“Sustainability is constantly a whitewashed narrative. They say in order to be sustainable, you have to drive an electric car,” Calandra Jones, Eco-D Program Coordinator at EcoWorks Detroit, said. “But Black folks have been doing sustainability their whole lives—we reuse containers, we save our plastic bags, we wrap our furniture in plastic, we put plastic against the walls in the winter to keep heated—based on the need to survive.”
Detroiters who aim to build sustainable neighborhoods from the grassroots have faced a challenging path over the past 10 years. Those who aspire for community self-determination often find themselves competing for funding against outsider-led projects, many of which were attracted to the city because of the “blank-slate” narrative that intensified amid the city’s bankruptcy. As some of those developments sputtered, native Detroiters and Highland Parkers forge ahead with ambitious projects, facing challenges to secure capital and navigate conflicts with local codes, utilities and politics.
Jones is charged with carrying on the work of helping Detroit neighborhoods become more sustainable after Jacob Corvidae started one of the earliest organized attempts in 2014. Corvidae started his push after seeing the EcoDistricts idea come out of the Portland Institute for Sustainability in 2012. Early examples included Seattle’s Bullitt Center-anchored Capitol Hill, Austin’s repurposed Seaholm Power Plant and Boston’s Innovation District. Those projects were ambitious and well-funded, with private development dollars and city support.
Corvidae saw an opportunity to apply the EcoDistrict concept in Detroit.
“I looked around and said, depending on how you define this, we’ve got six neighborhoods [in Detroit] doing this kind of thing,” Corvidae said. “It was not brand-new, large-scale developments, but a lot was happening in terms of people upgrading their homes and doing community farms and walkability efforts. What we saw on the ground in Detroit was citizen-driven, without a lot of money behind it.”
‘A bit of a gamble’
In 2014, Corvidae pulled together a coalition including Detroit Future City, Community Development Advocates of Detroit, and The Greening of Detroit to launch Eco-D. They recruited two neighborhoods initially—HOPE Village and West Village, later adding Yorkshire Woods and Southwest. The model aimed to adapt the EcoDistricts Framework to the reality of Detroit’s economic situation; instead of big developer-led projects, it focused on what residents could do with their own resources.
The Eco-D neighborhoods have seen small-scale success. HOPE Village has worked on home energy efficiency, started a farmers market and is attempting to build affordable housing. Yorkshire Woods installed solar-powered lighting and a community garden. Southwest has established green infrastructure, solar panels and community art.
But the work has been slow and has not, as Corvidae had hoped, attracted national funding.
“There was a bit of a gamble to see if we could bring in dollars to support neighborhood-scale work from around the country,” Corvidae said. “But we’re still running around to our local resources to make these investments.”
Corvidae left Michigan in 2015 for another job and though the work continued, it was underfunded. Jones took over late last year and wants the work to allow residents to define what sustainability means for Detroiters.
But she has already faced some big stumbling blocks. In West Village, after working with neighbors and consultants on a green design for more than three years and spending thousands in grant funding, the Detroit Water and Sewer Department last year blocked an attempt to build a “green alley” with stormwater retention between Van Dyke and Parker, parallel to Kercheval. The city denied EcoWorks a building permit after DWSD said it would not allow projects to be built within rights-of-way where it owned infrastructure, citing maintenance and liability concerns.
Jones said that the green alley project’s failure has “rocked our belief in what we’re able to do in the city, considering municipal barriers and bureaucracy. But it also rocked [our] trust in what a nonprofit can do. So that shook everything up.”
Eco-friendly concepts face the same challenges as all Detroit developments: massive renovation and maintenance costs, asbestos and lead, conflicts with city ordinances, lack of capital access and lack of neighborhood buy-in.
These roadblocks multiply with the ambition of the project. The city has seen some green projects over the past decade. Midtown’s EcoHomes and Green Garage are two of the most successful examples. The Charles H. Wright Museum incorporated sustainable features like permeable pavers. The Huntington Place (formerly TCF Center and Cobo Hall) is touted as Michigan’s “largest green building” after its renovation.
But others have failed to live up to their aspirations. The Motown Movement project, which aimed to rehab a home on Detroit’s west side as a model for DIY sustainable renovation, garnered $50,000 in public funds before its owners, based in the Netherlands, failed to pay property taxes. Wayne County foreclosed on the home in 2020. RecoveryPark, which aimed to employ people recovering from substance abuse with sustainable farming jobs, garnered hundreds of thousands in foundation funding and private investment over a decade. As of last fall, the farm was in disrepair, its employees had been let go, and its investors pulled their money and took it to the suburbs. In May, its supporters were calling for an investigation. Meanwhile, the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative has received criticism over practices that some say undermine Detroit’s urban agriculture movement.
The city is not structured to support some of the more ambitious sustainable community-led community ideas. Many advanced green development features, like greywater, community solar and micro-grids, are not currently permitted by state law or municipal code.
“I love the idea [of green development], but there’s a reason that these projects are few and far between and many times just on one parcel,” Detroit Sustainability Director Joel Howrani-Heeres. “Often, one small aspect of sustainability is moved forward, rather than the whole kit and caboodle.”
The City of Detroit published its plan for sustainable development in the Detroit Sustainability Action Agenda in 2019.
Detroiters forge ahead
But Detroiters and Highland Parkers aren’t waiting for federal grants or private investment to get started on their sustainable neighborhood visions.
Entertainment entrepreneur Juan Shannon has big dreams for Parker Village in Highland Park. He purchased an abandoned school on Buena Vista in 2015, started buying residential parcels around it, and is renovating one home. A solar-powered cafe featuring local produce is set to open this spring.
Shannon is also waiting for Highland Park to get on board with the project. He has secured a $1.25 loan prequalification from Lean & Green Michigan that would be enough to complete renovations on the school building. But the loan would be repaid through a voluntary property tax assessment and require cooperation from the local government. Shannon has been waiting since 2019 for the city to respond to his proposal. Highland Park Mayor Hubert Yopp did not respond to a request to speak for this story.
Just down Woodward on Avalon Street, Shamayim “Mama Shu” Harris’ Avalon Village continues to grow. Harris owns 45 parcels of land and envisions four residential blocks of Avalon Street in Highland Park revitalized with renewable power, geothermal heating and cooling and green building materials. So far, she’s converted an abandoned home into a “Homework House” for local youth; used recycled shipping containers to create a “Goddess Marketplace” where women entrepreneurs can sell their goods; and converted a shipping container into “Imhotep STEM Lab,” a solar-powered science and technology learning center for neighborhood children. The biggest obstacle is, of course, funding. Harris estimates her full vision will cost $10 million to $15 million; over the last decade, about $1 million in grants and donated funds have been used to build the existing structures.
And on Detroit’s east side, Tammy Black has been at work realizing her vision of 25 solar-powered homes in Jefferson Chalmers and a solar-powered Manistique Community Treehouse space for kids and those with disabilities. While Black has successfully raised funds for the solar panels and built a solar charging station, rising labor and materials costs and COVID have caused delays in building the treehouse.
More recent efforts focus on building community ownership and self-governance into sustainability projects. Jerry Hebron, founder of the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm and co-founder of the Detroit Black Farmer’s Land Fund, launched the Detroit Cultivator Community Land Trust in 2020 to secure community ownership of urban farm plots. And newcomers Adrian Laurenzi and Paul Pham have joined with native Detroiter Damien Cook to establish Arcology Detroit, a “Community Investment Trust” in which investors can pool resources to secure land and other assets, contributing labor and capital in exchange for ownership shares. These projects aim to approach sustainability through a path of building trust and community wealth.
Laurenzi came to live here in 2017 from Seattle to be closer to his partner’s family, who live in metro Detroit. He bought an unoccupied house for $30,000 from a private seller in LaSalle Gardens and set about fixing it up—installing a solar panel and a community garden, fixing the floors and repainting.
Laurenzi founded Totago, an app that aims to help people identify outdoor recreation opportunities and connect to them via public transit.
Soon, he beckoned Pham, a friend from college who was living in New York City running a co-housing project for computer scientists and hackers.
“Adrian was telling me all about Detroit—how it’s much more affordable, a lot more startup energy, people are doing things from the grassroots,” Pham said.
Pham moved to Detroit in 2020, living with Laurenzi for a couple of months before purchasing a home from Cook, a home renovator. The three men purchased a third property to rehab and formed an LLC, Detroit Arcology.
Their vision is a neighborhood of affordable, community-owned and governed homes featuring green design features like community gardens and renewable energy. The group is working with the Detroit Justice Center on a pro bono basis to draft an operating agreement for the LLC.
Pham hopes Arcology can be one of the success stories by staying grounded in local ownership.
“I don’t want to be taken over by outside investors. I want to accept people’s loans, but I want the residents to have the final voting power.”
Nina Ignaczak is an award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker. She is the founder, publisher and executive editor of Planet Detroit. This article appears in today’s issue of The Dig, Outlier Media’s weekly newsletter on housing and real estate. Click here to sign up to receive it.