4 things to know about Detroit and green infrastructure

You might have heard the term "green infrastructure" bandied about in city and neighborhood design circles. But what is it and how can it benefit Detroit?

That question was at the heart of a a speaker series event recently hosted by Model D at the Detroit Beer Company. Representatives from foundations, nonprofits, and the city talked about ways Detroit can harness its potential for green infrastructure—rain gardens, natural swales, tree plantings and more—to manage stormwater and provide a host of benefits from cleaner air to beautification to climate change mitigation.

We couldn't have been happier with the turnout, venue, and caliber of the panel, who made this sometimes wonkish subject accessible and engaging.

In her opening remarks, Jodee Raines, vice president of programs at the Erb Foundation, said, "If you're not talking about stormwater management, you're not talking about green infrastructure."

Considering the frequent flooding and aging infrastructure in the city, we understand Raines's concern with this problem. While stormwater management may be the most important issue that needs addressing, the panel showed that green infrastructure can encompass many things.

Here are our four key takeaways from the event.

1. Multiple Detroit organizations are working to make green projects happen

Moderator Rory Neuner of Public Sector Consultants asked each panelist to describe the most exciting project their organization was working on.

Raines gave special attention to the improvements taking place in Viola Liuzzo Park in northwest Detroit. The park, named for a white civil rights activist, will have bioswales and rainwater collectors installed to reduce runoff and ease pressure on Detroit's sewer system.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, of which another panelist Palencia Mobley is the deputy director, will help implement these changes. (In fact, there were a number of ways in each our panelists' organizations were coordinating with one another)

Dean Hay, director of green infrastructure for Greening of Detroit, said it was difficult to choose just one project from his organization, but the possibilities of the Outdoor Education Center in northeast Detroit's Osborn neighborhood were uniquely exciting. Through maintaining a natural ecosystem, the grounds will give kids access to wildlife education and outdoor activities.

Ritchie Harrison, community development planner at the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, says they're working on a plans to continue developing the west riverfront. If it's anything like the east, we welcome those developments.

2. Green infrastructure's time has come

Until recently, green infrastructure hasn't been a major point of emphasis for Detroiters. But that's changing. The Erb Family Foundation was founded in 2008 and now funds many of the projects discussed at the panel.

Harrison believes the moment to pursue green infrastructure initiatives is now, and might have delivered the quote of the night. "The conversation has changed," he said. "Today we're talking about green spaces whereas we weren't a decade ago. There's a unique opportunity to think about the nature and ecology of our city."

3. It's easy being green

Essentially all infrastructure can be green. Some planners see possibilities in often overlooked components of our infrastructure. Freeways, parking garages, even stops along the M-1 rail can incorporate green features.

Cari Easterday-Kar, chief financial officer of Midtown, Inc., talked about how alleys can play a crucial role in making our cities greener and better insulated from extreme weather. The quintessential example of this is the "green alley" next to the Green Garage, a business incubator and coworking space in Midtown (check out Model D's article on the Green Garage). The alley has permeable pavers and native plants that help absorb rainwater. And unlike many other alleys, it's pleasant to walk through.

Easterday-Kar said there's currently five green alleys in Midtown, which her organization has helped bring to fruition, with two more on the way.

4. Detroit's flat terrain is a challenge

There is one major, natural factor working against Detroit, according to Mobley: our city is flat. This means water doesn't collect in any obvious troublesome spots where the city can direct resources, but is instead spread out. Therefore, we need to be especially conscientious about being green.

But if this panel is any indication, Detroit seems up to the challenge.

"It may sound corny," said Mobley, "but it's our mission to be the greenest city in America."
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Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.