From bioswales to pennycress: How Detroit neighborhoods are going from gray to green

Detroit is inextricably linked to water; it's what gave us our name, drove our early industries, and has served as both a symbol of the city's rebirth as the river's edge reopens to human use, and as a marker of desperation with the ongoing water shutoff crisis.
What few of us understand, though, is how much the flow of water that we don't see -- and only think about when it invades our basements or streets -- affects neighborhoods and people. Stormwater management sounds like an eye-glazing topic, but actually has a huge influence on streetscapes, transportation, and making Detroit a greener city.
Detroit's changing landscape offers great opportunity for a better stormwater management system, but there are also some pitfalls, says Don Carpenter, an engineering professor at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield who specializes in low-impact development and storm water management.
"There's a lot of opportunity for re-naturalization and contouring of the landscape to that which was historically available for water storage," he says. "The problem is infrastructure in the city. We should go on a road diet and get rid of a lot of them. We're working around existing infrastructure, existing combined sewers -- all things in place to support a population that's no longer there."
The more water-repelling surfaces there are -- including lawns -- the more water is forced into sewers, causing pollution to be released into the river and streets and basements to flood when sewer capacity is exceeded.
The city of Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) has been actively engaged in better stormwater management throughout the city -- and those projects often don’t look like they have anything to do with water.
For example, DWSD was involved in the demolition of 24 decaying houses last year. Housing demolitions, Carpenter says, remove a lot of surfaces that are impervious to water, such as roofs. Further, if the houses still have downspouts connected to the storm drain (as many in Detroit are, although based on current codes they should have been disconnected years ago) they drain right into city sewers, which can overload the system.
The creation of green streets is another way the city hopes to address issues of stormwater management. The city is currently looking at the viability of making a green street of Keeler Street in North Rosedale Park. 
Green streets are  landscaped with visually interesting brick-like pavers along the sides and attractive grasses between the street and the sidewalk. However, the visual elements of green streets are only part of their appeal. Pervious pavers let rainwater drain through the soil, diverting it from the sewer system. And those swathes of grass? They're actually bioswales, which are designed to absorb water before it gets into the sewer system. Add in non-motorized transportation lanes and you have a street that both improves the natural environment and the built one.
"We need to remove asphalt from areas that don’t need as much as we currently have," Carpenter says. "That’s where will see a lot of improvement."
On the east side of Detroit, along a three-quarter-mile stretch of Mack Avenue between Conner and Chalmers, the Eastside Community Network (ECN) is taking a stretch of the mostly abandoned commercial corridor back to nature, while cultivating revenue at the same time in a project called the Green T.
According to Jacqueline Bejma, executive director of LAND, Inc., ECN's land development arm, they know that a sufficient amount of businesses moving into that corridor to make it viable won't be happening any time soon, but the neighborhood still wanted and needed it to be returned to some kind of productive use.
"There were very, very few businesses there, and mostly vacant land," she says. "It seemed to me that creating a business out of green infrastructure was the best way to generate tax revenue."
Enter the pennycress plant. This easy-to-grow, attractive plant isn’t just a pretty face; it yields 100 gallons of biodiesel fuel per acre, needs no irrigation, and pulls heavy metals out of the soil.
Bejma used to work at Focus:HOPE, whose campus houses Metro Ag Services, a company becoming a growing force in biodiesel production. They had a patch of pennycress growing as a demonstration, so Bejma enlisted their help with the project.
Clearing the land last spring for planting proved to be harder and more expensive than expected -- they'd chosen a stretch of land with no structures on it to make planting easier, but as it turned out, what looked like three trees that would have be cleared were more like 20. Harvesting was also pricey, but that cost will go down as they expand the planting and can get machinery instead of hand-harvesting.
Overall the pilot was successful and Bejma says she is excited about the potential. Last spring was the first harvest for their small half-acre test plot. "Once we can get in a combine, we can create good jobs from it that can generate profit and pay taxes," she says.  
This spring, LAND Inc. will award a grant for a public art project in the Green T corridor and install bioswales that have concrete retention bases underneath which will collect overflow. The basins will have plumbing so that overflow water can be used to irrigate pennycress or other plantings in drier times.
While the east side has been hit especially hard by abandonment, Bejma points out that many of the neighborhoods remain viable. Reviving the commercial corridors in new ways will help the area look better and change the environment.
"These kind of strategies will raise housing values," she says. "If the main corridors look bad, people think the whole neighborhood must be bad, but that isn’t true."

Amy Kuras is a Detroit-based writer and frequent contributor to Model D. Follow her on Twitter @AmyKuras.

Photo of Jackie Bejma by Marvin Shaouni.

All other photos courtesy of East Side Community Network.
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