There are lots of "Top 10 Green Cities" lists floating around on the Internet these days. San Francisco and Portland tend to hover near first place and New York — the unlikely green metropolis — also usually ranks. Detroit, however, does not make the cut.
Bound to its own legacy as the (now failing) "Motor City," Detroit's city limits span an unbelievable 138 square miles, with suburbs that sprawl out even farther. And while it has been nearly three decades since American cities began adopting curbside recycling programs, Detroit just (as in this year) decided to join the party.
Still, before completely writing off Detroit as an environmental wasteland, take another look. The buzzword in the city these days is revitalization as urban planners and residents look for ways to breathe life back into crumbling buildings and re-imagine the urban grid. By being more of a blank canvas than other cities, Detroit may actually have a much greater potential to go green. Here are some early glimpses of that change.
With the "Big Three" American car companies (General Motors, Ford and Chrysler) in crisis and bailout mode, there has been a lot of lip service about the Motor City finally embracing the fuel-efficient trend. But the most exciting sustainable transportation news is happening off the highway.
A public light rail is in the works, and the long-awaited Dequindre Cut — an urban biking and running trail — recently opened. The trail is one part of a larger effort to beautify Detroit's riverfront and attract pedestrians back downtown. And speaking of biking, the New York Times published an op-ed last month chronicling the cycling culture that has sprung up among the "ruins," and imagines a city rebuilt on a "two-wheeled economy."
With acres of abandoned buildings and property lots, Detroit is a hotbed for community gardens and even large-scale urban agriculture. According to GreenBiz.com, the Hantz Group (a Michigan-based financial company) recently announced a plan to develop 10,000 acres of "underutilized and vacant" land in downtown Detroit into a mixture of cash crops, ornamental gardens and riding trails.
Nearby, Earth Works Urban Farm, a project of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, promotes sustainable agriculture within the city and increases Detroiters' access to healthy, nourishing produce. The farm hosts a 30-hive apiary, runs gardening and nutrition programs for kids and teens, and runs an active farm market. EWUF also partnered with the Detroit Agricultural Network, the Greening of Detroit and other institutions to create an online community gardening guide called the Garden Resource Program Collaborative.
Committed to socially and environmentally responsible business practices, strengthening local community, and, above all, making incredibly delicious breads, muffins and other baked goods, the Avalon International Bakery has emerged as a beacon of deliciousness in downtown Detroit. The bakery opened in 1997 in Cass Corridor, which at the time was notorious as Detroit's skid row. These days, the restaurant is a neighborhood fixture, serving more than 500 customers daily.
Avalon is joined by the neighboring Cass Corridor microbrewery, Motor City Brew Works, as well as other sustainable restaurants and food organizations, including the Golden Gate Cafe and Slow Food Detroit.
Local and organic produce seekers can head to the Wayne State or Clarkston farmers' markets, or make a pilgrimage to the famous Detroit Eastern Market, the largest historic public market district in the United States. Founded in 1891, the market hosts 150 farmers and vendors from Michigan, Ohio and Canada. Shoppers can find everything from fruits and vegetables to cider, cheeses and baked goods.
For the last three years, Detroit's City Hall has been awarded the federal Energy Star label for its energy-efficiency improvements like improved thermostat controls, upgraded lighting, and upgraded heating and cooling systems. (Not bad for a city known more for its crumbling historical buildings than green building innovation.) Residents can follow City Hall's lead by making their homes more energy-efficient with the help of the WARM Training Center.
Last December, Detroit's then-interim mayor, Kenneth Cockrel Jr. (who took office in late 2008 after Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick stepped down amid scandal) announced plans to create an Office of Energy and Sustainability. It's too early to tell if Dave Bing, who won the city's mayoral election in May, will build upon Cockrel’s green momentum. If he does, Bing may find himself on a top 10 list of his own.
The annual Bioneers conference in California has become one of the largest sustainability and community-empowerment-focused gatherings in the country. It has grown so big, in fact, that satellite conferences have sprouted up in other cities. Great Lakes Bioneers Detroit joined the national community in 2005, and has established itself as an important annual meeting place for Detroit individuals and organizations working toward creating a greener and more just future.
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