by Gregory Knoop
The future is in Detroit. This may be the only time you ever read that sentence. But it’s true. Detroit is one of many formerly industrial cities whose rise and fall over the last century has left an indelible mark on the ecosystem around it, and which is scarred by social and economic failure. This is a blighted community suffering with industrial pollution on all fronts. We can change this. A bold transformation that spawns a sustainable revitalization of this city could be the model for cities all over the world.
Detroit was once America’s wealthiest city. During the 1950s, citizens of the city enjoyed the highest per capita income in the country. More than 60 years later, Detroit has had a population decrease from 1.8 million to 700,000. The city, which once boasted full employment, now has a staggering unemployment rate of nearly 24%. The shocking remnants of a once great city are not restricted to the social and economic issues. This industrial city has left a trail of environmentally damaged brownfield sites and abandoned structures that dominate its landscape.
Detroit was originally founded as a trading city on America’s frontier. By the end of the Civil War, the connection to the rest of the country through the new cross-continental railway system permitted the city to flourish in industries such as timber steel and other industrial goods. It was in the 20th century shortly after World War I that the growing auto industry began to flourish; names like Ford, General Motors, Pontiac, and several other automobile manufacturers lost to time and memory were the identity of the Motor City. In addition, there were oil refineries and numerous other industries that were part of the whole supply chain of the young US automotive industry.
Like many cities where industry grew, so did environmental damage. Millions of tons of pollutants spilled into waterways and lakes around the city. Industrial smokestacks spewed myriad polluting gases and particulates into the air. But with industry at the center of the city’s economy, the damage continued unchecked for decades.
As the city declined, it also began to transform. Socio-economically disadvantaged African Americans, who had moved to the city to seek a better future far from the racial strife of the South, gradually watched the days of plenty erode. The more affluent moved to suburbs or fled the area completely. The city now has a predominantly African-American population. More than 50% of its residents live in poverty, more than 50% are illiterate, and the city is burdened with the loss of industry, and the cost of cleanup. And, the need to care for its impoverished citizens has pushed Detroit into bankruptcy. Here is an opportunity to create an environment where this diverse community, with a heritage that helped shape the “American Century,” can change its trajectory.
The city was planned around its industry. Many residences and schools and amenities for the workforce were located close to industrial areas. This pattern has generally remained in place to this day. As a result, the proximity of communities to the sources of the pollution is blamed for high levels of asthma and other conditions related to air pollution for citizens who live and work around these industrial areas.
In addition to the continuance of air pollution from remaining industries, the storage of mountains of coke, which is a byproduct of the refining of oil sands shipped from Canada, creates dust particulates that fill the air unchecked in Detroit and surrounding towns. These refineries are for Marathon Oil, owned by the Koch brothers, who are also steadfast climate change deniers.
So far, I’ve painted a very bleak picture of Detroit, a place with more than 40 square miles of abandoned neighborhoods and cityscape; a city suffering from poverty and scarred by industry; a city struggling to reemerge in our current age. Detroit is scarred by seemingly irreparable pollution. However, it has also demonstrated ingenuity and resiliency with the emergence of urban agriculture, industrial cleanup, and scores of programs aimed toward repair and rejuvenation.
Detroit is very special because it could be the location of pilot solutions for cities around the world, which will gradually confront having to change as industry slows, as environmental and health issues become undeniable, and as they search for examples of urban revitalization. In the century of the mega-city, and in a time when we’ll need to reduce our ecological footprint and look for ways to consolidate our activities and population, cities are where humans will need to go. As temperatures rise, southern parts of our country will become less comfortable, leading to potential for northward migration toward more temperate climates.
So what kind of programs would help bring Detroit back? Although there’s always a wide range of restrictions and laws that can be put in place by the EPA and local municipalities, these may not be the key drivers to successful change—although without a doubt they play a role. To spur change, I suggest three key drivers:
- Make needed adjustments to zoning and city planning.
- Improve education and literacy.
- Make key changes to industrial practices.
There’s tremendous opportunity here to pilot broader interrelated changes to the city, aimed not at cleanup and austerity, but at transformation and prosperity for both the people and city in which they live.
1. Zoning and city planning
Forty square miles of blight and abandoned buildings offer an opportunity to reshape the city. I would recommend significant urban re-zoning and planning. Neighborhoods should be moved away from industrial areas, which includes moving schools into new locations that are safer and healthier. Increasing green space to encourage a mixture of recreational development, urban farming, and reductions in impermeable areas. Urban farming has been a city revitalization movement in Detroit over the past decade. The City is reviewing further development of this urban agrarianism, which may include allowances for limited farm animals. Detroit is a city that suffers from food deserts; the poorer communities do not have access to healthy food choices and this contributes to obesity, diabetes, and other health problems that add to the costs to the people of the city and reduces their quality of life. Urban farming gives those communities an opportunity to grow and trade healthy and locally grown food. I will discuss later how this could be integrated into the educational experience.
In addition, Detroit has a transit system that has been undergoing change and modernization. Transit oriented development will be a key way to help make smart new neighborhoods connected to jobs and commerce. Concentrate new affordable housing communities paired with diverse income mixes around transit to help better bond communities to help elevate them out of poverty. City buses, trains, BRT buses, and other transit vehicles are avenues for buying local and supporting and revitalizing the community. For example, establishing a “Buy from Detroit” policy for materials, labor, and services that are paid for by and for the city…
Urban planning may also look to reducing industrial waste through introduction of renewable energy programs. Detroit is in an optimal location for use of wind (nrel.gov). With the city in transformation, this might be the ideal time to introduce appropriate and safe wind energy. “Detroit Renewable Power” runs a waste incinerator power plant; this is an unfortunate name for a plant that pollutes horribly in its operation and storage of fuel. If the city is planning a renewable energy movement, this is a plant that should be shut down or changed.
2. Education and Literacy
Although this may not seem to be an obvious part of an environmental transformation, you cannot achieve significant transformation without a highly literate workforce with skills to attract more businesses to the region, and a community that can work with industry and businesses toward progress. If education is tied with urban farming and other sustainable practices, schools could be established to literacy and support relevant skills (agriculture, energy, industry, engineering, and management). Imagine our new urban farms being part of a school curriculum. Food, water, energy, and environment will be key job opportunities in a world where these resources and scarcity will shape the economy.
3. Key changes to industrial practices
I’ve changed the language that would normally say, “stricter environmental rules and regulations.” Though I believe these are important, they are best achieved if we shape the rules to facilitate industry participation. There are key concerns that need to become part of the rules of doing business in Detroit:
- reducing air pollution
- reducing water pollution
- making products that are ecologically relevant
The waterways are suffering from pollution that is killing fish, encouraging algae blooms, and creating problems for the rivers and Lake Michigan. So clearly, we need incentives in tax relief that will drive change. We need to get rid of polluters like the waste incinerator power plant and the storage of coke for shipping to China. We need concerted effort in working with industries like Ford to make Detroit the city of green cars and other green products. Perhaps Detroit becomes the center for producing great bikes, wind turbines, or new water reclamation technologies.
Drive change through a partnership with industry and change is possible.
Barriers to implementing solutions
Money is always a barrier. Clean-up, property consolidation, and the building of schools takes money. Improving education and providing community programs to improve literacy takes money. Industry sees change as a threat to their profits. Money is the barrier.
But there’s hope… Dan Gilbert, co-founder of Quicken Loans is investing more than a billion dollars in downtown Detroit (Huffington Post ,2013). An article in investmentnews.com presented the idea that there are opportunities. Detroit’s affordability combined with the right job creation and economic development plan can make Detroit attractive to young professionals. Look at the new fashion industry that has discovered Detroit and seen this affordable and great city as a place for growth (Jeff Karoub, AP, 2015).
All of the developments discussed here can be achieved with a mixture of public/private partnerships, well-executed planning and development, and partnership with the city’s industries.
Has it been done?
Pittsburgh is one of the best examples of the sustainability shift in an American city. The Steel Town had gone through many transformations since the end of its steel industry. For three and a half decades, Pittsburgh has struggled to redefine itself. During the 80s and 90s, it experienced a dramatic negative migration and concerns that it wouldn’t be able to recapture the glory of old. But the transition has been taking shape over the past 15 years as the city has taken a lead in post-industrial environmental clean up, promotion of sustainable practices in urban planning, building design, and environmental remediation. A riverfront that 20 years ago had hundreds of acres of industrial wasteland has redeveloped into new sustainable urban communities. Pittsburgh is back! The town now has more to boast than just great football. It has more university density than any place in the US and is home to leading healthcare and health research. Pittsburgh is where you’ll find advanced robotics, Disney animation studios, Google, Microsoft, Uber, and more connected by a BRT system and transit. Changes are born out of zoning and urban planning, strengths in education, and a retooling of industrial directions combined with great people and city leadership.
All these ingredients exist in Detroit. They exist in Binghamton, in Knoxville, and in many other cities. There’s still much to do for Pittsburgh, but the city stands as a great example of a turnaround.
We have a chance to create a city that will demonstrate best practices in reshaping industrial and post-industrial urban environments. We can make Detroit a greener, more prosperous city. We must change city zoning and planning, foster an educated and progressive electorate, and create partnership with the industries of the city.
Embedded in this strategic approach to a better city are the “Three E’s” of sustainability:
We know there have been successes in places like Pittsburgh. With a vision for positive change, Detroit can attract funding and migration and can raise the quality of life of its citizens, while promoting an ecologically and economically friendly city that is sustainable into the future.
I stand by my original statement: the future is in Detroit!