Detroit is a city that, for better or worse, is defined by its elaborate network of sunken freeways. They’ve sliced and diced entire neighborhoods, destroyed others completely and generally played havoc with the urban grid.
And like anyone who depends on his car to get around here, I spend plenty of time on ‘em. Which means that, like you, I spend plenty of time stuck in traffic, absorbing the scenery — such as it is.
Because I appreciate good design in all its forms, and it’s summer and I’m falling into trance-like bliss at the sight of greenery, I’ve begun taking a closer look at what lines our high-speed motorways. And it seems to me that ever so slowly, our freeway planners are starting to realize that all this real estate could be put to better, smarter use than just grassy slopes that need constant mowing.
Here are seven examples of stretches of Detroit-area freeways, ranked by most to least scenic. Those without any differentiating features (i.e. just grass) aren’t included in the list.
1. I-75, Hamtramck
It’s admittedly a short stretch of freeway, and during the late winter it looks like the bedraggled Death Star trash compactor from Star Wars, but this is one of those places that suggests how much nicer our freeway embankments could be. Crews transformed these embankments with new landscaping and mulch several years ago. Much of it has since become overgrown and weedy, but much of it has filled in with lovely carpets of no-maintenance flowering perennials that bring softness, color and a dash of inspiration to the urban landscape. A bit of untouched prairie in a forgotten place.
2. I-96, Redford Township through Livonia
This one benefits from the fact the nearly seven miles of freeway — bridges, roadbed, all of it — was rebuilt in 2014. Aside from all that blindingly white, smooth new concrete, the biggest surprise was the addition of so much landscaping to the embankments. We’ll see how it fares over time (see Nos. 1 and 5), but it’s a nice upgrade from the frequently eroded slopes that were there before.
3. M-10, Southfield
The handful of embankments near the Evergreen and 10 Mile overpasses feature nice, ordered landscaping, with plenty of yellow tiger lilies and ornamental grasses planted in patterns. It’s on the tidy and well-kempt side, befitting its setting underneath the reflective glass office towers of the City Centre.
4. I-75 at Russell Industrial Center
This one makes the list thanks in no part to road planners, but instead to RIC and artist Kobie Solomon, who painted the unbelievable 8,750 square-foot “Chimera” lion mural viewable from all lanes of traffic. The mural has been widely praised and has become a local “must-see” landmark. We need more of this kind of thing, for sure.
5. I-696, Warren and Center Line
This was the first stretch of freeway I can remember that got the loving landscape treatment several years ago, and it made a definite improvement to traveling through this land of industrial buildings and drab ranch homes. Gets dinged a little bit because many of the trees and shrubs that were planted here have died and not yet been replaced. Steep embankments are undoubtedly tough places for many plants to get water and survive.
6. I-75, Downriver
This throughway, which passes through Michigan’s most polluted zip code, is nobody’s idea of scenic, but it does present plenty of eye candy, in a post-apocalyptic Blade Runner/Mad Max kind of way. There’s the ever-expanding Marathon oil refinery, the steel furnaces of Zug Island, the Ford Rouge complex, the mighty Rouge River itself and smokestacks emitting stomach-turning clouds of yellow haze. And the views of downtown Detroit as the I-75 bridge crests! (Though do mind the lethal road hazards). It reminds me of the fascinating drive through Chicago’s vast industrial underbelly via Gary, Indiana and the Skyway.
7. (4-way tie)
I-696 from I-75 to Lahser; Southfield Freeway; The Davison; The Lodge
These are all walled expressway freeway canyons. And I get it: They all pass through heavily developed areas and were built long after residential neighborhoods had staked their claim. But is it too much to ask for an occasional bit of landscaping, like ivy trailing down the walls? Some murals, maybe? Go take a walk around Eastern Market or the Dequindre Cut and tell me why we couldn’t invite some of those muralists to make over these concrete canyons
What’s your favorite metro Detroit freeway?
Creative Commons photo by Ken Lund