Background Information

The most populous city in Michigan and the largest city on the Canada-United States border, the City of Detroit is home to just under 700,000 residents (2016). The city’s residents are 79.2% black, 9.5% white, and 7.9% Latinx. With a population of 4.3 million people, Metro Detroit it the second largest metropolitan area in the Midwest after Chicago. Located on the Detroit River, the city covers 139 square miles of flat, buildable terrain where 73% of the housing stock is single family.

With a rich industrial history, Detroit, known as the “Motor City,” was recognized as the heart of the U.S. automotive industry. As the industry declined in the city, Detroit experienced a major population loss, dropping from 1.8 million residents in 1950 to just over 700,000 in 2010. Among other factors, the effect of this population loss on the city’s tax revenue led Detroit to file bankruptcy in 2013.

Like many older U.S. cities faced with the effects of industrial decline, Detroit struggles with housing insecurity, neglected public transportation and water infrastructure, and high levels of blight and vacancy. Despite the city’s well-publicized challenges, it boasts a resilient and resourceful network of community organizations and engaged residents who are at the forefront of inclusive grassroots urban regeneration. Many of them are engaged in empowering residents to lead the way on green infrastructure solutions.

The 2013 Detroit Future City (DFC) Strategic Framework, a shared vision for Detroit’s future, is the result of a massive, citywide public engagement effort. The framework recommends strategies and actions to catalyze a multitude of sectors and stakeholders, with the support of the DFC Implementation Office, to create change in their community. As DFC looked citywide, innovative neighborhood planning strategies, such as the Lower Eastside Action Plan, have shown how vacant land transformation can support neighborhood stabilization. Since the framework’s release, the City of Detroit has stepped up as the lead in many resilience- and sustainability-related initiatives and, in May 2017, created an Office of Sustainability.

Team Summary

The Detroit team is a multi-sectoral team, and several team members have worked together on resilience-building initiatives in the past. The team is focusing specifically on the appropriate reuse of publicly owned vacant lots to build resilience. Eastside Community Network, Detroit Future City, and other Detroit nonprofits have engaged residents on open space use, participated in community planning strategies, and provided research and identified best practices to inform revitalization initiatives. Team members include representatives from Detroit Future City, Eastside Community Network, the City of Detroit, the Erb Family Foundation, Sierra Club, and the Detroit Land Bank Authority. The Eastside Community Network has been a partner of the Institute for Sustainable Communities’ Partnership for Resilient Communities project since the end of 2016.

Promising Practices

  • Local land and water stewardship organizations formed Land+Water WORKS, a coalition seeking to educate residents about how to be stewards of Detroit’s land and water in light of revised stormwater drainage fees.
  • The City of Detroit has interdepartmental working groups to tackle policy and planning issues that would support vacant land transformation and sustainability.
  • The team is dedicated to implementing neighborhood-scale green infrastructure strategies that engage the city’s most overlooked populations. This has been demonstrated through mini-grant programs with funding and technical assistance, side-lot fairs to acquire land, and rain garden workshops.
  • Some of the organizations on the Detroit team have served as de facto public service agents to provide neighborhood services, education, and stormwater management in Detroit’s most vulnerable areas. They have also spearheaded a series of capacity building initiatives across the city, leading classes, organizing trainings, and hosting summits with neighborhood leaders who then share information broadly within their neighborhoods.

Key Challenges

  • Regulatory barriers – Decades of population loss and a robust demolition program have left Detroit with more than 120,000 vacant lots—72,000 of which are publicly-owned. These are dispersed throughout the city, mostly at the scale of three contiguous lots or less. In order to bring larger-scale resilience benefits to the city’s residents and its sewer system, some of these individual vacant lots could be integrated into citywide green infrastructure planning. The challenge rests in establishing a shared vision, overcoming regulatory barriers, and developing clear land access policies.
  • Funding – The city needs to develop innovative funding models that are not reliant on philanthropy or crowdfunding, especially at the neighborhood scale.
  • Planning fatigue – Communities in Detroit are expressing planning fatigue, especially around green infrastructure.

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