The Detroit RiverFront Conservancy: Helping Motor City, U.S.A. Go Green
October 13, 2010
By Maisha Tyler, OurEarth.org Intern
By Maisha Tyler, OurEarth.org Intern
Typically, when people think of Detroit, the words and ideals of conservation and environmentalism don't necessarily come to mind. The city, once the hub of American manufacturing until the 1970's, is the hometown of the auto industry--earning the nickname "Motor City." However, the mass exodus from the urban core to (much exalted) suburbia, coupled with the decline of the domestic manufacturing industry, has left the city grappling with a virtual tsunami of abandoned factories and buildings, all concentrated along the Detroit river. For decades, these buildings sat vacant-urban relics of a bygone era. However, in 2003, the area's community and civic leaders gathered together and envisioned a plan to revitalize Detroit's Riverfront, with the ultimate goal of revitalizing the community as a whole. The Detroit RiverFront Conservancy, a non-profit organization, was born.
The Detroit River Walk after the finished project.Founded to manage the construction, operation, maintenance and programming of the Detroit RiverWalk, the organization did so by utilizing public-private partnerships that included members of the corporate community, foundations, local, state and federal government, and the community-at-large. These efforts were spear-headed by a few key players: the City of Detroit, General Motors and the Kresge Foundation, which provided funding with a $50 million "challenge" grant. Then, the east Riverfront project was launched as a $300 million endeavor. As a result, in less than six years, the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy has completed 80 percent of the east Riverfront development project.
The benefits have been two-fold: first, improving quality of life in the city; and second, increasing awareness and stewardship of the Detroit River by connecting the neighborhoods and the waterfront as well as encouraging the development of greenways, such as the Dequindre Cut Greenway. The Dequindre Cut, formerly a Grand Trunk Western Railroad Line, is a one half mile-long paved rails-to-trails pedestrian and biking greenway that opened in May 2009, connecting the Near-End Neighborhoods directly to the waterfront. As part of the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan's Greenways Initiatives, the greenways will continue to expand over the next five years, connecting more communities to Detroit's Riverfront.
This restoration of the Detroit Riverfront for public use and enjoyment has an environmental benefit as well through facilitating the clean up and repair of numerous Brownfield sites. In addition, the repairs to existing seawalls, dredging and removal of former industrial debris, and the addition of stone along sections of seawall and shoreline, have improved water quality and increased fish habitat in the river. Urban run-off from new parking lots is directed through a natural filtration for treatment prior to discharge.
This project also partnered with international pollution prevention and control programs - together helping increase native fish and waterfowl populations, including bald eagles, peregrine falcons, osprey, sturgeon, whitefish, and walleye. During construction, recycled materials were used in construction of the pavilions, and recycled concrete became sub-base and aggregate for new paving systems. Native plantings along the Detroit Riverfront were selected for their hardiness, seasonal interest, and habitat value. In particular, the Butterfly Garden at Gabriel Richard Park was specifically designed in recognition of the river's role as a major North American flyway, providing habitat for migrating butterflies. The guiding principles for the landscaping program include organic-based turf management, water conservation techniques and devices, energy-efficient products that minimize energy requirements, recycling of landscaping waste, and fuel conservation. In addition to environmentally friendly cleaners, biodegradable trash bags, dog waste bags and paper products are used to maintain the cleanliness of the RiverWalk.
These collaborative efforts have transformed Detroit's Riverfront from abandoned industrial wasteland to a spectacularly beautiful green-space for the community, tourists, and business-people alike. Today, the Riverfront provides the public four seasons of activity and entertainment - the Detroit River Days festival, the international Red Bull Air Races, the annual fireworks display, and activities such as yoga, seniors walking club, cross country skiing, fundraising walks and runs, and river boat tours and more. This improves the connection between Detroit's citizenry and the entire region, giving them access to a wonderful green space that includes parks, plazas, pavilions and greenways.
Community involvement was the key to the success of Detroit RiverFront Conservancy. Collaborators helped to develop plans for the Riverfront based on the overarching goal of five-and-a-half miles of Riverfront (extending from the Ambassador Bridge to Gabriel Richard Park), to just east of the MacArthur Bridge, all the way to Belle Isle. In addition, a variety of active and passive spaces were created within a complex urban environment for a wide range of uses in different site and river conditions. For example, the long beleaguered 19th-century rail yards that were asphalted over for 20th-century parking lots and city maintenance yards have been transformed. Now, three-and-a-half miles of Detroit's International Riverfront are 21st-century public gardens and promenades that wind along the river. Visitors can watch freighters and fishing boats sail by and enjoy the recreational activities along the riverfront. In addition, the public can enjoy the sculptural glass wall, which traces the reach of the Detroit River within the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway, and a large-scale inlaid granite map set in the pavement showing the relationship of the Detroit River and its islands to the city and to Windsor, Ontario. There are also studies of African textile design and kente cloth patterns inspired paving colors and patterns, which celebrates the ethnic heritage of Detroit.
Despite DRFC's immense progress since its inception in 2003, the next five years will continue to see even more so along the Detroit RiverWalk and its surrounding greenways. In 2008, 26 acres of the former Detroit Free Press printing plant were purchased thanks to generous federal appropriations. DRFC is working on a development plan that includes its key stakeholders to develop the west Riverfront, making access to the river possible for the community, much like was done on the east. DRFC plans on continuing to include the community's input-- as well as taking part in the celebration upon its completion. DRFC expects to complete the east Riverfront project by spring of 2011, and to begin the construction and subsequent completion downriver to the west and into the Near-End Neighborhoods. When looking to the future of Detroit's Riverfront, there is a certain degree of irony that the key to its rebirth seems to be in embracing and celebrating its non-industrial past. This city, known for the Big American Auto industry, actually had roots in agriculture and was built by artisans. Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac's landed at Detroit in 1701, and established an French settlement of "ribbon" farms that later morphed Detroit into a Great Lakes shipping and international transportation hub, the catalyst for growth during the industrial era.
Although over-consumption led to the blight surrounding the riverfront, it is this degradation of the once proud industrial-made Detroit that was the reason the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy came to being. It is also the reason why the riverfront, and perhaps Michigan's core values of respecting a balance of enterprise and sustainability, has returned. In Detroit, like elsewhere on our planet, the circle of life, or continuum of re-making our world to be a better one, continues.