Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Detroit - Talk with Rick Bowers

Part of this trip is to get an understanding of which cities are getting serious about being sustainable and which ones are getting serious about greenwashing. My impression is that the current administration is very serious and turning the corner in Detroit.

The recent history of Detroit has been marked by enormous effort striving for a sustainable region, yet almost none of that effort was generated by the city's government. The new mayor, Ken Cockrel, seems to really care about reversing that trend. As one of his first acts as mayor, he started the Office of Energy and Sustainability (OES). Its head, Rick Bowers, an attorney in the mayor's office, seems able and committed to the job. I had the chance to speak with him yesterday and I've summed up our discussion below.


I was very happy to hear that the city would begin encouraging LEED certified demolition of blighted housing stock. One of the main focuses of the OES is to encourage "green-collar" jobs. The best way to do that is to encourage sustainable behavior in every sector that you deal with, and I'm glad they didn't consider demolition any exception.


The OES takes on construction on a building to building basis, promoting LEED certification. I like LEED and it pains me when people see LEED certification as a goal instead of sustainable practices for a given place. Rick was very aware of this and described LEED as a starting point on the sustainable education curve. He told me that they were planning on going through the entire building code to make sustainable building more attractive and possible. He also mentioned a local modular housing start-up that was hoping to use sustainable building materials. I think that I'll file "Sustainable Building Materials" under the "Upcoming Posts" section.

The only real let down was the lack of focus on the effect that these new green building will have on their surroundings. For a building to be sustainably constructed, it must last a long time. That means the neighborhood it's built in must be stable for a long time. Though most of Detroit's upper income neighborhoods are intact (and incredibly beautiful for that matter), a majority of the middle and lower income neighborhoods have had their physical impression totally changed over the last 40 years. We need to find ways of building poor neighborhoods so that they can one day become middle income and then upper income neighborhoods.

To be fair to Rick and the OES, they have no shortage of things they want to get done, so I don't begrudge them this point in the least.


I very much appreciated Rick's take on transit in Detroit because it is such a difficult issue. Detroit is enormous--138 sq mi--and that word doesn't even begin to describe the vastness of the suburbs. A light rail line will finally be constructed along Woodward now that suburban opposition has crumbled. Rick advocated the union of the city operated DDOT buses and the suburban SMART buses; this seems like a fairly sensible idea to me. In addition, he informed me of additional walk/bike greenways because of the success of the Dequindre Cut, completed late last year.


One of the main thrusts of the OES is to improve energy efficiency and reduce waste in city buildings and throughout city departments. The first step will be energy audits of city buildings. It will be interesting to see what direction the office takes from there. It's surprising that this wasn't done before and its good to see that this effort is finally happening.

Green Thumbs Up

This program will lease out vacant lots to individuals and groups interested in "adopting" them. It feels like a winner and Rick was well aware of it. Whether the lots would become productive or just decorative, this initiative will allow people to make some lasting investments into the land. Unlike a similar state program, lease terms should be very favorable to gardeners as long as they continue to maintain the land. No word on whether animal husbandry will be allowed, I would hope that it could be incorporated but with strict density limits.

Car Free Areas

Not in the motor city, the best I could get out of him was internal-combustion free areas. Not a bad start. If he keeps reading the blog, perhaps I'll change his mind.


In all, it was clear that Rick had a strong vision of what a sustainable Detroit might look like. A contraction of habitation into denser areas, connected by strong public transit options. The in between zones would either revert to their natural state or become intensive agricultural operations. Infrastructure would be scaled back, car lanes removed, bike lanes added, traffic calmed and dissipated. I like the way Rick thinks and only see good things from Detroit.

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