The annual Detroit Free Press Michigan Green Leaders awards handed out last week demonstrate the importance of environmentally sound approaches in turning around a distressed city.
Three key projects ready to begin this spring and summer in Detroit all deal in various ways with greening strategies. The three — featured in a panel discussion at the awards event last week at the Westin Book Cadillac — include the city's blight removal efforts, the M-1 Rail streetcar line and the Hantz Farms urban agriculture project.
Revitalizing Detroit is truly a mission for Green Leaders.
The panelists stressed that unlike Detroit revitalization efforts of the past — which met with varying degrees of success — the city's bankruptcy plus a business revival under way in greater downtown provide the perfect atmosphere for large-scale reform and reinvention. The time is now, they said. The ideas and goals are much broader and achievable than in the past. It's not just about one multi-use development or recreating the riverfront; it's about the whole city, and its success is inextricably linked to green strategies.
"You can't overestimate the financial stability coming through bankruptcy," said Matt Cullen, one of the three panelists and also CEOof M-1 Rail. "We're going to measure success by how many people move into a neighborhood."
- Blight removal: Panelist Glenda Price, the former president of Marygrove College and a member of the city's blight-removal task force, told the audience at the event that the task force's long-awaited policy report to guide the city's blight-removal efforts will be released this month. The city, she said, will be ramping up efforts to remove eyesore structures and rehabilitate many others, promising a "visible sustainable effort that is going to improve the quality of life. You're going to see that next year."
- M-1 Rail streetcar line: Matt Cullen, president and CEO of businessman Dan Gilbert's Rock Ventures and also CEO of the M-1 Rail streetcar line, said new retail, housing and commercial development already sprouting up along the three-mile route from Grand River to Jefferson along Woodward Avenue demonstrate the transit line will be key to the city's revitalization. He said the project breaks ground this summer and when finished in about two years will lessen the dependence of downtown workers, visitors and residents on private motor vehicles --— long a goal of green leaders.
"This isn't a fragile, episodic kind of development," Cullen said. "It is a broad cohesive development. Kids are saying around the globe, 'This is the place for me to find opportunity.' "
- Hantz Farms: John Hantz, a businessman and founder of the Hantz Farms urban agricultural project, said the success of his upcoming tree-planting effort on Detroit's east side this month will be measured in how many residents of the distressed district decide to stay instead of moving out.
"You begin to build this fabric, and the fabric begins to build a community culture," Hantz said. "What does that do when we try to take on littering? Once we clean up, there's going to be more irritation when someone throws a paper out of the window."
A broader good
Clearly, all three of these projects will have a direct impact on creating a more sustainable Detroit, whether by offering alternatives to driving cars or planting 15,000 hardwood trees on Detroit's east side. But beyond their immediate impact, these projects promise a broader social good that stems from Detroiters working together to build a more sustainable city.
Take the Hantz Farms project. Hantz noted that it took him several years to overcome concerns about the project and win the city's approval to plant his tree farm. Once the trees are growing, though, it should be easier to do the next such project.
"Now as people can go to an area and see it, they can get much more comfortable with it," he said.
Last week's awards also indicated that greening strategies have gone so mainstream that sustainability now goes hand-in-hand with good business practices and good city governance.
Among the other winners of this years awards were Chrysler for using more environmentally sustainable materials and equipment in producing its Chrysler 200 sedan, the automaker's most important product introduction of the year. General Motors now insists that all the tenants in its Renaissance Center headquarters recycle in some fashion to keep trash out of landfills, making the facility completely landfill-free.
Some of this year's honorees have been at the greening game for many years. Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision removed 3,000 tires and several mounds of illegally dumped garbage from southwest Detroit neighborhoods last year alone. By partnering with local businesses and groups, it also gained funding to replace or retrofit more than 300 diesel engines on trucks, boats and construction equipment in the past four years.
New Haven Community Schools, also an honoree, uses propane-powered school buses that emit fewer pollutants than diesel. Solar panels and a large wind turbine have helped the district shave more than $20,000 off its annual electric bill.
And one honoree this year, Guy Williams, a founding member of the Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice nonprofit group, helped in the creation of the Detroit Future City framework for the city's long-term revitalization.
The Detroit Future City report as much as anything indicates how accepted greening strategies have become in urban revitalization. The 347-page framework, released in early 2013, is filled with calls to use a variety of greening strategies to re-purpose Detroit's vacant districts, or what Hantz at last week's event called "rural Detroit."
Among those strategies: urban agriculture, reforestation, "blue" infrastructure such as rainwater gardens, and the creation of linear parks known as greenways.
All these projects and more carry forward the work of creating a greener and more eco-friendly urban environment.
What Cullen said of the M-1 Rail project could apply to all of this year's honorees together.
"It really starts to knit things together in important ways," he said. "It's allowing us to redefine and re-imagine the city of Detroit in a new and sustainable way."
2014 Detroit Free Press Michigan Green Leaders
- Tom Walsh: By farm or factory, jobs are needed to grow city
- Guy Williams: 'Environmental justice is my life's work'
- Green Leader Buchsbaum has spent life restoring Great Lakes and tributaries
- Electronic components are recycled and refurbished at Information Systems Resources
- Years before its time, U.S. Council for Automotive Research helped drive green vehicle revolution
- Chrysler cuts power, water usage at renovated Sterling Heights plant
- Southwest Detroit group raises residents' quality of life
- New Haven schools live and learn green principles
- Creative Techniques makes smart packaging that saves companies money and helps the environment
- Bloomfield Hills teen's beekeeping club shows green leadership
- GM Renaissance Center recycles everything; nothing goes to landfills
- U-M senior wants to design sustainable playgrounds
- 2014 Detroit Free Press Michigan Green Leader honorable mentions
Contact John Gallagher at 313-222-5173 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jgallagherfreep.
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