UniverCities Interns Star in Summer Film Finale

September 6, 2011

We told you there would be one last word from the interns, and here it is: our very own back-to-school special. Once again, thanks to everyone who’s tuned in. That’s all for now. Until next time, keep it regional!



Interns Empowered, Inspired to Keep Seeking a Sustainable, Just and Prosperous Metro Detroit

August 29, 2011
Our interns have done a lot for metro Detroit this summer. But their labors have also done a lot for them, strengthening the bond they feel with the region’s future and steeling them for the task of making it work.

At the foot of Woodward Avenue, interns stand tall...

When intern Stephanie Chueh first arrived at our office from the UM Ross School of Business, she knew little of cities or sustainability. “I often thought that my dream was to work in a shiny skyscraper in Chicago or New York,” she says. “After this summer, though, I’ve realized that I really enjoy working for nonprofits.”

She’s also developed a passion for climate solutions and metro Detroit. “Since I’ve lived around here all my life, I might plan to go somewhere after graduation for a few years. But, especially after this internship, I’ve grown a pretty strong connection to this place, and I think I’ll definitely come back.” If so, she’ll join a growing list of Michigan “boomerangers.”

...and, crossing Dix-Toledo Highway, they're ready to reach higher.

Like Stephanie, Jordan Garfinkle has picked up a copy of Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis. “I’ve already learned loads about metro Detroit, and really have begun to feel a personal connection to the region,” he says. While he’s likely to leave after graduating to be closer to his family, he will “probably always peruse the Freep.”

Michael has called this place home all his life, but he’s learned a lot about “how things work” inside cities, a process often invisible from the outside. As for Jordan Eizenga, he’s living the dream. Newly relocated to Detroit’s storied Boston-Edison district—into the biggest house he’s ever inhabited, he says—he now counts himself one of the Motor City’s 700,000 souls.

Energy Data Intern Jordan Eizenga is off to Detroit.

We bet we’ll be hearing from these folks in years to come. Here’s one potential scenario, from the year 2021:

Michael’s returned from grad school to help turn the Gratiot corridor into the Midwest’s preeminent promenade, complete with bus-only lanes, separated bikeways, and soul food carts serving passersby with fresh greens grown in the median strip. He finds Jordan E. using his numeric expertise to lead the push for affordable housing in the newly fashionable neighborhood of SoDa (South of Davison), and Stephanie putting her business skills to work administering a micro-loan program that funds neighborhood wind power installations. Jordan G. is a frequent presence too, checking in on the Carbon-Neutral Wayne County pilot project as White House Special Consul for Community Energy Systems.

That story—or another one like it—will have to be told after the fact. But it’s been a privilege to chronicle the interns’ exploits to date, and we trust your attention to the work of building a sustainable, just and prosperous region will continue unabated. Stay tuned for one more quick word from the interns themselves!

Interns’ Labors Leave a Stronger, More Sustainable Metro Detroit

August 22, 2011

Southgate was just one of the cites where interns made their mark...

Threescore and some days ago, our interns entered the ranks of the UniverCities Connection program. Now, as the days grow shorter, they’re bidding us adieu and headed back to school or, in Jordan Eizenga’s case, moving on to post-college life. The offices of the Suburbs Alliance will be a little emptier without them.

Don’t shed too many tears, though, for there’s much they’ve accomplished. Their regional climate and energy work this summer testifies to the power of tapping young minds from Michigan’s universities to take on the challenges of its cities.

...leaving them greener (hoop house, Highland Park)...

Stephanie assembled a strategy library that the cities of Ypsilanti, Southgate and Hazel Park will use to build individualized climate action plans. It includes more than two dozen entries on everything from A (anaerobic digesters) to W (wind power), detailing energy savings, ancillary benefits, funding and implementation mechanisms, and real-life examples for each strategy.

Jordan Eizenga tunneled through reams of municipal energy bills to assemble data on total energy consumption for the nine cities that have adopted the Millennial Mayors Congress Energy Protocol. Now, for the first time, this data gives them a yardstick to measure their progress towards the Protocol’s 25%-by-2015 energy use reduction goal.

Jordan Garfinkle used his energy expertise to write policy briefs describing how the cities can meet that target. Do they need to know the relative merits of community-based and corporate energy strategies, or learn what conservation strategies have been working for other Michigan cities? It’s all here.

Michael participated in what sometimes seemed like every aspect of Southgate city government. Whether digging up energy records, manning City offices, discussing regional initiatives, or directing traffic, Michael reveled in the “extreme glut of things that need to be done,” and did them with gusto.

...and more vibrant (Crossroads Festival, Ypsilanti, outside MSA office).

The interns’ work struck at “the real meat of environmentalism in local policy,” in Jordan E.’s words. These young people have made the region’s first collaborative effort to curb energy use possible. Putting their university training to work outside the ivory tower, they’ve done what cities couldn’t accomplish on their own. The Millennial Mayors Congress and Regional Energy Office will ensure their work doesn’t sit on a shelf, but reverberates far into the future, as cities establish mechanisms for meeting the Energy Protocol and pilot local climate plans.

Just as important, though, is how the summer’s work has sustained and strengthened the interns themselves. Don’t go yet; we’ll be checking in on them later this week!

What Makes an Authentic “Detroiter?” Intern Michael Stepniak Speaks

August 18, 2011

One unimpeachable Detroit foodstuff is, of course, the coney dog.

UniverCities Southgate energy intern Michael Stepniak grew up in northeast Detroit. Yet when we described him as a “native Detroiter” in a recent draft communication, Michael wasn’t having any of it. In a cogent e-mail written at two o’ clock in the morning, he explained why.

“I try to play that stuff down, actually,” Michael wrote, describing his claim to the city. “If you move here, you’ll find more than enough people trying to tell you how ‘Detroit’ they are, and I’m not about to be mistaken for that.” Instead, he’s working to establish a different sort of Detroit identity politics.

“I truly believe in regionalism, and one of the ways I try to foment that is by the things I say,” Michael explains. “I like it when a suburbanite says ‘I’m from Detroit.’ Damn right they are. In more ways than they are aware, for the most part.”

“‘Detroit’ will always be a divisive, loaded term until more people embrace it as their own. And that means, for me, not placing much stock in street cred. There is already too much of a divide between ‘the natives’ and the newcomers.”

As Michael points out, claims to an “authentic” Detroit heritage can be jealously guarded. Even suburbanites have been known to poke fun at their fellows for professing a Detroit identity, as the final rap battle in “8 Mile” indicates; cinephiles will recall Eminem’s climactic put-down of a rival who, despite his “gangsta” pose, is no more “from the 313” than Eminem himself. Individuals, organizations, and cities alike all wrestle with this subject.

Detroit identities contested in popular culture. (Eminem.net)

Yet Michael isn’t the only one urging us to rethink what “Detroit” means. In a recent MetroTimes column, longtime political commentator Jack Lessenberry urged readers to “[r]ecognize Detroit for what it really is — not the artificial city limits, but the real city, which is the counties of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb.” Even that definition, of course, might leave Washtenaw County feeling a little excluded. Its membership in the region was a topic of some debate earlier this year, after Conan Smith, Chairman of the County Board of Commissioners (and, as fate would have it, Michigan Suburbs Alliance Executive Director) received a spot on the “Fab 5” panel of Detroit politicos, formerly the “Big 4.”

Whatever the particulars, however, we can hope that a new metropolitan identity is in the works. For one thing, more suburbanites are venturing south of 8 Mile, and more longtime Detroiters are leaving the city. These shifts could unsettle some long-cherished identities and foster a new appetite for regional collaboration. As we’ve always believed, that’s something that would reward city and suburbs alike.

UniverCities Blogger Unmasked; Green Regionalism Makes His Commute Possible

August 16, 2011

The very first post to this blog made a cryptic reference to one Joel Batterman, “UniverCities Connection Communications Fellow.” After that, he disappeared from this blog’s pages, never to be seen again…until now.

En route to work. Item attached to glasses is rear-view mirror.

You see, I’m Joel. As communications fellow, I’ve been the voice of the UniverCities blog for more than two months now. I also study transportation at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, so I hope you’ll allow me to describe my commute from home to office this summer.

Sounds thrilling, right? In fact, getting to and from work is often a joy for me. It also illustrates one of the biggest themes of this blog: going green through regional cooperation.

I commute mostly by bicycle, and occasionally by bus. The distance from my home in Ann Arbor to the western branch office of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance in Ypsilanti is just over nine miles on the Huron River Greenway Border-to-Border Trail. For me, that works out to about forty-five minutes each way.

Border-to-Border Trail in Ann Arbor's Gallup Park, along Huron River.

This is twice as long as it would take me to drive, but going by bike offers me lots of advantages, beyond the simple satisfaction of knowing I’m not contributing to climate change. I invariably arrive at work feeling more energized. I get in all the exercise I need. And of course, I don’t spend a penny on gas or parking. As metro Detroit cities are finding with their energy efficiency initiatives, sustainability and economy can go hand in hand.

There are some benefits, of course, that are harder to quantify. Traveling slower allows me to better experience the places I pass through. I’m more attentive to the changes in the air after the rain, the pace of the Huron River I travel beside, and the activity of the people fishing in Gallup Park. Few sights brighten my day more than Amtrak’s Chicago-Detroit Wolverine rushing by me, or the living poetry of a blue heron winging above the water.

Amtrak's Wolverine crosses the Huron en route to Detroit.

It took regional thinking to make this trail happen. Despite its name, the Border-to-Border trail actually crosses a lot of borders. The section I travel cuts across four different jurisdictions: the Cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, plus Ann Arbor Township and Superior Township. Not all of it is on public land, either. Portions run through the property of the University of Michigan, Washtenaw Community College, and Eastern Michigan University, as well as St. Joseph Mercy Hospital. Some, like the trail through Ann Arbor’s Gallup Park, existed decades before the vision of a cross-county connection. Bringing all the relevant entities together to link older segments and carve out new paths required years of legwork by the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission.

The task didn’t faze people like the Commission’s Bob Tetens, who knew the trail would add up to something greater than the sum of its parts. It can be hard to advocate for regional connections in places where they’ve long been absent. Yet as Tetens likes to say, according to Concentrate magazine, “you don’t build a bridge for the amount of people who swim across the river. You build a bridge for the amount of people who will use it.” And people do use the Border-to-Border Trail: to get to work, recreate and enjoy some time away from the rush of motorized civilization.

Pedaling towards Ypsilanti.

To draw a larger regional analogy, greater Detroit is a region that could use a lot more bridges, bridges that traverse both physical distance and social divides. Too often, we give up and accept these gaps as inevitable, but they aren’t our destiny. We can overcome them, as the County did. Cementing bonds among people is often more challenging than laying down a strip of asphalt. But join together we must, if we’re to pull our region out of the dead end of disunity and set ourselves on the path towards a future that works.

Revolving Energy Loan Funds Pay It Forward in Michigan Cities, and Could Go Regional in Detroit

August 5, 2011

Ka-ching! Ann Arbor's fund proved a sure bet. (City of Ann Arbor)

As Jordan Eizenga’s data mining showed us, energy efficiency upgrades can save cities big money. The initial investment required can be an obstacle, though. Those lighting upgrades in Hazel Park and Madison Heights were paid for by federal grants, but how can cash-strapped cities sustain their energy efficiency campaigns after outside funds run out? Energy policy intern Jordan Garfinkle’s research has turned up an answer.

Revolving loan funds are a simple financial device for recapturing the savings recouped by energy efficiency projects. For a certain period of time, the money saved gets shoveled back into an account that will fund additional energy conservation or renewable energy initiatives, helping cities overcome the up-front costs. The money saved in the next round gets put back into the fund, too, where it can be used for more projects, so the sustainability action never stops – at least not until atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide are back to normal and our cities are net generators of electricity.

How UM fund recycles the green. (University of Michigan)

Some places in metro Detroit are already climbing on board the revolving loan fund bandwagon, according to Jordan’s research. Ann Arbor started its Municipal Energy Fund with a $100,000 allocation in 1998. 80% of the subsequent energy savings went back to the Fund, and in five years it was self-sustaining. The City of Farmington Hills just made the first deposit in its Energy and Sustainability Account. And the University of Michigan’s Energy Conservation Measures Fund has been around for almost a quarter-century.

Since many of Detroit’s older suburbs are relatively small, they could see the greatest gains by joining forces to create a shared revolving loan fund. “In general,” Jordan writes, “the larger, regional funds with numerous member communities offer many of the benefits of smaller funds without the administrative burden associated with managing a revolving loan fund,” while also offering “augmented purchasing power.” Could the Michigan Suburbs Alliance’s Regional Energy Office get such a regional fund started before long? It’s too early for us to say now, but stay tuned.

Jordan Garfinkle Wants You to Get Empowered: Join Us This Thursday for Energy Action

August 2, 2011

For more than two months, you’ve been reading about our interns’ work to define a new energy future for metro Detroit. Are you ready to stand up and join them?

Jordan shows off Ypsilanti's solar panels, drawing on an energy source that never runs out of juice.

This Thursday, August 4, energy policy intern Jordan Garfinkle is hosting an open discussion about the energy challenges facing metro Detroit, policy options for local governments and how young people can make their voices heard to define a greener, more prosperous future. It’s happening at the ultra-mod Ferndale Public Library, 222 E. Nine Mile, from 7:30-8:30 pm. Find the event page here.

The event will describe ways that young people can help Millennial Mayors Congress cities work to achieve their 2015 energy conservation goals. “Our region’s youth,” Jordan states, “are in a remarkable position to effect change.” Collective action by Millennials may be the force we require to re-energize the region. Given Jordan’s years of experience with climate advocacy, and the knowledge of the region he’s gained this summer, we could hardly ask for a savvier guide.

While there are no official plans for an afterparty, Jordan notes slyly that while the event is scheduled to end at 8:30 pm, he’s reserved the room until 9, so you might not want to leave too soon. “The organic juice tap will be flowing,” he says. Meet us there to make yourself a part of the solution!

Electric Detective: In Hazel Park and Madison Heights, Intern Finds That Energy Efficiency Pays

July 29, 2011

Eizenga: bringing energy to account in metro Detroit.

Energy data intern Jordan Eizenga has been on the hunt for weeks. His quarry? Metro Detroit cities’ electrical bills of years past. It’s taken plenty of sleuthing to find them, but the search is finally bearing fruit. Data from Hazel Park and Madison Heights show that energy conservation measures undertaken by these cities are reaping big rewards for city budgets—and the planet.

In Madison Heights, the baseball field lights at Rosie Park and Huffman Park got swapped for more efficient models as part of a $124,000 federal energy efficiency grant secured by the Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office. City officials hoped the upgrade would give them “a good start” towards meeting the 25%-by-2015 conservation goal of the Millennial Mayors Congress’s Energy Savings Protocol.

Rosie's Park, Madison Heights. (Bill Walsh)

Jordan’s research shows that the new lights are paying off. Electrical use in Rosie’s Park has fallen by more than 25%, from 96 to 71 kilowatt-hours per day. That adds up to $435 in savings in one year. In smaller Huffman Park, the City cut energy use 15%, for nearly $100 in savings. That’s nothing to sneeze at, and it’s just the initial return.

To the south, the City of Hazel Park also took advantage of the energy grants. There, efficiency improvements at the fire station netted 12% reductions in electrical consumption. The money saved by these upgrades could help the City hold on to its force of firefighters instead. We’d certainly choose that over heating up the atmosphere!

Fire station, Hazel Park. (Jordan Eizenga)

Once it’s collected and analyzed, Jordan says, energy savings data can help cities decide how to direct their future investments and secure the 15%-by-2015 energy reduction outlined in the Protocol, “so the benefits of doing this work and being diligent with it really compound over time.” His hard work has been essential. “With all the challenges that cities are facing right now, it’s difficult for them to focus on activities with long-term payoffs like collecting data for energy efficiency,” he says, and assistance from interns working on a regional level “really helps take a load off local governments.”

Now that Jordan’s shed some light on the subject for them, these cities will ultimately be able to lighten their energy load, too.

To Help Beat Heat Wave, Says Intern, Spruce Up Metro Detroit Streets with Shade Trees

July 21, 2011

Michigan is sweating through its fifth-warmest July in a century. Detroit and other local cities have designated libraries and other public facilities as “cooling centers” where residents can take refuge from temperatures in the mid-90s. Unfortunately, the long-term forecast offers little hope of a respite. Scientists predict that global warming could triple the number of  hot days in Detroit, posing a particular threat to the city’s elderly residents.

UniverCities Connection intern Stephanie Chueh has been researching one climate change mitigation strategy that promises relief to the sweltering streets: shade trees.

Two blocks of the same Ypsilanti street, with trees (L) and without (R).

Trees inhale some carbon dioxide through their leaves, but that‘s not their only climate benefit. By sheltering adjacent buildings from the sun, they can cut down on the use of air conditioning and reduce electricity consumption. In that sense, they serve as both a climate change mitigation and adaptation strategy, not only curbing climate change but lightening the global warming burden that we will have to bear. “I love it when things are multifunctional!” Stephanie says.

According to her research, the average street tree costs the famously leafy City of Ann Arbor something like $250, plus $30 annually in maintenance. The City calculates the estimated yearly energy savings per tree at $47.55. That’s a darn good deal, especially considering the benefits of trees for the human environment. A green canopy makes for more comfort, natural beauty, and higher real estate values, too, suggesting why new tree plantings are so often a part of streetscape improvement plans in cities’ business districts.

Turning over a new leaf: added street trees figure prominently in Ypsilanti's plan to revamp Cross Street. (City of Ypsilanti)

Ideally, Stephanie indicates, tree planting would be just one element in a suite of climate strategies applied to city streets. “A bunch of projects can work together and serve different purposes,” she says. “For example, just building more sidewalks by themselves may not reduce a ton of GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions, but coupled with LED streetlights that light the way and trees to shade pedestrians, we can begin to take more cars off the road and build more vibrant, livable communities.” After all, what’s a cool city if not a comfortable place to chill?

What Makes the Greatest Place? Interns Describe Their Ideal City

July 15, 2011

What do young people want their region to look like? What do they seek in a place? These are important questions as the state of Michigan struggles to keep college graduates in the state. The Suburbs Alliance has been gathering perspectives from Millennials across metro Detroit through the Millennial Mayors Congress’s regional visioning initiative (see some of the early results here). It seemed logical to ask our interns some of these same questions.

Detroit's Cadillac Square is a unique place in the metro region.

True to Richard Florida’s theories, our interns are looking to live in vibrant urban centers. Stephanie cited attractions like the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Ann Arbor library system as big draws. Jordan Eizenga loves the number of concerts in Detroit, though he says “I sometimes suspect they’re just part of a plot to bankrupt me.” Clearly, big-city culture is a draw, whether it’s high, low or in between.

At the same time, interns suggested that the measure of a community wouldn’t necessarily be found by reviewing museum listings or events calendars. “Urban vibrancy could be less tangible than a row of boutiques, upscale dining, or luxury loft living,” said native Detroiter Michael, and more tied to the “struggles and ambitions” of residents. Similarly, Jordan E. said what excites him most are “people trying to improve the place they live in.”

Economic opportunity is undeniably important. “If I can’t work somewhere, I can’t live there,” Jordan E. conceded. Yet interns also emphasized the need to sustain the private sector with needed public services. Michael noted that the region’s economy was long overdue for “accessible, punctual, and frequent” public transportation.

Programs like former Governor Granholm’s Cool Cities Initiative aimed to boost Michigan cities’ lure for Millennials through creating places that appeal to young professionals. This strategy is undeniably important, as the interns’ responses attest. But it can’t be implemented independently from concerted structural reform. For example, walkable communities with a lively street scene are hard to muster when public transit is, in Michael’s words, “flat-out horrible.” We need big changes on a metropolitan level, like establishing a regional transit authority that removes the underlying barriers to people-scaled places. If we’re serious about building a finer region, we need to be in it for the long haul.