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Taubman College Design Charrette
'Aerotropolis' participants hope ideas take flight

In Colonial America, businesses clustered around seaports. During the 1800s, economic development followed rail lines. In the 1990s, highways became the new magnets determining where businesses would locate.

After touring the Detroit Metro and Willow Run airports, as well as approximately 20 miles of land near the facilities, three groups composed of community leaders and students presented development ideas during the final day of the A. Alfred College of Architecture + Urban Planning Urban Design Charrette. Images from two of the presentations include a transit center to link buses and other ground transportation between the airports designed by the "Stratocruisers," above, and a horse-racing park as part of a development created by the "Supersonics," below. (Images courtesy Taubman College.)

In the global economy of the 21st century, airports are driving and shaping business location and urban development, argues John Kasarda, dean of the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise and Kenan Distinguished Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of North Carolina.

Kasarda’s vision of an aerotropolis inspired U-M’s A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture + Urban Planning to focus its annual Urban Design Charrette along the corridor including Detroit Metropolitan Airport, Willow Run Airport and 20 square miles of surrounding land. The title of year’s charrette was “Aerotropolis, A new city: YIP/DTW.”

“After seven annual design charrettes in central Detroit, we accepted an invitation from Wayne County and other local jurisdictions to shift our focus to a much larger site surrounding DTW and Willow Run airports,” says Doug Kelbaugh, dean of the Taubman College. “We agreed because it seemed like an opportunity for our region to develop a badly needed new economic engine by capitalizing on the fortuitous convergence of two airports, two interstate highways and three rail lines.

“It also offered a respite from the daunting challenges of redeveloping Detroit, to which we will return next year.”

Since much of the land surrounding the airports currently is undeveloped or under-developed, the time was right for the best and brightest designers to focus their energy on the project, he adds.

Design teams comprised of distinguished visiting architects, landscape architects and urban designers, as well as local professionals, U-M faculty and students, toured the area and heard from major stakeholders in January. They then came together to brainstorm strategies, formulate proposals and prepare drawings and models for a final presentation Jan. 23.

Plans envisioned Aerotropolis as a bridge tying together Ann Arbor and Detroit, listing the benefits to living there and a vision for development. Kelbaugh says local officials seemed pleased with the results.

One group, the “Supersonics,” developed the Top 10 Reasons to Live, Work and Play at Aerotropolis.” Reasons included proximity to the airports, major research institutions and urban entertainment, shopping and sports venues; and, the top reason: “Paris Hilton does not live here!”

U-M business and urban planning students led by local developers then analyzed the concepts and projects to formulate implementation plans.

The plans and presentations are available for future use and study at

Sponsors who raised more than $55,000 to cover the costs of the project included Wayne County;Washtenaw County; the cities of Belleville, Romulus, Taylor and Ypsilanti; the townships of Huron, Van Buren and Ypsilanti; DTE Energy; Southeast Michigan Council of Governments; and the Ypsilanti Marriott at Eagle Crest.

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