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Q&A: Kimberly Hill Knott on using green infrastructure for environmental justice in Detroit

Volunteers learn how to construct rain gardens in Detroit's lower Eastside neighborhood.

Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice is a nonprofit organization that has launched the Detroit Climate Action Collaborative (DCAC), which is leading the development of the city of Detroit’s Climate Action Plan.  DCAC is focused on how climate change affects Detroiters, especially those living in low-income, marginalized communities. They've identified areas of the city that are most vulnerable to the ravages of climate change--which in Detroit come in the form of heat and flooding--and are focused on helping the communities in these areas build resilience.

Model D spoke with Kimberly Hill Knott, DWEJ's policy director and DCAC’s project director, to find out more about why the organization is turning to green infrastructure as a solution.

Kimberly Hill Knott, director of policy with Detroiters Working for Environmental JusticeModel D: How does green infrastructure play into the work that you're doing with Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice?

Knott: Because we're leading the development of the city of Detroit's Climate Action Plan, which focuses on weather extremities, including heavy precipitation and extreme heat, we've had no other choice but to examine the role of green infrastructure. Our climatological research is showing that not only is it raining more frequently, so precipitation is increasing, but it's also more intense, and when you have aging infrastructure combined with older homes and a combined sewer system, it's a recipe for disaster.

Model D: How are you engaging the communities most affected?

Knott: We recently held a green infrastructure training with the community, in district four which is Detroit's Lower Eastside, and is most susceptible to flooding. That's the Jefferson-Chalmers community.

At the meeting, we gave an overview of Detroit Climate Action Collaborative. One of our Detroit climate ambassadors is from that community and had been talking to us about doing a green infrastructure training in that neighborhood, which has been experiencing severe flooding.

One of the reasons that we decided to do this training is because the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) will be rolling out stormwater drainage fees this year to residential customers. Late last year, DWSD provided informational workshops to non-residential customers, so we wanted to get ahead of the game to prepare residents for the new impervious acreage rate and to show them how to install green infrastructure so that they can receive the appropriate amount of drainage credit.   We partnered with two of our climate ambassadors to do the training for a train-the-trainer style workshop, and then planted a rain garden at a church and also installed a rain barrel.

Model D: So is the idea that you're trying to encourage people to do this on their own properties?

Knott: Yes.  Green infrastructure is not only important because it reduces the risk of flooding and ultimately the cost of repairs, but it's also important because of climate change. As the intensity and frequency of these storms increases, it just makes sense to mitigate the risk.

Model D: Do people in that community understand the connection between flooding and climate change or is this sort of something that is new to them?

Knott: I think that what they're most familiar with is the combined sewer system because all of the sewage that keeps backing up into their basements. I don't know if they believe it's as much an issue of climate change as it is where they're located, and it being an issue of an aging infrastructure. Our job is to connect those dots, because whenever there is heavy rain, the sewer system will be overwhelmed, causing flooding.  

Model D: What are some of the green infrastructure tactics or types of applications that are most relevant to residents that are facing flooding?

Knott: The tactic that we have focused on during our training and the ones that are being used the most in that community are rain gardens. Rain gardens are one of the most commonly installed green infrastructure measures, because of the amount of water that they can capture.

Model D: How else does green infrastructure fit into the larger climate action work that you're doing, and what other groups have you or do you plan to reach out to?

Knott: When we release the Detroit Climate Action Plan, some of the adaptation and mitigation goals and action steps will focus on some aspect of green infrastructure. In the future, we may have a workshop for industrial and commercial business customers, but for right now, that's not as much of our focus. Right now we're just focusing on the residential.

Model D: For residents who want to implement green infrastructure on their properties, whether it's to save money on their water bills or what have you, what advice do you give to them to get started on doing something?

Knott: The first thing that they can do is to purchase a rain barrel, which is relatively inexpensive or can be free, depending on where you get it. Some rain barrels will need to be retrofitted to capture the rainwater.  We also believe it is important for people to make sure that their basements are waterproofed.

A bit more technical to install, rain gardens are also very helpful. You can't just use any plant in a rain garden.  You can’t just say, 'You know what? I like these flowers. I'm going to make a rain garden.' There are certain types of plants that must be used.  Education is key.  
 
It will be very important that DWSD has some hands-on training in the communities. They cannot just invite people to a meeting to talk to them about the new impervious acreage fees and the importance of installing a rain garden. Residents are not familiar with this tactic. 

The city is going to have to roll up their sleeves and heavily invest in community engagement. Partnering with local organizations to assist with community outreach and green infrastructure training will be very important.   

Read more articles by Nina Ignaczak.

Nina Ignaczak is a metro Detroit-based writer and the editor of Metromode. Follow her on Twitter @ninaignaczak.
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