Fifty years of population decline has taken its toll on the City of Detroit. Gradual reductions in its tax base have led to year after year of shrinking budgets, culminating in its filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy on July 18, 2013, the largest municipal bankruptcy in the history of the United States. Large sections of Detroit’s 138 square miles, once the center of U.S. manufacturing, are now largely vacant, with roughly 20 square miles (150,000 parcels) vacant and abandoned. This underutilized land represents an opportunity for Detroit.
As it bounces back from bankruptcy and looks to the future, Detroit has the chance to utilize its vacant land to become a greener, more sustainable city and serve as a model for urban resiliency across the country. This is a key recommendation of the Detroit Future City Strategic Framework, a long-term vision for the city. In the effort to create a more sustainable Detroit, University of Detroit Mercy’s Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC) is a critical leader in thought and action. With DCDC’s invaluable support, I attended the 11th Sustainable Cities Design Academy (SCDA) in Washington, DC. SCDA presented an ideal forum to discuss Detroit’s potential to achieve sustainability through innovative use of vacant land.
With leadership from representatives from the University of Detroit Mercy’s Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC), the Eastern Market Corporation, and Zachary and Associates, the Detroit team focused on the Bloody Run Creek Greenway Redevelopment Project, an ambitious proposal to transform 3,500 acres on Detroit’s east side centered on recreating the memory of Bloody Run Creek.
Working closely with a remarkable resource team of design, sustainability, and engineering professionals, SCDA helped the Detroit team to rethink our basic assumptions, consider new opportunities, and develop practical concepts for bringing the Bloody Run Creek Greenway project to life. More specifically, SCDA provided the following transformative insights for implementing the Blood Run Creek Greenway Redevelopment Project:
1) Focus on Bloody Run Creek Greenway as a greenway network–Planning and messaging about the project has largely focused on the creek aspect of the project, but prioritizing Bloody Run as a greenway network could facilitate near-in implementation while setting the conditions for later blue infrastructure development. Green infrastructure and greenways are less expensive than blue infrastructure, an important consideration in cash-strapped city, and there is strong demand in Detroit for more broadly accessible green amenities—the city lags behind national standards in park availability and access. Development of additional green infrastructure around a Bloody Run Creek greenway network would also go further in addressing some of the pressing environmental and health challenges facing the city by retaining stormwater, improving air and soil quality, supporting healthy recreation, and visibly improving the urban landscape.
2) Develop stormwater management potential of the project–Detroit has a combined sewer system, and in periods of heavy rainfall the system overflows, mixing industrial and domestic wastewater with stormwater into the Detroit River, increasing pollution and resulting in EPA fines the City cannot afford. Bloody Run Creek Greenway should focus on its potential for improving stormwater management, not only through additional green infrastructure, but also through stormwater improvements to key roads and alleys in line with the planned route through bioswales, rain gardens, and permeable pavement. In particular, the Detroit Team could help pioneer the development of a stormwater district in and around Eastern Market, where businesses could pool resources to make improvements in line with incentives from the City’s Department of Water and Sewerage.
3) Build momentum through an incremental approach–While Bloody Run Creek Greenway is a comprehensive, long-term vision for redevelopment, elements can be implemented incrementally. Numerous smaller scale interventions such as streetscape improvements to Gratiot, stormwater improvements to Eastern Market, on-going greenways planning, and green infrastructure improvements through other initiatives such as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative can all help move the project forward.
4) Connect Bloody Run Creek Greenway to the broader Detroit conversation around non-motorized transportation and blue-green infrastructure–In line with the recommendations mentioned in point three, Bloody Run Creek Greenway would benefit through representation in various forums and ongoing planning efforts in Detroit. While this may best be achieved through the funding of dedicated personnel focused on implementation of the Bloody Run Creek Greenway, working to include the concept into existing planning efforts such as the future update to the City’s non-motorized plan could help the vision become a reality.
Discussing these ideas at SCDA gave our team the opportunity “think big” outside the challenges of the day-to-day, while in the company of creative, enthusiastic, and inspiring professionals driven by the goal of building sustainable cities across the country.
Christopher Dorle is a Strong Cities, Strong Communities Fellow and the City Systems Program Manger with the implementation team for Detroit Future City, a strategic framework plan for the City of Detroit. Prior to working in Detroit, he spent five years working in international development. He joined the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in 2007 as a Presidential Management Fellow and member of the Afghanistan Desk. From 2009 to 2010, Chris served 18 months overseas with the USAID Mission in Kabul working closely with the Government of Afghanistan, NATO, and the U.S. Embassy to plan and implement programs to stabilize and deliver services to critical areas of the country.
Chris has also worked with USAID’s Front Office, the Department of State, and the William Davidson Institute, and he began his career in the private sector, working with The Arbor Strategy Group (now GfK Strategic Innovation), a strategy consulting firm located in Ann Arbor, MI. He holds a Master of Public Policy (‘07) from the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan as well as a B.A. in Philosophy (‘00) from the University of Michigan.
Featured image of Detroit skyline courtesy of author.