Rainwater man of Southwest Detroit

Jeff Klein is a laid back guy. He usually dresses in a t-shirt, jeans, and boots because of his day jobs as owner of Detroit Farm and Garden and his work in landscape architecture for Classic Landscape, Ltd., a design/build landscaping firm he owns with a partner. But when I first met him, he thought it was appropriate to don a collared shirt. That's because he was presenting conceptual drawings for a new pocket park in North Corktown to a group of residents--his neighbors--for their feedback.

In the basement of the Spirit of Hope Church at Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and Trumbull, Jeff rolled out his drawings that represent the culmination of more than three years of community outreach to residents, neighborhood groups, and the local school seeking input for the project currently being referred to as Intersections that will sit at the corner of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.

His pro bono work on Intersections is far from the only thing on Jeff's plate. He has been a busy man in recent years. After finishing a degree in landscape architecture at Michigan State, Jeff founded Classic Landscape, Ltd. at the age of 25 and has been operating this design/build landscape architecture and implementation firm for the last 14 years with his business partner Andy Ray. Just last year, Jeff opened a new business, Detroit Farm and Garden, a store in Southwest Detroit whose mission is "to provide quality gardening, farming and landscape resources to Detroit’s communities."

Located in a building that once housed the Detroit Police Department's 3rd Precinct, Detroit Farm and Garden's location is quite unique.

"The whole complex is a collaborative between non-profit organizations and for-profit business," says Klein. Southwest Housing Solutions, a longtime non-profit real estate developer in Southwest Detroit, renovated and owns the building. Detroit Farm and Garden, a for-profit business, rents the large hangar-like space in the rear of the building, and the non-profit 555 Gallery and Studios is located in the portion of the building fronting Vernor Avenue.

The building itself is becoming something of a blue-green infrastructure project. Over the past year, Klein has been installing a green roof on the building with the help of funding from the Erb Family Foundation. The roof is a system of tray plantings atop two 6 to 8 feet tall foam hills Jeff designed for aesthetic purposes so that it is visible from street level. Once complete, the green roof will be able to divert as much as 75 percent of stormwater landing on the roof away from the sewer system.

These kind of projects are critical in Detroit, where an aging combined sewer system that collects storm and waste water in the same pipes can have its capacity exceeded during heavy storm events, resulting in the discharge of untreated waste water into the Detroit River and the Great Lakes water basin that threatens the ecosystem.

Klein is very much a landscape artist, but over the years he has become interested in landscape projects that serve the infrastructural purposes of stormwater management. His first commission as a landscaper was for the Gloryland Garden on the grounds of Gesu Parish and School in Northwest Detroit, which won a grant from Rhodale Press and Organic Gardening magazine to design a rainwater harvesting system.

Other green infrastructure projects sprang up by chance. Klein took a job in Lake Angelus a few years ago to help a homeowner prevent erosion that was happening during heavy rains, washing away lots of soil and debris from the yard into the lake. Jeff installed underground retention basins that naturally leech water slowly to prevent the wash outs. A project like this serves practical and environmental purposes, helping the homeowner maintain the property and preventing pollutants from entering the lake as runoff.

Now green infrastructure is becoming an increasing piece of Classic Landscape, Ltd.'s billings. They were the people who installed the Green Alley between Prentis and Canfield Streets off of Second Avenue. They built the retaining walls at the mouth of the Dequindre Cut greenway that hold native plantings that help mitigate stormwater runoff.

More recently, Klein has been working on a project for D Town farm in Rouge Park, the largest urban farm in the city of Detroit, which happens to be located in a floodplain area on Detroit's West Side. Klein is designing what will eventually become a 120,000 gallon catch basin that will help alleviate frequent flooding and provide a cost-free watering source for the farm. Through the same grant from the Erb Family Foundation, Klein is also designing a system for capturing rainwater from a greenhouse at Earthworks Farm.

Jeff Klein has some ideas about how we need to reform the way we charge people for their use of water and the sewer system. A water bill in Detroit includes sewerage fees based on the amount of water that comes out of your taps instead of charging for the amount of water that actually enters the sewer. "It costs you more in sewerage fees to water your garden than it does to wash all of the love off of your hands in your sink that you got while planting and weeding." The point is that watering your garden does not cost more in sewerage because the plants and soil naturally filter water, as opposed to when you wash your hands or dishes and water directly enters the combined sewer system from your drain.

The same is true for formulas the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department uses to charge businesses with parking lots for sewerage. They calculate the rate they charge for stormwater runoff generated on site based on the surface area of the parking lot, automatically assuming that all of the rain landing on the parking lot will enter the sewer--even if the parking lot has measures in place to divert that water to natural filtration systems like bioswales, retention basins, or, in the case of Detroit Farm and Garden, a green roof.

This Thursday, May 23 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Lawrence Technological University, Jeff Klein will join a panel of experts, activists, and business owners to discuss issues like these and the importance of green infrastructure and water quality in our region. The panel will discuss what we can do--from the backyard to the big picture--to help protect one of our greatest resources, the Great Lakes basin. RSVP for the event here.

Matthew Lewis is project editor for Model D and Metromode's blue/green infrastructure series, underwritten by the Erb Family Foundation

Read more articles by Matthew Lewis.

Matthew Lewis is a writer and former managing editor of Model D. He's currently the communications officer for the New Economy Initiative. 
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