Toward a sustainable Detroit 

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Jay Jurma

The developments we see around Detroit — from the community gardens to the Midtown economic explosion — don't really mean a thing unless they are sustainable and can serve as foundations for even bigger steps to be taken.

People and organizations across the city have been struggling in their communities just to hang on and make a difference. And they have, from folks who walk the streets picking up trash to church volunteers who help seniors get meals or a trip to the grocery store.

Unfortunately, all too often those efforts are just enough to survive when we really want to thrive. As encouraging as community gardens are, many need to grow into niche market farms. Food entrepreneurs need to find their products and connect with customers.

There are recycling stations here and there, along with a couple of neighborhoods that have curbside service. But recycling needs to go citywide, and it would help if someone around here could get a handle on processing the trash and creating new products out of it.

One strategy to create sustainability and thrive is to create synchronicity between the many disparate efforts in order to effect a more unified whole rather than scattered islands in a sea of woe. It would help if there were more synchronicity between city departments and the efforts of this church or that community group in terms of planning and resource management.

About a year ago, the city of Detroit took a step in that direction in creating the Office of Sustainability with the mission "guide the city's efforts to strengthen the economic, social, and environmental well-being of the city's residents, neighborhoods and businesses."

Now the Office of Sustainability and its director, Joel Howrani Heeres, are taking a substantial step into the community with the Sustainability Action Agenda process to gather input from residents and organizations to identify what people want in their communities, and strategies to help achieve those goals.

"The idea is to have an ongoing dialogue across the city to help that agency come up with something that is actionable and will have short- and long-term impacts," says Guy O. Williams, president and CEO of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice (DWEJ).

DWEJ, along with longtime nonprofit EcoWorks Detroit, will be joined by companies including AECOM and SAGA Marketing to make up the Office of Sustainability's consulting team. That's a lot of acronyms to keep track of, but it's nothing next to the number of groups and individuals they intend to engage.

"We are responsible at the end of the day that people all over the city have an opportunity to participate," says Williams. "We must make sure that people are heard and that it's demonstrative that they are heard in the evolution of the project. ... We're starting with a blank slate, nothing is already predetermined about this."

That means folks should actually see that their ideas have an impact on what happens. The process is taking off now. The Office of Sustainability is taking applications for "sustainability ambassadors," a temporary job for citizens to boost the city, and to seek ideas from people in their neighborhoods. The plan is that ambassadors will organize sessions with community organizations, schools, businesses, block clubs, faith communities, and other neighborhood groups. Applications can be made here and the deadline is 3 p.m. on Wednesday April 18.

Be ready to go if you apply. Notification of acceptance is scheduled for April 20 and a mandatory all-day training session is on April 29. That's just in time for the April 30 kick-off date.

In addition, Williams says that there will be opportunities for people to drop in at the DWEJ office to share your thoughts with them. Or you can email your thoughts to sustainability@detroitmi.gov.

A March 27 announcement from Heeres says, "The Action Agenda process works to create an overarching strategy and framework for sustainability actions in Detroit that aligns city and community actors around a common set of outcomes and goals."

This sustainability initiative is an attempt to get more people on the same page around issues such as access to healthy food, transportation, affordable housing, lower utility bills, and clean and healthy neighborhoods.

Waste treatment is one topic that has been a particularly thorny issue in Detroit since the trash incinerator began operating in the 1980s. At the time, it was the largest municipal incinerator in the world. It became known for spewing pollutants and bad smells, and contributing to the high asthma rate of Detroit children. (See this week's cover story for a closer look at all this.)

Since then, efforts to shut the thing down by community and environmental groups have fallen on unresponsive ears. But Williams sees ways to curtail the incinerator that do not involve a direct assault against the facility — now, ironically renamed Detroit Renewable Energy.

"There could be strategies around that to starve that machine to death," he says. "That's why recycling is so important. ... Make it not profitable to operate. That's a likely scenario in the next five years."

Five years is a long time when you're breathing non-respirable gases and particles, but at that point it would be the success of a nearly 40-year battle against the pollution machine.

Looking at the history of the incinerator illustrates some things that this new sustainability perspective is supposed to work. The incinerator may have seemed like a good idea and a moneymaker for the city leaders. It really didn't pan out, and real harm was done to citizens.

Among the considerations for a given project, Williams says the process will consider, "What could be the downside of implementing this idea? Who could be adversely affected? ... Any major decision needs to balance community, economic, and environmental concerns."

That sound like the triple bottom line touted in the ranks of progressive entrepreneurs in Detroit. Now it seems to be resonating into the halls of officialdom. Maybe the listening skills of folks downtown are getting better.

"I want to emphasize that God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason," says Williams. "There is some proportionality there."

The whole thing sounds good. The idea of cars sounded pretty good too. The automotive industry made Detroit a technological wonder and made fortunes for some. However, a century later we know that cars have been among the biggest contributors to spreading pollution across the Earth. Could it have been foreseen? I doubt that anyone was asking those kind of questions at that time.

The idea of sustainability has its roots in the social justice movement of the 1980s. It's most basic sense is that development meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations.

If that's how the city of Detroit is approaching things now, it means the noise outside is finally filtering into the mainstream.

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