Detroit Revitalization Fellow: Erin Kelly

Erin Kelly has lived many places other people aspire to move: Austin (where she grew up), the Pacific Northwest (where she attended college), Berlin (where she decided to be a landscape architect), Cambridge (where she worked for celebrated park designer Michael Van Valkenburgh and went to grad school) and Toronto (where she fell in love with landfills while working with designer Bruce Mau’s team).  

But the place that really captures her imagination is Detroit -- which she dreamed about for many years before actually visiting. "In graduate school, I was known for being a Detroit fan," Kelly recalls. "I would scour the Harvard library for the most obscure articles and books about the city." Finally, she got to visit the city thanks to Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, which awarded her a summer Community Service Fellowship Award to work with the Detroit Collaborative Design Center. 

"I landed there and decided that this was my place and that these were my people," she recalls. "It was pretty much love at first sight." Kelly made quick friends with some of her Corktown neighbors and together they explored all sides of the city --investigating abandoned buildings, attending gala fundraisers at the Detroit Opera House and organizing a public Bastille Day celebration.  

Riding her bike 12 miles back and forth across town every day, she especially reveled in the wildflowers growing everywhere. This sparked her interest in the "urban wild" -- an emerging land management technique that revalues ruderal ecologies within the context of urban areas. (Ruderal refers to plant species that regenerate ecologically disturbed land, which could be caused by either a natural or human event.) The idea first took hold in Germany, and now is gaining attention in the U.S., she says, as a way to expand green space in cities without the expense, planning and water same degree of expense and maintenance associated with establishing and maintaining use of traditional parks. "A lot of these plants and places are really quite beautiful," she says.

Another thing that caught her eye on those long bike rides were all the houses and buildings being torn down. Her father’s construction business in Texas had specialized in moving and restoring old houses, so she began to wonder what was possible in Detroit through the strategic reuse of materials and land. Back in Cambridge, Kelly spent her final year in graduate school studying the "ecologies of demolition," which enabled her to take a few short research trips back to Detroit.

After graduation, she was back in town again, having found some funding to investigate the potential of urban wilds as part of a land management strategy for Detroit's residential land.  Her goal was to make this stay permanent, which is exactly what happened thanks to the Detroit Revitalization Fellows program -- a Wayne State University project funded by Kresge FoundationFord FoundationHudson-Webber Foundation, the Skillman Foundation and Wayne State.  

She applied for the program, and was snapped up by NextEnergy, a nonprofit company focused on accelerating advanced energy technologies. NextEnergy is supporting the City of Detroit with the uptake of green technologies and sustainable business.  

Kelly’s job at the organization is an almost perfect fit with her interest in the ecology of recalibrating the process of demolition staging in order to achieve the greatest net benefits for Detroit and Detroiters. "I am looking at how the demolition process is leveraged to create jobs and stabilize taxable property value in the city. I know we can attract investment and create jobs in Detroit by redirecting some of the material streams coming out of these structures. As a landscape architect I believe that demolition site selection must be driven by a thoughtful disposition process -- that the process itself should initiate from a consideration how the land is owned and managed once it is structure free."  

Jean Redfield, Next Energy’s Vice President for Public Policy Programs, "Erin brings a background in design. She has a passion for a waste-free economy. The Detroit Revitalization Fellows Program allowed us to diversify our capability by bringing Erin in, providing skill sets that are outside our mainstream business -- advanced energy technologies -- but are critical to our ability to have impact. Erin’s been a great addition to the team."  

Kelly is also involved with a number of projects outside work. She is designing Detroit’s first off leash dog park, and is one of the founding members of the Friends of Cass Park, an organization working to promote the social use and physical improvement of a public space in the lower Cass Corridor.  

"I know a more diverse group of people here in Detroit in terms of race and age and interests," she says, outlining her plans for in a typical week. "Last Tuesday night, a friend and neighbor had a party where he was butchering a pig. Yesterday after work I taught yoga at the studio space here in my neighborhood. Tomorrow, my neighborhood soccer team has an indoors game at an old greenhouse in Southwest Detroit.” 

"Detroit so far is everything I hoped it would be," she says, "if anything it is more fulfilling than I could have imagined."

Jay Walljasper, author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, is a Senior Associate with Citiscope and Senior Fellow with Project for Public Spaces.
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