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From Health to Wellness

A plan by the Detroit Collaborative Design Center aims to rehabilitate the health and wellness of an entire neighborhood

By Leigh Franke

When it comes to your health, what happens when you’re not at the doctor can be more important than what happens when you are. But for most people, “healthcare” is associated with decisions about treatment rather than about driving or biking, potato chips or kale. But in southwest Detroit, planners and designers are changing this perspective. Even amidst bankruptcy and a historic unraveling of a once-dominant American city, the Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC) is making the case that a neighborhood that facilitates holistic wellness and preventative care from chronic illness is invaluable. 

What began as an effort to encourage healthy living surrounding a new healthcare center morphed into a 40- to 50-year plan for an entire neighborhood in southwest Detroit built around the idea of wellness. The center, 5716 Wellness, is housed in a historic Albert Kahn–designed cigar factory, and was redeveloped and designed by local nonprofit Southwest Solutions in partnership with Covenant Community Care.

The new center embodies health and wellness in its most direct form, providing medical, pediatric, obstetric, dental, psychiatric, pharmacy, and behavioral counseling services to primarily low-income clients, who often lack insurance. While it serves the medical needs of 8,000 to 10,000 patients each year, little was being done outside the facility to encourage a healthy lifestyle before or after treatment. Though architecture can inspire healthy choices within its walls, the team soon realized that to truly foster better health a wellness initiative would have to take shape on an urban planning scale, explained Dan Loacano, director of communications for Southwest Solutions. “The question of how to develop a wellness center campus became much larger,” he says. “We were focused on this not-even-a-quarter-mile radius from our building, and it just exploded into one square mile.”

They reached out to the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, a nonprofit architecture and urban design firm affiliated with the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture that often partners with community-based development organizations. Their plan, the Wellness Center Campus Strategy, would transform southwest Detroit into a picture of health—but first they had to figure out what that picture would look like.

Wellness is bigger than health

Just as a well-designed building is more than simply structurally sound, DCDC’s plan for southwest Detroit encompasses more than just a baseline for medical wellness. “When most people think of health, they think of access to services like medical and dental, but it’s more than that,” says Christina Heximer, DCDC’s associate director, “You have to think about the quality of the neighborhoods.”

By engaging residents, business owners, and community organizations, DCDC and Southwest Solutions discovered that, for stakeholders, wellness often took the shape of what was missing. Residents cited a lack of access to healthy food options, despite an abundance of convenience stores (“party stores” in Detroit-speak), a frequent issue in low-income neighborhoods in any city. While the area is able to support five grocery stores—virtually unheard of in other parts of Detroit—“there is still is a definite lack of access to fresh produce and vegetables,” says Heximer.

Throughout the city, a growing trend toward urban agriculture is making local produce more readily available, but connecting local growers with the communities that need this food most remains difficult. Without connections between urban gardens, educational programs, bike paths, and business, the value added to the community is much less, explains Loacano, “[It’s] how you deliver the goods and services that help wellness happen.” The plan hopes to take advantage of the 875 to 1,000 urban farms in the Detroit, with satellite branches of the well-known Eastern Market, and by integrating walking paths and bike lanes throughout southwest Detroit.

Though many schools in the city have incorporated fresh produce into school lunches through their own gardens, a more integrated system could allow for larger-scale localism and educational opportunities. “What we need in Detroit, and what many of our cities need, is a much more comprehensive food system,” says DCDC executive director Dan Pitera, FAIA. “A part of that is farmers markets and healthy food options, but there is a lot business and urban agriculture happening that can be leveraged in this planning effort.”

Making connections

In addition to connecting food resources, the wellness plan (yet to be executed, save for 5716 Wellness) recognizes the valuable assets southwest Detroit has in its existing community centers, churches, and schools. But there are still more possibilities for fostering growth through these connections. Krista Wilson, a designer at DCDC, says that one of the main questions throughout the project was, “How can we utilize the schools, churches, and healthcare in the area to connect them physically through bike lanes and walking paths, but also through learning programs and health programs? When you drive this area of Michigan Avenue [in southwest Detroit], you would have this feeling of a wellness identity with bike lanes and walking paths.” The businesses would address the demand for holistic wellness, prioritizing space for yoga studios, bike repair shops, physical therapists, and art galleries.

The southwest neighborhood’s background and demographics explain why the area is a good candidate for health and wellness urban planning. Southwest Detroit is at the intersection of Detroit’s Hispanic Mexicantown and nearby Dearborn, known for its many Arab immigrants. “Many of the people who live in southwest Detroit actually come from places where wellness is just a way of life,” says Pitera. “They walk more. A more balanced diet, more active lifestyle. [Much] of what we naturally think of [when it comes to wellness] has already existed in the places that they’ve come from.”

Quick Wins

By incorporating easier changes such as better street lighting, improved sidewalks, greenery, community gardens, and bike lanes, DCDC and Southwest Solutions hope to show the community that, although development can be slow, they have no intention of scaling back their goals.

“There has to be some quicker wins that happen sooner rather than later, so that people realize things are going forward,” says Virginia Stanard, DCDC’s director of urban design. “New wayfinding, neighborhood cleanups, small grants realized for smaller projects.”

The ability to make it happen, even in small steps, is a testament to the ability of grassroots efforts in tough financial times. The coordinated effort between individuals, residents, and nonprofit organizations “makes people feel more comfortable investing,” says Loacano. “There are a lot of stories other than bankruptcy.”

While urban-scale neighborhood wellness may sound like a lofty goal for a place like Detroit, creativity does not often happen with unlimited resources. Investors and potential residents are paying attention to unique opportunities in Detroit, where land is cheap, plentiful, and urban. “After all the bankruptcy, depressed housing values, crime issues, the silver lining is opportunity,” says Loacano, “You can buy a house here, or you can buy the whole block and farm it. People are bringing in goats to take care of vacant lots in the city of Detroit. Why not?”


5716 Wellness is housed in a historic Albert Kahn–designed cigar factory. All images courtesy of the DCDC.

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A DCDC wellness workshop.

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DCDC receives feedback at community wellness fair.

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