Green City Diaries: 2013 in review

As 2013 comes to a close, so too does the second year of Green City Diaries, our continuing series about everyday Detroiters whose choices, at home and at work, make our city a more sustainable place.

In preparing the year's eight articles, series photographer Marvin Shaouni and I crisscrossed the city, from the riverfront to Palmer Park, the near east side to Redford, meeting a motley crew of activists, hairstylists, entrepreneurs, and engineers, as well as a model, a geologist, a truck driver, and two beekeepers.

If there's a single thread running through these eight articles, about such different people engaged in such different passions, it's that together, they make abundantly clear how expansive the thing we call "urban sustainability" truly is. Let's get a sense of that expanse by taking a look back at the ground we covered.

In April, we considered how a more sustainable life in the city is one that's still meaningfully connected to nature's restorative rhythms. For "Paradise Found," I talked to Cleatrice Grigsby and Dan Scarsella about the deep and inspiring personal relationships they both have with features of the natural landscape that remain in Detroit: the river, in Cleatrice's case, and the virgin woods of Palmer Park, in Dan's.

Rich Wieskie, a onetime meadmaker turned full-time beekeeper, and Bette Huster, a lawyer who keeps bees on the side, both explore their connection to nature every time they care for the honeybees they raise in Detroit. Our conversations about urban beekeeping for "Honeybee Buzz" in August expanded this idea of natural connectedness to include connectedness within nature, as well, the dense, delicate ecological web of which we bipedal Detroiters are but one part.

The organisms that make up Detroit's various ecosystems include, of course, the birds and the bees, as well as you and me, but what about the the vast populations that teem, largely unnoticed, beneath our feet? That was the subject of June's article, for which I spoke to Patrick Crouch, an east side farmer who sees a world of natural abundance and ecological partnership proliferating in every "vacant" lot, and Jeffrey Howard, a geologist who studies how recent human activity affects the formation of urban soils.

The work of making Detroit a more sustainable place includes changing thinking at just about every level, from the personal to the infrastructural. We considered both of these scales when we explored the subject of water in May. Deborah Dorsey of the West Grand Boulevard Collaborative described her organization's ongoing efforts to turn a stretch of the Boulevard into a demonstration center for blue infrastructure, and Erma Leaphart-Gouch walked us through the innovative water conservation techniques she employs in her North Rosedale Park home.

In February and March, our two part miniseries "Shear Innovation" illustrated the idea that sustainable leadership and transformation are both possible and necessary in every industry by focusing on two stylists in Midtown: Jen Willemsen, whose salon Curl Up & Dye only stocks non-toxic products, and Sebastian Jackson, whose Social Club Grooming Company leads the way in all kinds of sustainable practices, including responsible waste management and intentional community building.

Back in January, we told a new version of an old Detroit story when we looked at the remarkable effort to save the Detroit Diesel plant in Redford from closure. The 70 year old factory's salvation was accomplished by transforming it into a model of both energy efficiency and inventive, responsible waste disposal and reuse at an industrial scale. My conversations with engineers Chris Templeton and Paul Tousignant, as well as gondola driver and UAW member Vito Randazzo, made clear that the changes at Detroit Diesel have been successful largely because people at all levels of the organization have been empowered to take an active role in the process.

Imagining and modeling new social contracts is another key element of sustainable change, and we considered another example in the series' most recent article, "Fab Lab and the Language of Nature." That's where we introduced Blair Evans, whose organization Incite Focus encourages Detroiters to fundamentally reorder their lives by designing and creating the things they need to live, rather than buying them, and to base their designs on natural systems.

From a 3 million square foot factory to the microbes that live in the soil, from hairstylists to engineers, this is our green city in 2013. But this handful of articles provides just a glimpse of Detroit's growing sustainability revolution, which is why we'll be back next year with more. Thanks for reading!

Green City Diaries is a co-production of Model D and the Green Garage Urban Sustainability Library. We'd love to hear your 2014 story ideas; please write us at

Photos by Marvin Shaouni

Read more articles by Matthew Piper.

Matthew Piper is a writer and photographer covering art, architecture, and sustainable development in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @matthewsaurus and on Instagram @matthewjpiper. Find more of his work at
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