How some Detroiters are building a better city by transforming vacant lots

This story is part of the series Exploring Economic Equity, supported and directed by Detroit Future City. This Model D and Metromode series aims to report everyday Detroiters and their experiences as they live their lives and make choices about their neighborhoods, health, education, jobs, transportation, and other factors related to economic equity. All content in this series is created in partnership with Detroit Future City.
Gary Gray's neighbors in Detroit's MorningSide community have long trusted and admired him. He’s lived in the neighborhood for more than 35 years.

So, last year, when some of them saw the 71-year-old laboring over massive piles of dirt on the vacant lots on the corners of Haverhill and Cornwall, they'd yell out encouragement and tell Gray that he was doing a fine job (even if they weren't certain what he was doing).

It didn't take long, however, for Gray to rally these folks into lending their hands to help him build Emerald Gardens MorningSide – an urban farm that many MorningSiders now view as the heart of their neighborhood. 

"The lots were in total disrepair and neglected. Together we cleaned everything up, planted over 500 native plants that attract pollinators such as butterflies, birds and bees," Gray says. "There's a sweet cherry tree orchard, a market garden and sometimes we set up a little tent for community-building events with food and festivities." 

It was the summer of 2019, while walking his dog in the medians of East Outer Drive, the first seed of a thought that led to the garden first took root in Gray's mind.

"As I stood there, I imagined how nice it would be if the medians were green and rich with vegetation like what's along the Moross Greenway. And then after some time, I thought, why not do that with vacant lots throughout the city one day?" Gray says. 

By fall, Gray established a non-profit corporation to raise the required funds to pursue his dream of beautifying the medians. He named it Emerald Isles Community Development Corporation, in reference to the green vegetation to the medians (isles) he wanted to see. The charity's mission: transform neglected spaces into beautiful and productive places for the community. 

"Transforming those four vacant lots started with a vision, and I believe that when you have a vision and put it out into the universe, you attract what you need and everything falls into place," Gray says. "But, it's not enough to have a vision. You need to put in hard work and you need money. And in this case our community needed money to make the garden a reality."

To this end, Gray credits much of MorningSide's land stewardship success to the help he received from Detroit Future City (DFC) – a local non-profit organization and thinktank that, among other things, is championing the transformation of Detroit, one vacant lot at a time. 

Courtesy Detroit Future City.

"There are nearly 20’ square miles of vacant land in the city that can be turned into valuable community green space assets. These play a crucial role in the creation of neighborhoods that are thriving, contributing to the health and wellness of residents, and also in alleviating climate change impacts. A comprehensive open space network could drive equitable investment in Detroit neighborhoods and improve the quality of life for residents, while also addressing flooding, extreme heat, poor air quality and other environmental issues. ," says Sarah Hayosh, director of land use and sustainability for DFC.

In 2015, DFC introduced their Working with Lots Program to accelerate vacant land revitalization in Detroit using their Field Guide to Working with Lots. The program encourages community groups, faith-based institutions, non-profits, and businesses to install one of 38 lot designs to address stormwater concerns, activate community spaces and create more attractive neighborhoods. The Field Guide itself is the combined effort of over 50 businesses organizations and experts. It features a comprehensive and user-friendly website and a workbook that empowers Detroiters to create strategic, actionable change. 

"We've given out a total of $380,000 to over 50 groups since 2016 when we introduced the grant program. We've helped both seasoned gardeners and those with less experience and we've been mindful to spread out this assistance across various parts of the city," Hayosh says. "The result is that we're seeing incredible transformation of our city's neighborhoods."

Gray, who was already familiar with some of DFC's work, counts himself lucky that his grant application was selected. His proposal outlined that he would implement the Perennial Propagator Lot Design, which specifies the planting of perennial flowers that spread and can be divided up for other projects. Gray is grateful that as part of the grant program, DFC helped him the whole way, connecting him with staff and other experts who helped with technical assistance, advice and connections to other resources. 

"They helped us build so much excitement. When we did the initial plantings in the summer of 2020 we had expert gardeners working with people who had never dug a single hole in their entire lives," he says. "Emerald Gardens MorningSide is more than a place for people who value gardening or flowers, it's a place for people who value their community."

Investing in Neighborhoods

Community organizer and educator Emily Staugaitis is seeing a similar unfolding in her own neighborhood of East Davison Village. Herself an avid gardener and baker, she co-leads Bandhu Gardens, a cross-cultural and multi-generational project which recognizes the gardening and culinary talents of the Bangladeshi immigrant women in her neighborhood and connects them with economic opportunities through food work. 

She shares that when she got wind of the DFC grants, East Davison Village was under planning study through the city's Strategic Neighborhood Fund. 

"There was already lots of input from our residents about the improvements they needed, but there wasn't always an immediate translation of what we wanted to see and then having it implemented," Staugaitis says. "We needed help, we needed solutions."

The DFC grants were in view, but the community didn't have a non-profit at the time that could apply. So they partnered with 20 Books, Inc. a community-based nonprofit that uses literacy and blight clean-ups to grow and support neighborhoods. Together they applied for a grant, citing their desire to implement the Side Lot Solutions Lot Design. Their goal: to transform and beautify three separate vacant sites within a half-mile radius. 

Staugaitis was moved by the support of 20 Books Inc. and everyone at Bandhu Farms who banded together to implement the grant. They ended up doing two initial plantings in Oct. 2020 and then two more in Oct. 2021 with support from many East Davison Village residents. 

Photo courtesy Detroit Future City.

"Imagine, we had a 6-year-old child there, someone in their seventies, and youth from LEAP, the Hamtramck High School environmental club, helping us,'' she says. "It was amazing to see so many people working together. We're growing our community and the connections between the people in it."

Currently, the grant program is on hold, however, Detroiters can still find the Field Guide to Working with Lots and other related resources online and are encouraged to connect with DFC for help and guidance on projects they'd like to undertake. Hayosh is confident that the connections that Detroiters are making by investing in green spaces in their community are something that can be leveraged for many years into the future. 

"Through the Working with Lots Program, we've been able to build really strong partnerships with groups on the ground who have a vested interest in improving the landscape in their communities," she says. "We've been nurturing these partnerships so that we can do some even bigger impact projects."

Part of their vision is outlined in their Green Alleys: Detroit's Opportunity for Innovation. Released last November, and created in collaboration with EcoWorks, the report was inspired by the challenges that Detroit's West Village Neighborhood Association came up against when they tried to implement a green alley in their community. Despite funding support and a lot of people backing the project, it was denied by the city because of different policy barriers that currently exist.

"We started thinking about how we could move the idea forward, even though we couldn't actually build that project. We're trying to educate people about how cool green alleys are and how they can be really transformative for all Detroiters," says Susan Rusinowski, DFC's stormwater innovation manager. "One of the most important take-aways is that we can use them as a strategy to help reduce flooding, and position them as another tool in our green stormwater infrastructure toolkit here in Detroit."

Rusinowski cites other benefits of cleaning up and transforming the alleys beyond those that are environmental. Converted alleys can function as safe public spaces that foster community cohesion and pride. They can also support economic development by providing additional entrances to businesses and potentially increasing adjacent property values. 

"Creating green alleys is a powerful way to unify our neighborhoods and build Detroit's resilience into the future," she says. "We just need ground-level support to get it going. We know that Detroiters want investment in their neighborhoods and this is one of the ways that we can do that."

Her conviction is aligned with Staugaitis' beliefs and desires. Staugaitis is not only looking forward to what will bloom in her own community this year. She's excited about the ripple effect that such initiatives will have throughout Detroit.

"We need to continue to work with our neighbors and supportive organizations like DFC that are taking action to bring as much beauty as possible to as many corners of the community as possible," she says. "Why? Because community care is the same as self-care."