Freshwater Metropolis in words and pictures: More than a concept

The term infrastructure often conjures images of roads, bridges, railroads and other hard constructions of concrete and steel. Yet infrastructure can be soft, even green. Indeed, landscapes themselves, native plants, and natural systems can serve as infrastructure. Now that spring has finally sprung, it feels like a good time to show you around green infrastructure already at work in the city of Detroit.

Over the past few months, we have talked a lot about blue/green infrastructure in our series "Freshwater Metropolis." We have examined how the Detroit Future City Strategic Framework calls for the use of Detroit's vacant lands, described in that document as Detroit's greatest opportunity -- and liability -- as "landscape infrastructure."

Landscapes can be productive infrastructure that aid in the management of stormwater in ways not feasible with the use of conventional gray forms of infrastructure. Stormwater can place excessive burdens on our gray infrastructure system of sewers, causing combined sewer overflows that discharge untreated wastewaters into the Great Lakes system.

But this idea of landscapes serving as infrastructure is not just a conceptual exercise. Indeed, many green infrastructure sites are already at work in Detroit, serving as models for the kind of vision put forth in Detroit Future City.

Detroit is becoming increasingly well known for its urban gardens; however, urban gardening need not be only about food production and neighborhood beautification. Gardens themselves can serve as green infrastructure managing stormwater runoff. Detroit is already home to several rain gardens, which are designed to capture and treat rainwater that otherwise would enter sewers directly.

"A properly designed and built rain garden will hold the first 1 inch of rainfall off of a roof or driveway. Seventy five percent of all rain events in southeast Michigan are less than 1 inch so building a rain garden will capture and treat 75 percent of all rain events," says Don Carpenter, an Associate Professor of Civil Engineering at Lawrence Technological University and a leading practitioner of green infrastructure implementation in the region. "Collectively, that can make a huge difference in the amount of runoff from residential properties. For example, a 10-foot by 10-foot rain garden on a typical quarter-acre residential property will capture almost a 1,000 gallons of water."

A rain garden is typically a curated collection of native plants on a low-lying parcel of land that can be designed for aesthetic as well as infrastructural purposes. Michigan is rich with varieties of native plants that can be put to work in rain gardens. "For our gardens, we have had good luck with Purple Coneflower, Cardinal Flower, Black Eyed Susan, Bee Balm, and Blue Flag Iris," says Carpenter.

Rain gardens are springing up around the city. One of the soon-to-be best examples is the garden at the Duffield Branch Detroit Public Library, where a community group, the West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, has taken it upon themselves to build a rain garden on the library grounds, turning the outside of the library into a space for educational and aesthetic experiences. The quaint West Village Rain Garden is another example of an urban rain garden worth visiting.

Of course, techniques that capture stormwater can be used in conventional gardening. Joel Howrani Heeres, Sustainable Communities Coordinator at the WARM Training Center, practices what he preaches at work. At the Woodbridge home Joel shares with his wife Anna, the couple has installed a 300-gallon water collection system that they use to water their personal garden. Maybe you're not ready to build a system as ambitious as this one at your home, but you can check out the recent Model D feature by Matthew Piper to find out how you can install your own rain barrels with which you can water your garden.

There's also the notion that infrastructure has to be man-made. In the case of the 15-acre native prairie in Rouge Park on the city's west side, man's interference in this naturally occurring green infrastructure is the only obstacle to this landscape doing its job of slowing rainwater from entering sewers and the nearby Rouge River.

"The Friends of Rouge Park have stood in front of huge lawn mowers to prevent the loss of the restored prairies," says Cyndi Ross of Friends of the Rouge, an organization dedicated to restoration and stewardship of the Rouge River.

Often times, implementing green/blue infrastructure means removing man-made alterations to native landscapes, as is the case with the wetlands at Milliken State Park, which were restored to a more natural state in recent years and now serve as a catchment for stormwater.

Other times, green infrastructure means enhancing man-made spaces to serve environmental and aesthetic purposes. One example is the development of the Green Alley Project in Midtown, which converted a conventional alley into a permeable surface that filters stormwater. Another example is the Latham Playfield Infiltration Park on Detroit's Lower Eastside. 

The Lower Eastside Action Plan
 (LEAP) has made green/blue infrastructure a priority, partnering with the Greening of Detroit and the Burns-Seneca-Fisher Block Club to install an infiltration park on the site of an under-maintained public park. Once the trees planted at the park mature, the infiltration park will play a huge role in diverting stormwater from the combined sewer system.

The Lower East Side of Detroit has two elements that many consider liabilities: an abundance of vacant land and aging infrastructure; however, Khalil Ligon, Executive Director of Detroit Neighborhood Parnership East and a candidate for city council, notes the opportunities this presents for developing a coordinated green/blue infrastructure system on the Lower Eastside. "Through LEAP and a partnership with the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan, we've identified 4,800 lots and parcels with potential to serve as green infrastructure sites." LEAP will be presenting these findings to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department on May 13 (Location TBD. Email here for more details).

The examples of infrastructure highlighted here may seem small and disconnected, but they serve as a foundation for the coordinated green/blue infrastructure system called for in the Detroit Future City strategic framework. Kansas City, which was facing a potential cost of $2 billion in repairs and additions to its conventional sewer system, launched the 10,000 Rain Gardens campaign, allowing them to capture and treat millions of gallons of rainwater at a fraction of the cost of traditional infrastructure.

Now Detroit has the potential to be a leader in green infrastructure development. You can be a part of developing the system by bringing these ideas into practice at your home and in your neighborhood. For more information about installing a rain garden, go here.

Don't forget to join us at our Speaker Series event on Thursday, May 23 at Lawrence Tech University, where we will discuss green infrastructure "from the backyard to the big picture." RSVP here.

Matthew Lewis is project editor for this series, which alternates monthly in Model D and sister publication MetromodeOur partners for this project are Lawrence Technological University and the Erb Family Foundation.