Archive for July, 2011

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.

In Highland Park, A Region Raises a Hoop House

July 6, 2011

A barn-raising in the heart of Detroit? That’s certainly what it felt like as activists from across the region gathered in Highland Park on Sunday, June 26, to construct a 2000-square-foot hoop house from plastic sheeting and metal tubes. This solar-powered greenhouse can grow food year-round—even in Michigan winters. Armed with the right equipment, it doesn’t take more than a day to construct one. As UniverCities Energy Data Intern Jordan Eizenga and other Suburbs Alliance staff found, it does take a number of willing hands.

Jordan Eizenga is framed by the house's metal structure.

Jordan (not to be confused with Energy Policy Intern Jordan G.) found lending his hands easy enough. He moved to Ferndale this summer to be near the Suburbs Alliance main office, and biked the few short miles along Woodward Avenue from Ferndale to help build the house. The site was behind the Green Economy Leadership Training (GELT) house near Woodward and McNichols. A branch of a national youth network organizing for solutions to global climate change, GELT seeks to give young people a holistic understanding of the transition to a sustainable, community-scaled economy through neighborhood projects like the hoop house.

Things heat up in the hoop house's interior.

By late morning, most of the metal hoops that formed the hoop house’s structure were already in place, and the lot was a hive of activity. Builders included master hoop-house mechanic Jeff McCabe, co-founder of Ann Arbor’s SELMA Café, Margaret Lewis, publisher of the Highland Park-based Legacy News, and scores of others from the block, the neighborhood and the greater region. Now that’s metropolitan cooperation in action! While at rest, the group traded farming tips and enjoyed impromptu rapping from the youngest attendees.

The plastic sheeting has been hauled into place.

“Billow it!” As the sun sank lower, the team gathered on either side of the curving metal frame to push and pull the plastic walls of the house into place, sending ripples through the giant sheets to carry them over the top. Slowly, under the careful hands of Jordan and two dozen others, the double sheets slid down to meet the wooden frame near the ground. What had been empty space open to the elements at dawn became a warmer interior where plants will grow come winter.

Collective celebration with the help of a timpani.

There’s much more to be done before the hoop house produces its first crops. For Jordan and the other six Suburbs Alliance staff on hand, though, the day was an inspiring confirmation that people from all over the area can come together to build a healthier, greener and tastier future. Working cooperatively, the group built in one day what a single person couldn’t have constructed alone. Metro Detroit needs to bring that lesson to a regional scale: we’re stronger together.

“A Great Problem to Have?” Young People Pack Downtown Detroit, But How Many Will Fit?

July 5, 2011

As recently reported in Crain’s, the market for apartments in downtown Detroit and surrounding areas has never been hotter, and young professionals are helping drive the demand. Millennials get that living in a walkable urban neighborhood is best for environmental sustainability and quality of life. A number of us here at UniverCities Connection are already relocating closer to our offices in Ypsilanti and Ferndale. Incentives like the Live Midtown program have sweetened the deal for downtown Detroit dwellers.

Marching in. (MLive - Jeff Wattrick)

Good as it is for the planet, our reinvigorated appetite for city living also poses some challenges. Even in cities like Detroit that are far from built out, vacant structures can’t be renovated and new ones constructed fast enough to keep pace with demand from prospective residents. The result? Latecomers may discover that housing in the most desirable locations is hard to find. That’s a big change of pace in a city with so much vacant space. Leasing agent Michael Martorelli calls it “a great problem to have,” but prospective renters might not see the upside.

It’s also possible that the rush will price current residents out of these places. The existence and desirability of gentrification in Detroit has been debated for at least a decade. The more money moving into the city, the better, some argue, given that most rich folks abandoned the city years ago. Yet others suggest that negative consequences threaten here, too, including the displacement of community memory as well as people themselves.

So far, the issue hasn’t been big enough to spur much discussion of real policy responses, but we can bet that it will before long. Across the U.S., there’s been a trend towards mixed-income housing, incorporating both market-rate and affordable, subsidized apartments in a single development. Chicago has been a pioneer of that model, also pushed by the federal HOPE VI program. Could the Detroit region, so long an extreme case of spatial race and class segregation, now help to define a new, more inclusive kind of American metropolis? If so, it’s likely that the youth—perhaps even some of our interns this summer—will be the ones to make it happen.