Detroit’s underground sewer and water infrastructure is inhibited by aging and a lack of routine maintenance, yet rebuilding it would cost millions, or even billions, in funding that the city cannot afford. Instead, Detroit, like many other cities interested in resiliency and climate change, is turning to a more sustainable approach: the integration of “green infrastructure.”
Green infrastructure is an approach to water management that protects, restores, or mimics the natural water cycle. Rain gardens, permeable pavements, bioswales and rainwater harvesting systems are all examples of the approach. It offers cities the ability to move from traditional centralized stormwater management – like building an overflow basin and then treating stormwater runoff – to a more decentralized approach that enables the earth to naturally infiltrate the water when and where it falls.
There’s growing momentum for the City of Detroit to integrate green infrastructure into its municipal projects, and for good reason. Victoria Kovari, general manager of the Detroit Department of Neighborhoods, says her office gets calls from all over the city after every major rainstorm. “Basements are backing up, and streets are so flooded they are virtually impassable,” she says. “The stormwater drain is clogged because the city can’t afford to clean streets like it used to, and getting the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to come and unclog and vacuum these things is very difficult.”
One way the city is combating these issues is through a pilot project at Detroit’s Central High School. The first phase focuses on the school’s softball field, the second phase on its the football field, and the final phase on mitigating stormwater issues across the entire school property. The city has partnered with Parjana Distribution, a Detroit-based water management company, who will install its Energy-passive Groundwater Recharge Product (EGRP) across the property. EGRP is a patented technology that helps accelerate the infiltration of stormwater into the soil and away from storm drains, using thumb-sized tubes interspersed throughout the fields.
While the pilot project is intended to reduce stormwater runoff, the city has a bigger goal in mind: leveraging investments in green infrastructure to help promote workforce training and spark long-term neighborhood revitalization. Through this initiative, recent Central High School graduates living in the surrounding neighborhoods will be trained for careers in the green infrastructure field. Parjana has teamed up with the Detroit Police Athletic League (PAL) and Walker-Miller Energy Services to recruit and train Detroit residents. Ultimately, the city hopes to extend green infrastructure into the surrounding neighborhood, focusing specifically on the homes and businesses located within a 300-block radius of the school.
“We’re bringing a whole new level of sustainability and imagination to the City of Detroit through this initiative,” says Tim Richey, CEO of PAL. “Not only will it create workforce development opportunities for residents, it will also help promote healthy, thriving communities and position Detroit as a global thought leader in workforce development, sustainability and water management.” In addition, implementing green infrastructure in Detroit could reduce the rising stormwater and drainage fees by up to 80%, saving valuable taxpayer dollars.
Innovative partnerships like these are going to prove critical for Detroit, a city looking to revitalize large swaths of land that have been deserted in the wake of economic decline. However, the joint effort around stormwater management and workforce development is not a finite solution. The city’s ability to implement green infrastructure on a wider scale can still be hindered by a lack of funding. “There is some money related to blight removal, but not much beyond that,” says Kovani.
Still, green infrastructure investment presents Detroit an opportunity to rethink its vacant land as a chance to integrate new stormwater management solutions and simultaneously create new job opportunities for local residents. It’s a way to support economic growth that can potentially withstand the anticipated impacts of climate change. Applying this strategy demonstrates how Detroit is making forward-thinking investments to support infrastructure and economic development in the long term.