identity. Spending five years living in super walkable, dynamic, urban London was (mostly) spectacular. While the weather was less so (you could literally experience all four seasons in one day - but I was spoiled having come from sunny Southern California and Las Vegas before that), London's amenities more than made up for it; as a young professional living with David, my automotive design executive husband (yes, he’s in automotive and I’m into walkability but that doesn’t mean we can’t coexist peacefully!), in the heart of this cosmopolitan city, I was truly blessed. 

Michelle with the London 2012 Olympic Torch at the Design Council (Covent Garden, London, UK)

Michelle with the London 2012 Olympic Torch at the Design Council (Covent Garden, London, UK)

Footloose and Fancy-free

David and “The Rat” Piaggio MP3

David and “The Rat” Piaggio MP3

For five years, I enjoyed exploring London and its amazing communities, car-free (I never really took to the whole driving on the “opposite” side of the road thing - and yeah, parking was nightmarish). So Transport for London (TfL) (an awesome website that enables you to map your multi-modal, A-to-B journey all over Greater London) and my Oyster Card became my best friends. I never got up the nerve to cycle in London but I did experience weaving in and out of traffic on the back of David’s Piaggio MP3 (or as he affectionately called it “The Rat” because of its face). Ok, fine, so it had wheels but happy marriages do require some compromises. 

PHOTO: Michelle performing in “Ozgen’s One Day in Istanbul” (Marylebone, London, UK) - photo courtesy of Yara Photography

PHOTO: Michelle performing in “Ozgen’s One Day in Istanbul” (Marylebone, London, UK) - photo courtesy of Yara Photography

I absolutely loved my spontaneous foot-forward adventures. I could design my own car-free “transportation” journey to work at the Design Council. I could stop and casually read a book (during my unapologetic Twilight Saga obsession) on the bench at Regent’s Park. I could indulge in a hand-tossed woodfire pizza at Delfino’s in Mayfair. I could walk down to the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone, where I even got the chance to perform Turkish oriental and folkloric dance at “Ozgen’s One Day in Istanbul.” And yes, I did venture outside Central London’s Zone 1 too, where I taught and performed dance and indulged in some guilty and not-so-guilty pleasures, like my favorite Turkish restaurant Diyarbakir in Green Lanes and randomly, an amazing tropical smoothie at the Whole Foods in Battersea (where my water broke with my first daughter after walking a mile from my house - but that’s another story!).

PHOTO: Container City in Greenwich, London, UK

PHOTO: Container City in Greenwich, London, UK

I promise I did do more than eat (and catch up on the Twilight Saga). I also enjoyed walking across the Millennium Bridge from Saint Paul’s Cathedral (which I am so ashamed to say that I never actually went inside of despite teaching dance next to this beautiful building once a week!), visiting the Tate Modern where David and I loved roaming around the contemporary art exhibitions, and exploring Greenwich with its eclectic “Container City” in East London - a must-see (especially since David and I had been considering sustainable, modern, alternative housing opportunities).

And Then There Were Three...

I was completely absorbed by and loved my London urbanite life...That is until my daughter Ava was born, after nearly five years sans-kids. As soon as my daughter abruptly came on the scene (sorry Whole Foods!), my walkable paradise was completely disrupted. I suddenly I had to travel with this about-to-cry-at-any-moment-ticking-time-bomb-baby and I was at the mercy of only step-free, accessible Tube stations (there are very few in London). I ultimately was forced to take the bus and walk everywhere, which can take considerably longer, plus...London weather. Our Bugaboo Bee stroller was pretty amazing because it was the lightest stroller that we could find and the only one that was aesthetically acceptable from a design perspective (anything on wheels has to meet David’s design approval!). Even so, I still couldn’t actually get to some places like The City (London’s financial district) with a stroller. Enter the Ergo Baby carrier, transforming me into a human kangaroo. I couldn’t believe how difficult it was to get around London with a baby...and could now truly understand what it might like to be a person with physical mobility challenges.

I had actually spent most of my time in London working at the Design Council and with the Innovate UK (formerly Technology Strategy Board) on innovative projects designing services and products for our ageing population to enable independent living (check out Independence Matters and Year Zero, and I have to give a special shout-out to David Godber, Sue Hewer and Jackie Marshall-Cyrus who catapulted me into the world of inclusive design and ageing challenges). But I didn’t fully realize how important accessibility and inclusive or universal design really was until my own world suddenly became smaller because I had a baby in toe. I felt isolated and immediately thought back to Maggie, a lovely older lady we interviewed for the Independence Matters project, who explained how the lack of curb cuts in her neighborhood precluded her from using her mobility scooter that should have enabled her to get to her local Tesco grocery store where she liked to purchase her favorite beer (she loved Foster’s Lager) and drink it while “nattering on the phone” with her best friend. She instead had to rely on other services to deliver her groceries to her door. Although that was an easier way to get her favorite beer, it actually contributed to her feeling of isolation and challenges engaging with her community because she couldn’t walk (or roll) to the local store.

As a new mom, I was completely empathizing with her despite being decades younger. And, honestly I was in shock - not only because having my first baby completely rocked my world - and I was trying to maintain my sanity on very little sleep - but also because I physically couldn’t do what I wanted or needed to do in my neighborhood and city. I had to redo my mental maps (an incredibly useful tool I learned as a kid thanks to my 7th-grade geography teacher, Mr. Amblad, who inspired me to pursue a career in urban planning) and re-navigate the city from an entirely different perspective...And as hard as that was, I was about to face yet another significant mobility challenge - David and I were going to be relocated to Metro Detroit, Michigan.

Cha-cha-cha-changes!

Downtown Birmingham, MI

Downtown Birmingham, MI

So fast-forward to my present life in the Detroit, Michigan suburbs. With one kid at first. And now two (with baby Lana) and no more car-free living! Now, that said, when David’s company relocated us, we knew we wanted to find a neighborhood that was walkable. I wasn’t just going to go from car-free to car-dependent. I wanted to be able to get to places - parks, restaurants, grocery stores, schools - without having to load up the car and drive to get there every single time. I knew this would be a tall order in a suburban environment. Initially, we searched for homes in Birmingham because it has a great reputation for being walkable.  But we found that value-for-money in terms of space wasn’t meeting our expectations. We wanted to capitalize on the potential to have a bigger home given our expanding family (we had been living in a contemporary, round 1,000 square-foot home in Battersea, which was spacious in comparison to most flats - and is currently for sale for those interested!). We were looking for more space, but more importantly, connectivity to nearby places of interest (and for David, we were looking for a house with the largest garage possible for his historic race cars and associated paraphernalia!).

Back to the Burbs

The girls on the stroller at the park (Troy, MI)

The girls on the stroller at the park (Troy, MI)

Accessible path to the park (Troy, MI)

Accessible path to the park (Troy, MI)

We settled on a suburban subdivision with a house in a cul-de-sac that has no particular special aesthetic character like our round house in Battersea but it has four bedrooms, which was critical for our expanding family and visitors, a four-car garage (for David’s car stuff!) and a large space that could be transformed into a kids' play area essential for cold months when we would need to hibernate at home. But the most important feature included having a lovely neighborhood park right in our backyard with a perfect playground suitable for kids 2-12 years old, swings, a walking trail, and a variety of other park amenities! There would be no need to load up the car with kids and kid stuff to get to a place of recreation - just a simple walk through a gate in the fence or a walk with the tandem stroller a few doors down via a path would do it. I knew this park would - at least for three seasons - enable us to feel connected to our new community.

PHOTO: David and the girls at Somerset Collection (Troy, MI)

PHOTO: David and the girls at Somerset Collection (Troy, MI)

But what would we do in the winter? Well, if any of you know about Michigan winters, you know that it can be frigid and roadways as well as sidewalks are often covered in snow and ice. During those very cold months, I resigned to finding a warm destination and discovered that the Somerset Collection mall (it looks like they replanted South Coast Plaza from Costa Mesa, California) is a short five-minute drive from my house. I mapped it and it’s actually walkable from my house - 33 minutes to be exact - but in the snowy winter months when not all sidewalks are clear from snow and ice, that’s really not an option. You might recall that our recent blog, “Deck the Malls,” poses an important question about whether transactional experiences are enough to keep malls relevant. For the suburban mom in me, Somerset Collection offers a very pleasant experience of “place,” especially in the cold months, as it offers great experiences for the kids (Santa!), awesome water features that they can touch (sensorial!), and a variety of casual and more formal dining options (in addition to window shopping that the hubby loves to do to get inspiration for his design projects). This place is a destination! 

Live (Car-)Free or Die?

Stairs at Cranbrook Educational Community (Bloomfield Hills, MI)

Stairs at Cranbrook Educational Community (Bloomfield Hills, MI)

So, here I am. A suburban mom fully embracing my “suburban-ness” (malls, tandem strollers, four-car garages and all) - although it was really nice to have taken a stroll down memory lane reminiscing about my urban life in London. But now that I’ve been living the suburban life with my husband and kids for three years, I’ve been thinking a lot about our community and about “place.” I think back to my work on Independence Matters at the Design Council in London and the parallels with my challenges getting around town with my kids. Navigating with my “three-nager” toddler and my “milk monster” baby through places with a stroller can be a complete nightmare. I can’t believe how hard it is to find accessible, walkable places! Hoisting the stroller up stairs is not my idea of fun. Time after time, we fail to plan and design urban and suburban environments with basic built environment features and interventions that could facilitate independence. We often fail because it’s easy to overlook the little things.

So, let’s not forget:

Independence matters.

Place matters.

City planners seek to provide neighborhoods with a balanced mix of uses, ample pedestrian amenities, good urban form, and connectivity that are aesthetically pleasing. But how do planners achieve these place quality outcomes? How do planners ensure that the neighborhoods they are planning or redeveloping provide that much-needed curb cut that would have enabled Maggie to have a chat with her best friend over a couple of cold Fosters beers that she bought after driving her mobility scooter to the store? How do planners ensure details are not overlooked?

This is why I’m so proud to work at State of Place. We care about the details (like seriously, we collect data on over 290 built environment features, like street trees, sidewalks, benches, curb cuts, etc., related to walkability at the street level!). We care about helping cities use data and evidence to identify those details - and explain why they matter. Our predictive data analytics platform pulls that massive amount of data together into the State of Place Index and Profile, which serves as a walkability diagnostic tool, highlighting an area’s built environment “assets and needs,” or why a community is or is not walkable (come to think of it, it would have been a great tool to help us identify the right neighborhood for us to live in in the Detroit suburbs). State of Place considers not only whether there are curb cuts in the neighborhood to help pedestrians cross the street but also the convenience and condition of those curb cuts. It’s the little things that make a difference in someone’s life like Maggie's who has mobility challenges or even me as a suburban mom with two kids in toe. But State of Place also helps cities make the (economic) case for great places. To help cities argue for better places. To help cities create those better places - that yes, by definition, foster choice and independence.