An urban planning team from the University is theorizing that reducing Michigan’s historic dependence on automobiles by building pedestrian friendly neighborhoods will help prevent people from leaving the state.

The group, made up of four Rackham students and two faculty members from the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, proposed designs for one such neighborhood at a forum last night in Troy, Mich. They were one of several groups to propose building a new urban center around a mass transit station between Troy and Birmingham, two suburbs of Detroit.

The real-estate forum – sponsored by the University and the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit real-estate think tank – allowed urban planners to re-envision what is now a mixture of industrial and suburban buildings as a residential area friendly to those who choose not to own a car.

James McMurray, a team member and an urban planning master’s student, presented a design where the Amtrak train station between the two cities would become a neighborhood hub surrounded by retail stores, restaurants and residential units.

Larissa Larsen, an urban planning assistant professor and a team member, said Michigan should promote neighborhoods that are accessible to people with and without cars if it wants to attract house buyers. She said in an interview that she hopes that future development will become “more about people and pedestrians and less about cars and parking lots.”

“We have to be thinking about quality of life issues,” she said.

Consumer analyses indicate that more and more consumers want to buy real estate in neighborhoods where services are within walking distance. One study showed that walkable communities in Southeast Michigan have retained residents at a higher clip than those where cars are needed.

In most Michigan cities, though, commuting to most jobs is almost impossible without a car. Troy, located about an hour northeast of campus, is crosshatched with straight roads arranged in neat square miles – a symbol of Michigan’s automobile-centered economy and transportation.

“It certainly isn’t a sustainable form of suburban development,” Larsen said.

While the continued rise in gas prices and air pollution could lead some Michiganders to choose mass transit, McMurray said in an interview that the transit center’s cost and convenience will also play a key role in its success. He said that while walkable development has “caught on as sort of an environmental thing, it’s easier to appeal to people’s self-interest.”

McMurray said he doesn’t think these types of development will replace Michigan’s traditional car culture. He said real-estate developers understand that it doesn’t have to be one way or another.

The development project is part of an ongoing effort by the city of Troy to offset the effects of Southeast Michigan’s declining economy and to meet increasing demand for cheaper transportation.

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