Thanks to a new tool, it's easier being green in Detroit

Sitting under the beautiful expanse of the Fisher Building's ornate ceiling, I looked up to notice the swath of green hemlock painted on the barrel vault. I guess I didn't remember how much nature is depicted throughout the building, from the amazing floral metal grillwork above the entrance and the myriad of organic shapes throughout—fruit, leaves, stalks, branches—to the various birds depicted in medallions, gargoyles, mosaic, and murals. It was a wonderful reminder that urbanity and the environment, at least symbolically, can co-exist.

And if nothing else besides affording ideas like these, a space like the Fisher lobby provides a sweet backdrop for discussing aspirational projects like the newly rebooted Detroit Green Map, an online portal that aims to map Detroit-area businesses, organizations, and initiatives that are committed to being green. I recently met with Alex Mueller, the website's outreach coordinator and a Kellogg fellow, and Ben Dueweke, an energy engineer at Walker-Miller Energy Services and the Green Map's web developer and asked them a few questions about why the Detroit Green Map is important to Detroit's future.

Model D: What's the big idea behind the Detroit Green Map?

Ben Dueweke: Well, the history of the site goes back several years. The Detroit Green Map first launched as "Sustainable Detroit" in 2011 under the leadership of Jacob Corvidae, the former executive director of Ecoworks, and Deanne Bednar of Strawbale Studio. It was part of a larger global initiative started in 1995, the Open Green Map, which was started to connect people in a specific region to sustainable businesses and initiatives. Detroit is one more than 550 such maps worldwide.

When I got involved a couple years ago, we were still using the Open Green Map's free platform and pulled data from there. It was a bit clunky and hard to navigate. This project is a joint effort between with the Detroit Green Skills Alliance and the U.S. Green Building Council's Detroit Regional Chapter Emerging Professionals group. These groups have committed to building the Green Map and providing information with an even more local focus.

As part of the Emerging Professionals group, I volunteered to help. Even though I had no prior web development experience, I thought there must be a better way to display this important information to highlight and grow the green economy in Detroit.

MD: So, what's new?

BD: Well, we wanted to streamline the user interaction and experience and make it easier for the public to use the map. The platform we're using now is much more straightforward. It is now easier to search, and the results get plotted as a little green dot layer on a Google map. Each listing comes with a short description to give users a quick understanding of what goods or services the business or nonprofit provides.

Beyond the interface, Detroit is a good example of how showcasing the city's unique examples of sustainable assets can help build businesses and support organizations that don't exist in other places. It also helps people connect who would like to make a commitment to the environment and sustainability but don't know how.

With a simple keyword search, the Detroit Green Map shows you where you can buy solar panels, where you can recycle, where you can volunteer. The primary user right now is anyone with a personal commitment to sustainable practices. We want to grow organically, and are beginning to get the word out on social media, including our Facebook page.

MD: Who's listed on the Detroit Green Map?

Alex Mueller: My job is to reach out to the businesses and organizations that are listed, as well establish new relationships to grow beyond our current 125 entries. I update information included in the description as well as check to make sure businesses are still open. In our promotion and media outreach, I try to involve the businesses and include photos and accolades. The Detroit Green Map is to not just to connect the public to green businesses and organizations, but get everyone excited about going green.

Some of the entries on the Detroit Green Map include: Detroit Grease, which recycles grease from restaurants for use as biodiesel; Always Brewing Detroit, a coffee shop in Rosedale Park committed to local sourcing; D-Town Farms, a 7-acre organic farm in Rouge Park founded to address food insecurity in Detroit's black community; CLEARCorps Detroit, a nonprofit committed to creating healthy home environments for children and families; and Goodwill's Green Works, which offers cost-saving, labor-intensive asset recovery and industrial recycling services to socially conscious businesses.

Most of the entities listed on the Detroit Green Map find out about website through recommendations and word of mouth. In recent months, we have signed up nearly 20 more, and we're very excited to expand. We want folks to understand that being on the website can expand their business. And as the website grows, we see definitely the Detroit Green Map as a marketing tool. Hopefully, it will encourage even more businesses to pursue sustainability strategies.

MD: What's next for the Detroit Green Map?

BD: Well, for one thing, we realize the need to develop a set of criteria to evaluate listings in terms of what it means to be a sustainable business or nonprofit in Detroit. There are social, environmental, and economic components to consider, and we are working on finishing a matrix where we'll be able to better judge listings going forward. To date, the vetting process has been fairly informal, beginning with the original team who knew firsthand which organizations to include on the Detroit Green Map. At some point, we'll need to go through the entire list. We're not planning to remove anyone but do want to have everyone reevaluated with the same methodology.

It's important to remember that this project has been a volunteer effort. At the same time, we also realize that the Detroit Green Map needs more resources to take it to the next level. We've applied for grant funding and have partnered with the University of Michigan School of Information to provide us with three students during their Alternative Spring Break, so we can do some of the legwork required to move the project forward. We're very excited. The entire team has come together really well and has a great vision for not only building a better website, but also for what else we can do to encourage Detroit to be a greener place.

AM: I totally agree, the team dynamic provides this project with a great deal of positive energy. The professionals who committed to making the Detroit Green Map a reality are full of amazing ideas. There are a lot of places we can take this, and we want to provide more resources than just the map.

For example, we also see opportunities to promote volunteering for green initiatives in Detroit. In the future, we even see offering classes and tours with a focus on sustainability in the city. We've worked with Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice to organize a couple of tours that focus on sustainable initiatives, and the Detroit Green Map team is working on developing self-guided tours of farms, gardens, solar installations, and other sites that highlight the city's commitment to sustainable development. In the end, we're just trying to help give Detroiters the information they need to make the decisions that will help them lead more sustainable lives. The Detroit Green Map can be an important part of that process.

Francis Grunow is a Detroit-based writer and a regular contributor to Model D. Follow him on Twitter @detourdetroit.