Schrader, M. (2014). Detroit: The environmental influence of the French on an American city. Wayne State University

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When one mentions Detroit, one thinks of a sprawling urban metropolis that spread across the plains of southeastern Michigan helter-skelter without respect for the surrounding environment. However, when one delves into the history of the development of Detroit, one finds that the opposite is true- the environment determined how Detroit developed. The one attempt to impose a rigid geometric planning scheme on how the city would develop failed miserably, as it failed to take into account that Detroit is a French city, and the French, due to the rugged topography of the French homeland, let the environment dictate how communities and places will be developed. The United States, being an Anglo country, has adopted the Anglo geometric method of development, which is neither suitable or practical for much of the country. As England is relatively flat it is relatively easy and straightforward to divide parcels into squares. France, being mountainous, that scheme is not practical. Because of the rugged topography of much of France, much of the development occurred along water, either the coasts or rivers. Unlike England, where it was easier to travel by land than by sea, due to the treacherousness of the British seas, in France the situation is reverse, as the Alps and Pyrenees are significant barriers to land travel, with the waterways being the easiest means of transport, and unlike the rough British seas, the French seas are relatively calm and benign, and conducive to the use of water for transport.

The experiences of the English and the French in the homelands were drawn upon when exploring and colonizing North America. At the time of the French-and-Indian War, the English colonies had an extensive road network, which facilitated the movement of people and goods (useful for an army engaged in combat along a long frontier as existed between the English and French in North America), while the French, for all intents and purposes, had none. Having come from a country where transport by land was impractical due to geography, and transport was done by water, the French built their communities along the waterways, with the rivers and lakes functioning as the « roads » connecting them. The English, having come from a country blessed with good topography, were also blessed with good (in the standards of the times) roads, and after much civil unrest, saw the value in roads not only for military advantage, but in strengthening commercial, cultural, and political ties within the realm. The English, in turn, based on these experiences, built roads between the settlements in their American colonies.

For the first century of its existence, Detroit was unabashedly French. Even during the British administration of Detroit, the city maintained its Frenchness. After being absorbed into the new United States, the people of Detroit asked the American government if official documents could be published in French, due to the fact that few of the population could read or speak English. Because Detroit had been a French city (even when under British and American control) for a century, it developed like a French city, with a strong focus on access to the water. This Frenchness manifested itself in how land was conveyed and what infrastructure was or, more importantly, was not built. Since the French, because of their collective experience in the French homeland, let the environment itself dictate how communities were developed, that mindset was applied one of the Frenchest of all American cities, Detroit. The decisions the French made in how to develop their community on the north bank of the lower straits between Lake Huron and Lake Erie impacted how the community developed for a century after the French authorities left. It was only after Detroit grew beyond the French influence did it become an American city, but even that city would look much different had it not been for the environmental influences of the French. […]

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