For Detroit's newest department, building a sustainable city involves much more than electric cars

The City of Detroit's Office of Sustainability is small — three full-time staff members plus some it occasionally borrows from other departments. But the office's mandate is big.

"How do we understand people's needs and create a longer-term vision for the city and act on it?" says Joel Howrani Heeres, director for the Office of Sustainability. "How do we become a sustainable city for many years into the future?"

Not only is the office tasked with answering these big picture questions, but it's doing so by undertaking its most significant project to date: The Sustainability Action Agenda. When completed, the agenda will provide a plan and resources for other city departments, community organizations, and residents to bring Detroit's sustainable future to fruition. 

Sustainability is a sometimes fuzzy word with applications to the environment, economy, health, and more. Heeres, who was hired when the department was created a little over a year ago, says a major part of his job is to make sure the work of his department has practical applications for Detroiters. While over 130 cities have some kind of sustainability plan, many of which involve ambitious goals like becoming carbon neutral in 30 years, Heeres recognizes that Detroiters have more immediate needs. 

"A lot of people think sustainability is solar panels and electric vehicles — and yes those are part of it," he says. "But in Detroit, we need to focus on basics first. Don't give someone a solar panel until they've been able to weatherize their home. Don't give someone an electric vehicle when it's a lot more efficient to improve public transit."

Joel Howrani Heeres
The Office of Sustainability divides its work into two buckets. The first involves making governmental operations more efficient by reducing energy costs. For example, Heeres says his department has benchmarked 120 city buildings and found nearly $400,000 in annual savings by correcting billing errors alone. And in energy audits of another 60 buildings, the office identified $2 million in annual savings if certain capital investments were made. 

These items, which would allow the city to save money that it could spend elsewhere, touch Detroiters indirectly. The office's second bucket of work is about finding resident-focused solutions to Detroiters' sustainability needs. 

That's where the Sustainability Action Agenda comes in.

Even before the office was created, money had already been raised from four foundations (Kresge, Erb, Ralph C. Wilson, Jr, and the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan) to carry out the agenda. To develop it, the office will do an "overall scan," according to Heeres, of people's needs, stress points, existing city and neighborhood plans, and a deep analysis of data. 

A major component to the data gathering has been done through engagement. With a goal of reaching at least 7,000 Detroiters, the office has undertaken this task in a number of ways. 

It's working with 14 neighborhood ambassadors, two per district, who care about sustainability and know their communities. They've been the local face of the agenda, attending community meetings, helping people fill out surveys, and conducting face-to-face conversations about why this matters. Through these efforts, the office has interfaced with over 1,900 people. 

The survey, which closed on June 22, got over 1,500 respondents. Ongoing engagement is being done through a collaborative map where respondents can talk about sustainability-related items and places that work or present challenges. 

The office has also met with over 30 ally organizations, and Heeres and his team will be conducting four town halls in August. 

Much of this early engagement will also help in the implementation of the agenda. Given the office's small size, it will need the support of a number of other people and organizations that believe in the plan. 

"Some action items, the city will do 100 percent. Some will be 50-50 in partnership with nonprofits. And some may be nonprofits and residents taking it on," Heeres says. "That's why we need to collectively craft a vision for the city because, frankly, we don't have all the resources needed to implement it. We need to have community ownership of the final product and the excitement to get moving on it."

The next phase involves coalescing everything they've learned to draft goals and next steps for residents and local leaders to review. Heeres says his office has come up with around 600 potential actions so far; now it's a matter of determining which to include in the agenda. 

The office expects to release the agenda in early 2019.

The action items to fall on one of two timescales: immediate and near future. The first includes quick wins that can be accomplished now. 

The second will be items the city hopes to accomplish in approximately the next five years. Those might be institutionalizing green stormwater infrastructure in all city projects, removing unused surface parking lots, or improving on the city's home repair grant program to include more money for energy-efficient renovations. 

These might not sound like your typical sustainability buzzwords. But Detroit is not your typical city. "We are going to craft a Detroit-specific vision of sustainability that addresses the needs of Detroit residents," Heeres says. "Otherwise, why should people care?"

The Office of Sustainability will be holding four town hall meetings to in August to discuss the Sustainability Action Agenda. Those times and locations are...
  • August 2 from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the Samaritan Center
  • August 9th from 5:30 to 8 p.m. in northwest Detroit (location TBD)
  • August 18th from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at IBEW Local 58
  • August 25th from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at St. Suzanne's Community Resource Center (formerly Don Bosco Hall)
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Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.