Engaging Detroit

Beyond Beautification

An attractive flower garden sits where vacant houses once stood, replacing blight with beauty for the entire community to enjoy. What appears to be a neighborhood beautification project is actually much more. It’s an effort to utilize available resources to help manage the city’s stormwater.

Utilizing research conducted by researchers at U-M, UM-Dearborn, and WSU, U-M faculty and partners are conducting a pilot project that turns vacant land into neighborhood bioretention gardens designed to capture and hold stormwater, while also beautifying the Cody Rouge neighborhood. The four bioretention gardens were built where the basements of demolished houses once were. The vacant basements were excavated and redesigned to accommodate drainage pipes, stone and gravel topped with soil, and beautiful shrubs and flowers to create a system that captures stormwater from the street.

During periods of heavy rain, Detroit’s sewer system can become overtaxed, forcing the release of stormwater and sewage into waterways. These innovative gardens help to absorb excess stormwater and allow it to slowly soak back into the ground, reducing the pressure on the sewer system and helping to keep neighborhood streets clear.

The project demonstrates how vacant properties can become green infrastructure that enhances neighborhood quality of life, while improving water quality in the Detroit River and the Great Lakes, said project leader Joan Iverson Nassauer, a professor of landscape architecture at the U-M School of Natural Resources and Environment.

The first bioretention gardens took physical shape in summer 2015, with many contributors to the project’s development and construction, including the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department; the Detroit Land Bank Authority; the Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance; the Warrendale Community Organization, Tetra Tech, and Tooles Contracting Group.

“I am overjoyed when I look at these projects and think about what they’re doing,” said Palencia Mobley, deputy director/chief engineer at the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. “One thing that we have in this city is land … being able to make that land productive is going to be an amazing benefit for us in the future.”

A three-year Erb Family Foundation grant to the U-M Water Center is allowing Nassauer’s team to assess the performance of the Warrendale bioretention gardens, monitor the acceptance and understanding of those structures by neighborhood residents, and develop new green infrastructure design concepts tailored specifically for use in Detroit. Researchers hope these gardens can inspire similar projects in other neighborhoods and cities.

“I do think these projects have the ability to inspire hope,” Mobley said. “They reinforce a message to residents: We haven’t forgotten about you. You’re important. You matter.”