Green City Diaries: The journey begins now

Detroit: green city?

It’s a little counter-intuitive, I know. We are, after all, the ignoble home of the most polluted zip code in the state and the largest trash incinerator in the country. We’re the only major city in the nation to lack city-wide curbside recycling. We unleashed the automobile and its attendant environmental woes to the world, of course, and our historic inability to build and sustain effective public transit is legendary (and continues). Though efforts on the local and federal fronts remain to get it done.

I could go on, but I won’t, because we all know this story. It’s an old one.

Instead, why don’t we consider a new story? This one is about how we’re changing -- how we’re learning, day by day, to be sustainable. In some cases, this change is the result of organized efforts by committed groups with visionary leadership, producing such remarkable things as the new bike lanes in Corktown and Southwest, the Dequindre Cut, and Lafayette Greens.

But in most cases, this change is small, localized, and individualized, and it’s been happening far longer than we’ve had bike lanes. And people are noticing, as this article listing Detroit as one of the 10 emerging sustainable cities to watch makes clear. More and more, people here are choosing to live differently. They’re buying locally grown produce from farmers’ markets, for instance, and skipping the drive to the supermarket. They’re biking to work. They’re planting gardens and composting their scraps. They’re making a point to do all their holiday shopping exclusively at small businesses in the city. And, in the absence of curbside, they’re taking their recyclables to Recycle Here (and meeting like-minded neighbors in the process).

Local business owners, too, are making more sustainable decisions: serving carry-out meals in recyclable and compostable containers, for example, figuring out how to make their creaky old buildings more energy efficient, and repurposing used materials or commissioning work by local designers rather than buying new furniture when they set up shop. Some are encouraging their employees to bike to work or take the bus, and many, as Model D readers know well, are working together to create valuable support networks for other entrepreneurs.

Choosing to live or work more sustainably is not always easy. In fact, the process is frequently difficult, since it’s fundamentally about changing one’s habits. The process requires time to think and plan with care. It can be messy and overwhelming, with success coming one week and failure the next. It can put people in the spotlight, whether they seek it or not. And it’s confusing, with contradictory information coming from different sources, not to mention the uncertainty that necessarily rides alongside people who take the road less traveled.

But making these decisions is essential for the social, environmental, and economic health of our city and region, now and into the future. Our neighbors who are choosing to live and work more sustainably are heroes of a kind, from whose efforts we all benefit. At the Green Garage, a green business incubator and co-working space in Midtown where I volunteer as a librarian with the Urban Sustainability Library, we believe that small is big, and that individual choices in the aggregate are transformational on a large scale. (Grace Lee Boggs, who has been thinking about and working toward a sustainable Detroit for twice as long as I’ve been alive, articulated this principle in a 2007 blog post: "We can begin by doing small things at the local level, like planting community gardens or looking out for our neighbors. That is how change takes place in living systems, not from above but from within, from many local actions occurring simultaneously.")

That’s why the Green Garage is teaming up with Model D to present Green City Diaries, a new monthly series that will give us all the opportunity to take a closer look at some of Detroit’s sustainability heroes.

Each month for the next year, we’ll focus on a different person or group who, whether on their own or as part of an organization, is making small everyday choices with big implications for the health and viability of our city and our planet. (Does that sound like someone you know? Send an email with their contact info to [email protected] so we can meet them, too.) What choices are these people making? Why? What have their challenges been? If they’ve overcome those challenges, how did they do it? What have they learned? Who provided support along the way? What advice do they have for people who’d like to make similar choices? 

An inspiring number of people involved in the local, national, and global sustainability movements pass through the Green Garage on a regular basis. Every time I meet one of them, I’m struck by how much I still have to learn about sustainability (and how far Detroit has to go). It can be a bit overwhelming, but I’m comforted by something that co-founders Tom and Peggy Brennan say, which is that there is no total achievement of sustainability. There is, in other words, no final destination. There is only learning, change, and purposeful living.

So let’s learn together, and keep change in mind. Throughout 2012, I’m going to spend time talking to everyday Detroiters and socially and environmentally conscious entrepreneurs about the choices they’re making in support of a sustainable future. Each of these conversations will necessarily bring up larger issues in sustainability, so I’ll then talk to knowledgeable members of the Green Garage community to learn more. And I hope that will be only the beginning of a much richer conversation; when each Green City Diary entry is published, I’d love to hear from you, too. Have you made a change similar to the one discussed in the entry? What was your experience? Do you have any advice or know of any resources available to help others making the same change? When it comes to living sustainably, we often have more to learn from one another than we realize.

These are uncertain times in Detroit. An abundance of optimism is butting up against overwhelming challenges exacerbated by a seemingly endless fiscal crisis, leaving scarce resources for city government to pursue a robust sustainability agenda. (Though did you know that the city has a Green Task Force? You can view their meeting minutes here.) But Detroiters, as ever, are not waiting for government to make our world a better place; we’re busy doing it ourselves. It’s Grace Lee Boggs, again, who summed up the spirit of our work, and the heart of Green City Diaries, best: "We are the leaders we’ve been waiting for." Be on the lookout for our first conversation with one of those leaders next month.

Matthew Piper was a contributor to the Knight Foundation Arts Blog in 2011. This year, he's authoring Green City Diaries and the Detroit art scene for Model D. Welcome aboard, Matt.

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
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