Green City Diaries: Best of the year that was

When I started writing Green City Diaries in January 2012, I knew I was in for an interesting year. 

Really, what an opportunity: to meet passionate, engaged Detroiters each month and talk to them about the everyday choices they make in their personal and professional lives that, together, make our city a more sustainable place. Then to collect their stories and share them with you, hopefully connecting some dots and imparting a little inspiration and practical knowledge along the way, as well as highlighting a neglected chapter of the usual Detroit narrative.

The experience has provided me with a remarkable education in sustainability, Detroit-style, and I'd like to spend some time this month taking stock of what I've learned and reflecting on some of the people who've taken the time to teach me. 

I came to this work as a writer, a Detroiter who loves his bike and looks forward to his regular trips to the recycling center, and as a curious member of the growing Green Garage community, but by no means as a sustainability specialist. Frankly, I was a novice, and every single story so far has provided me with the opportunity to better understand what "sustainability," a buzzword if ever there's been one, actually means in practice in Detroit. (An early and integral lesson, care of the Green Garage's Tom Brennan, mentor to many: sustainability is local. While there may be shared values and similarities in practice, it will never mean quite the same thing in Detroit as it does in Warren or Royal Oak, Seattle or Bangladesh.)

So what does sustainability mean, here and now? I think we can start to get an idea by retracing some of the steps we've taken together so far this year.

It certainly includes a more thoughtful approach to waste disposal, born of a need to minimize the harmful environmental effects of the incinerator and local landfills, as well as the need to make use of waste's potentially generative capabilities. I began with this glamorous subject in February when I talked to Ann Perrault and Jackie Victor from Avalon International Breads about the bakery's robust commercial composting efforts.

Avalon, which opened in 1997, may be Detroit's first triple bottom line business, prioritizing its impact on the local community and the environment as much as its profits. In recent years, Avalon has stepped up its composting efforts to extraordinary levels, diverting untold tons of waste from landfills and the incinerator by making it easy for staff and customers to compost almost everything in the store. Their work in this area, including training and incentivizing a diverse workforce, is sure to become even more impressive and instructive as they grow and expand their operation over the next few years.

A more sustainable Detroit is also necessarily one in which more people who are able to choose alternative forms of transportation, like the bus, a bike, or walking, do so. In April and June, I talked to seven Detroiters who make this choice (an admittedly challenging one, at times) daily.

Their experiences were distinct, but common themes emerged: each form of transportation encourages regular exercise, each provides access to the vibrancy and texture of street life, and each puts the walker or rider in a productive mental and social space that transcends the limitations imposed by the automobile.

Sustainability in Detroit is also about the ability of individuals and communities to grow their own food, in order to eat more healthfully, regain some control over food systems, and build stronger neighborhoods.

This is an old tradition here, and an increasingly impactful one. I first covered food in March, when I talked to six local gardeners and farmers about their various strategies for preparing for the growing season, and again last month, when I reported on the work of a few people in the city's good food and food justice movements.

From them I gained a newfound understanding of the connectedness gardening and farming can foster (to one's body, self, neighborhood, neighbors, and planet) and a more enriched understanding of the nuanced political and cultural dimensions of food in Detroit.

To grow food requires open space, of course, and as any parachute journalist can (and will) tell you, Detroit has that in abundance. This creates unique challenges and opportunities from an urban sustainability point of view, and in July, I devoted two articles to exploring how Detroiters are taking ownership of vacant space and putting it to productive use. (Read them here and here.)

This gave me the opportunity to talk to one of the first readers to reach out in friendship after the publication of our introductory article, Mike Davis. His project is Hamtown Farms, an orchard that he, a few friends, and a whole bevy of supporters and neighborhood kids recently created on a few vacant lots in Hamtramck.

It also put me in touch with the incomparable and inspiring Delores Bennett, the octogenarian community builder whose ongoing efforts (from 1969 to today) to create and maintain a safe space for the kids in her neighborhood to play, learn, and grow, make her, as far as I'm concerned, the first of the series' two sustainability superstars.

Regular readers may have already guessed who the second superstar is (DUH-duh-duh-DUH), but before I get to her, let's look quickly at one more subject that's especially characteristic of Detroit sustainability.

August's article was about several individuals and organizations who are finding new ways to think about and inhabit our battered built environment, from choosing deconstruction over demolition to preserving the memory of demolished buildings and rehabbing historic structures with energy efficiency in mind. This trend is one to watch in the future, as Detroiters of all kinds start reimagining our old buildings as assets instead of liabilities.

Finally, in October, I had the chance to meet some of the next generation of Detroit's green leaders and the adults who encourage and inspire them. These young people were all impressive; one in particular, eight year old Taneesha Fashion, is, of course, our second superstar. She and her dad Bryce stole the show with their rap about personal responsibility, captured in a well-loved video by Green Garager Matt Dibble.

I don't know whether Taneesha has ever met Delores Bennett, but if she has or hasn't, there is a clear and heartening line to be drawn between the kind of conscious, engaged community Ms. Bennett has dreamed of and fostered for decades and the Detroit that Taneesha and her family are building anew. That's local sustainability in action.

Did you get all that? Ready to sign off on a final definition of sustainability in Detroit? I'm not, either, which is why Green City Diaries will be back next year so we can keep digging deeper. (As always, if you have story ideas or new directions you'd like to see the series take, please get in touch!)

I'd like to close by simply saying thanks. Thanks for Marvin Shaouni, for the beautiful photos that illustrate every article so vividly. Thanks to everyone I talked to for being so generous with your time and freely imparting your unique insights. Thanks to the Green Garage and Model D for all the support, guidance, and encouragement. And thanks to you for reading, for commenting, and for sending emails. Thanks for your enthusiasm for this subject, which keeps the series going, and for your civil, thoughtful criticism, which makes it better. See you next year!

Green City Diaries is a co-production of Model D and the Green Garage Urban Sustainability Library.

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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