Green City Diaries: Conserving water, improving neighborhood life

Last month, I reported on a community forum that brought Detroiters together to talk about water. The forum addressed issues of water conservation and stewardship by focusing on neighborhood landscape infrastructure projects (a stormwater infiltration forest, for instance) and everyday individual choices (like using a rain barrel instead of a hose to water your home garden).

This week, let's dive a little deeper. I'd like to introduce you to two passionate Detroiters who spend much of their free time both thinking about our water problems and working to help solve them. First we'll learn from Deborah Dorsey, a member of the West Grand Boulevard Collaborative (WGBC), about the remarkable "blue" infrastructure projects she and her neighbors are developing along the boulevard between the Lodge and I-96. Then we'll turn to Erma Leaphart-Gouch, a North Rosedale Park resident and everyday water activist, to get an up-close look at water conservation at home.

"The West Grand Boulevard Collaborative," Deborah Dorsey explains to me, "was started in 2004 by our neighbors Mildred and Tommy Robbins. The original intent behind it was to improve safety, beauty and walkability in our neighborhood, but it's snowballed since then. We want to beautify, but beautification, we quickly realized, must include some environmental benefit."

In recent years, the conversations that Deborah and her neighbors were having about environmental benefits evolved to include blue infrastructure. Detroit Future City, the Detroit Works Project's strategic framework plan released in January, defines blue infrastructure as "water-based landscapes like retention ponds and lakes that capture and clean stormwater, reducing the quantity and improving the quality of water that enters the combined stormwater/sewage system." Detroit Future City positions blue and green infrastructure (the latter including forest landscapes, gardens, farms, and greenways) as two key components of a sensibly and sustainably revitalized Detroit. (For a wider-ranging discussion about blue infrastructure in Detroit, see Matt Lewis's "Freshwater Metropolis in words and pictures" in last week's Model D.)

The WGBC is ahead of the curve when it comes to thinking about the landscape as infrastructure, having developed a demonstration rain garden in 2011 on the grounds of the Detroit Public Library's Duffield BranchRain gardens are considered blue infrastructure because they are comprised of carefully selected native plants that absorb significant quantities of rainwater, diverting it from combined sewers. In the case of the Duffield library garden, native plants with especially long roots were selected to maximize rainwater absorption.

Designed by faculty and students from Michigan State University's Department of Horticulture and built with the help of neighborhood residents, the garden takes up a significant portion of the almost century-old Carnegie building's front lawn, easily accessible from the boulevard.

The library rain garden has already earned the WGBC some attention, featuring prominently on Sierra Club/Wheelhouse Detroit bike tours that highlight blue infrastructure in the city. Even more importantly, "It attracts residents of the neighborhood," according to Deborah. "They see people out working in the garden and walk right into the library and sign up to volunteer their time."

But this garden is just the first phase of the WGBC's plan for the area. By the end of the summer, two additional learning/reading gardens will have been added, one for children and one for adults, both of which will be connected to the front garden by a new path.

More ambitiously, the organization is working with Lawrence Tech to convert 17 medians along the boulevard into bioswales, convex, landscaped environments that will significantly reduce the amount of water entering the sewers running beneath the boulevard. When complete, this will be the first large-scale demonstration project of its kind in the city.

"This is the Grand Boulevard," Deborah emphasizes. "I don't think there's another street in the city with this many medians, and we want to show people what can be done with them."

Meanwhile, across town in North Rosedale Park, Erma Leaphart-Gouch's 1927 home has become a demonstration project, of sorts, for everyday water conservation.

Erma started seriously thinking about her water usage two years ago, but she traces the origin of her interest back about five years, to a conference she attended on the Detroit incinerator's harmful effects on air quality.

"It's all connected," she says. "Once you start with the notion of the environment as something that we should be protecting, then you look at air quality, then water quality, and of course we have the urban agriculture movement in Detroit. You start to tie it all together: land, air, and water. But you usually start with one, and I started with air." Today, though, it's water that concerns her most, and water that provides her with the greatest opportunity to do what she sees as her part.

I visit Erma's home and she gives me the conservation tour. We start in the kitchen, where she walks me through her process of capturing water from the tap to use to water her plants. Erma regularly fills a pitcher with drinking water to keep in the refrigerator, but, since her pipes are old, she likes to run the water for a few moments first. In this house, though, extra water doesn't end up down the drain ("wasted," as Erma sees it). By keeping a second pitcher handy to capture those first moments' worth of water, she collects a steady supply for her plants. Erma also uses captured water to rinse her dishes before hand-washing them in a tub she keeps in the sink. The leftover soapy water that remains gets dumped into her toilets, to flush them.

When the tour moves upstairs, Erma shows me her waterproof shower timer: "My goal is a five minute shower, but right now, I'm having a hard time keeping it under seven." While the faucet in her kitchen is equipped with an aerator, a device that reduces water output, her original bathroom fixtures are too old to accommodate the new technology. It's a limitation Erma accepts, for now. "I always tell people: with an old house, you don't have to go out and buy new fixtures. But when it comes time to replace them, replace them with more efficient options."

The extent of Erma's domestic conservation efforts, which also include a rain barrel she's getting ready to install outside, is truly incredible, but I wonder if it's all hard to keep up with. When I ask, though, she says it's not. "It's like a game to me. How can I not let any water go down the drain today? How can I use every single drop?" She acknowledges that her friends and neighbors might find her habits "extreme," but she believes in encouraging loved ones to take small steps. "I ask them to use a drinking water pitcher or turn off the water when they're brushing their teeth or shaving," she suggests. "That's not much of an inconvenience, and every bit helps."

Erma also encourages others to reduce their water consumption by opening her home as a training center for Sierra Club home water auditors. Anyone interested in this free program can get a few friends together and invite an auditor to their home. The auditor will walk through your house and make personalized suggestions for water conservation, and also put you in touch with the Detroit Youth Energy Squad to install conservation devices like aerators, all for free.

Erma notes that with the significant number of Detroit residents living in poverty and receiving water shutoff notices, these conservation techniques are not just good for the environment, they can also have a potentially significant impact on Detroiters' financial well-being and quality of life.

Near the end of our conversation, I ask Erma if she ever wishes she lived somewhere else, say Seattle or Portland, where maybe she'd find more people who shared her values.

"No," she answers with some finality after thinking about it for a moment. "I really don't. This is my home. And more than that, I love it here! Of course I get frustrated when I see trash on the ground, or see people throwing something away that could be recycled. But I have this vision of a green Detroit, a blue Detroit, and I believe that we can do this. In fact, I know we're going to do it."

Green City Diaries is a co-production of Model D and the Green Garage Urban Sustainability Library. To see another example of a small-scale blue/green infrastructure project, drop by the Green Alley in Midtown, developed by the Green Garage in partnership with Motor City Brewing Works. And for more information about water-related organizations, projects, and events in Detroit, visit the library's water resources page.  

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
Signup for Email Alerts