Toward a Leaner, Greener Detroit

While city government largely watches from the sidelines, individuals, businesses, and volunteer groups are reshaping the city


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“Land is Detroit’s greatest liability and its greatest asset.”

That statement opens the land-use segment of Detroit Future City, a planning blueprint from the Detroit Works Project that envisions a smarter, greener, more equitable city 50 years from now.

The paradoxical nature of that sentence is emblematic of Detroit today. It’s been editorialized in newspapers with headlines that play off Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness …”

The evidence abounds.

While developers in Midtown and downtown can’t rehab commercial and residential buildings fast enough to sate demand, the exodus of Detroiters from less trendy neighborhoods continues. While the city is in the midst of a declared financial emergency and is subject to state control, a group of private investors has pooled its talents and resources — proving themselves to the federal government — to bring light rail to Detroit. Another business group in southwest Detroit raised millions of dollars to turn the lights on a stretch of West Vernor that the city wasn’t targeting for repairs. In this town, one successful businessman can buy up entire downtown city blocks and be hailed as a revitalizer, while another successful businessman is called a land grabber for turning a swath of vacant lots into for-profit urban woodland and agricultural production. Both men are in the business of making money.

“… it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity …”

While gridlock grips the halls populated by elected officials, progress grinds on largely because of the efforts of neighborhood block clubs, nonprofit organizations, private businesses, and everyday Detroiters laying claim to their own destinies. Thanks to the Detroit Future City plan, this patchwork of doers now has a unified vision to work toward.

Part of the vision relies on turning the land — plagued today by high vacancy and blight — into the asset that it can become with a little imagination and a lot of sweat. Noting the inefficiency of the single-family homes that Detroit is known for, with their expensive, “over-scaled” infrastructures, the framework imagines a city of more diverse housing in “a canvas of green”: open green space, urban woodlands, ponds, streams, and urban farms and gardens. Naturally flowering meadows could eventually give way to forests. The plan envisions productive landscapes that clean the soil and air and help alleviate storm-water runoff, lessening the burden on Detroit’s aging sewer system. “Green buffers” of trees would hug the major highways, decreasing noise and traffic pollution to the surrounding neighborhoods.

But, as Detroit Future City notes, many of these ideas aren’t new, and some are already under way.

While Belle Isle receives the bulk of the media attention, a group of volunteers has been quietly working for the last two years to restore Palmer Park, Detroit’s “other” jewel. The master plan for the park, developed by the People for Palmer Park and approved by the city, fits into the framework in a number of ways. Restoring the stream and waterfall features and restoring forests and no-mow prairie grass meadows are just two examples.

Palmer Park is also an example of the role that public-private partnerships will play in the future of Detroit. If the state doesn’t take over management of Belle Isle next year, perhaps we can look to New York’s Central Park as a model. Since 1980, it’s been run by a nonprofit conservancy organization.         

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“… it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness …”

Numerous studies have shown that public parks and gardens promote physical activity, prop up neighboring housing values, reduce crime and juvenile delinquency, stabilize communities, and improve overall health and well-being.

In that respect, the Bing administration’s plan to close 51 city parks would seem shortsighted. In its heyday, Detroit was home to more than 300 public parks. After the closings, the total remaining will be less than 60, or about one park for every 12,280 residents, according to the Detroit Free Press.

It’s not all bad news, though. Nineteen parks will be upgraded to “premier parks,” with “top-notch” services. As the Bing administration has often repeated throughout the Detroit Works Project’s process, this is about “right-sizing,” not “downsizing.”

Today, 8 percent of Detroit’s land is made up of parks. That number is set to decrease after the proposed closures. And while that would appear antithetical to Detroit Future City’s land-use plan, which foresees a third of the city’s land devoted to green landscapes and another 22 percent to “green neighborhoods,” it actually calls for about 7 percent of the city’s land to be dedicated to parks.

To be clear, parks are only one form of landscape typology proposed for the Detroit of the future.

What the framework calls “blue infrastructure,” water-based landscapes (retention ponds, lakes, streams) are an essential piece of the land-use puzzle, as well. Work is already under way, in the form of water-reclamation efforts in northwest Detroit by the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department in coordination with the Greening of Detroit.

When discussing these efforts, no organization’s name comes up more often than the Greening’s. Through workshops and hands-in-the-dirt planting events, the Greening of Detroit has been sowing the seeds for the city’s greener future since 1989, when Coleman Young was mayor and the Pistons were winning championships.

“… it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …”

While local government struggles to tackle the complexities of compounding legacy costs and an infrastructure built for a city more than double its current population, community activists in Brightmoor such as Riet Schumack and Diane Renaud are demonstrating to the city’s youth that sometimes changing the world can be as simple as tending a plot of dirt, transforming it into something at once beautiful and productive.

Gang activity in Detroit has never been an encouraging topic. But a volunteer group that calls itself the Detroit Mower Gang has embraced the power of the crowd, cleaning up and maintaining several abandoned city parks and playgrounds. They and similar organizations will have their work cut out for them this season.

“… we had everything before us …”

As Michelle Lutz, Michigan’s first resident hospital farmer at Henry Ford West Bloomfield puts it: Planting seeds is an act of faith in the future.

If the stories on the following pages are evidence of anything, it’s that perhaps it’s the people — and not the land — that are Detroit’s greatest asset.

SOWING SEEDS OF CHANGE || SEEING BEYOND THE TREES || THE GREEN GRID || GRASS-ROOTS EFFORT || DETROIT'S 'OTHER' JEWEL

photograph by joshua kristal

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