How Detroit's public parks are using green infrastructure to prevent flooding, save money

Before the excavators came in to begin their work, Viola Liuzzo Park was a relatively unremarkable place. The city park near Evergreen and 8 Mile was primarily a square-shaped piece of grass with some honey-locust trees around the periphery. 
But the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) hopes that a new green infrastructure plan for the park will do honor to its namesake.
Civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo left her home in Detroit in 1965 to help with the Selma to Montgomery marches in Alabama. She was shot by members of the Ku Klux Klan while ferrying marchers and activists between locations. The park was named in her honor and has attracted volunteers from the neighborhood and beyond who are interested in her legacy and improving the city.
Community interest was part of the reason why DWSD chose this park as one of the sites for several green infrastructure improvements they are sponsoring across the west side of the of the city. The work that the earth moving machines are doing here could transform this space from a nondescript patch of grass into an example of environmentally-friendly landscaping, artful design, and public amenity.
"The park is gonna be loaded," park volunteer Ronier Golightly says. Planned features include a pickleball court, walking trail, playscape, work-out area and a memorial for Liuzzo.
The centerpiece of the park's redevelopment is a bio-retention garden to infiltrate water into the ground and keep it out of the combined sewer system during rainstorms. Overloaded sewers back up, flood roadways and basements and contribute to the pollution of waterways. When the combined system can no longer handle the amount of water coming in, it is forced to discharge untreated sewage into the Detroit River.

Building bio-retention gardens
DWSD has targeted parks 
as a way to seamlessly incorporate green infrastructure into the city, and has undertaken similar projects at Rouge Park, Stopel 1, and Evergreen Park.
Golightly hopes this will help address the problems with flooding.
"We see how the freeways have been backing up. And it's come to the point where if it's a heavy downpour, we automatically go into the basement, get everything off the floor, go outside make sure the drain's not backed up. We've become conditioned to water backing up."
By collecting water from the neighborhood storm sewer, the bio-retention area in the park should help reduce flooding by holding onto the water and channeling it into the ground below the park. They do this with the aid of deep-rooted plants that create channels for water into the soil.
This technology avoids problems created with standing water, like mosquitoes, by having a drain at the bottom of the bowl-shaped basin that goes into the sewer.
If all goes as planned, the green infrastructure going in at Viola Liuzzo Park will help educate people about the usefulness of this technology.

More outreach, however, needs to be done. 

"I gotta be honest with you," says Golightly, "a lot of people kept thinking these are swimming pools. People have stopped me several times, 'We're getting three pools!' I'm like, 'it's not swimming pools,' but that's what everyone thinks it is."

Palencia Mobley, deputy director and chief engineer at DWSD, is one of the people who's task is to implement and advocate for these projects.

"I think the more projects we have," she says, "we'll have more interest and folks saying, 'I want one of those' ... It's just going be one of those proof's in the pudding type of things."

Palencia Mobley
From DWSD's point of view, parks are perfect for these projects because there are fewer utilities that could get in the way of a project and drive up the cost.

"Another benefit," Mobley says, "is having the community there that can participate and help keep things looking nice, and have someone who will appreciate the look and feel to it."

She adds that the features should increase property values for those adjacent to the area.
The 2016 Parks and Recreation Improvement Plan promotes green infrastructure in parks.  These projects could also help advance the City of Detroit's Parks and Recreation Department goal for "more natural (non-programmed) parkland across the city."  

Although highly engineered green infrastructure projects like the one in Liuzzo Park could hardly be called "natural," these spaces create a naturalistic effect, and the plantings in the bio-retention areas will bring animal habitat, plant diversity, and color to the park.

Across town, in and around Rouge Park, DWSD and others are trying out different strategies. This includes bioswales on the side of Tireman Street. These shallow depressions placed along the curb are planted with flowering plants to catch and infiltrate rainwater.
In Rouge Park itself, a larger version of green management is taking place. Areas that were once mowed are now being allowed to revert to prairie. Mowed grass does little more than pavement to help with water infiltration, but taller prairie plants slow the flow of water, giving it time to move into the soil. Infiltration is aided by long roots that die back year after year, leaving channels for water to permeate the soil and building up soil organic matter that acts like a sponge. This also creates the kind of pastoral landscape that the 2016 plan aims for.

"That's kind of the trifecta we're looking for," says Juliana Fulton, a park planner with the City of Detroit, "where it has this educational piece, where people can be learning about not just the prairie, but also managing stormwater, as well as still being a recreational activity and an asset for the neighbors."
The city plan emphasizes a more hands-off, naturalistic landscaping program to decreases maintenance needs over time and help with management costs. Detroit already has the lowest level of spending on parks per resident out of seventy-five cities listed in the Trust for Public Land's "ParkScore" program.
Ultimately, green infrastructure will have to meet the test of public opinion, which will involve convincing people like the contractor I met at Viola Liuzzo Park who was afraid the retention gardens he was digging would attract mosquitoes. Designers, city officials, community activists and volunteers will have to make a case for these projects in the coming years.
"We needed to demonstrate different types of stormwater management to see how people responded to different types of practices," Mobley says.

This story is part of a series on measuring on the role of green infrastructure projects in Detroit's redevelopment. Support for this series is provided by the Erb Family Foundation to Greening of Detroit, Model  D, and The Nature Conservancy. Read more articles from the series here.

All photos by Nick Hagen
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Read more articles by Brian Allnutt.

Brian Allnutt is a Detroit-based writer and a co-owner of Detroit Farm and Garden.