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.

Ypsilanti Rising: Jordan Garfinkle Finds Local Flavor at Farmers Market

June 30, 2011

UniverCities Connection intern Jordan Garfinkle believes that southeast Michigan’s communities have “enormous potential,” potential that we can fulfill by recognizing that “economic and environmental issues are often inextricable.” Studying at the UM School of Natural Resources & Environment, he didn’t find many chances to get away from campus. This summer, researching energy policy at the Ypsilanti office of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, Jordan has found that interest in a green economy exists well beyond the books.

No "loafing" for this intern.

Last week, Jordan spotted the crate brought to work by Richard “Murph” Murphy, transportation programs director at the Suburbs Alliance, and realized there might be a farmers market in the vicinity. Murph confirmed that he had just picked up some produce from the Downtown Ypsilanti Farmers Market. Like any good student of sustainable food systems, Jordan decided to follow his example and walk over to Ferris Street.

The market operates 2-6 pm each Wednesday.

While not as large as its Ann Arbor counterpart, the Ypsilanti market excels in other ways. Garlic farmers Dick and Diana Dyer summed up the friendly, relaxed atmosphere, calling it “the most fun farmers market that we go to.” And who wouldn’t have fun presiding over 14 different varieties of garlic scapes?

Garlic scapes from Dyer Family Farms.

Jordan returned to the office with bread made from 100% Michigan ingredients and baked at the nearby Ypsilanti Food Co-op across the river. “Good things come in small packages,” he observed. Like Jordan, lots of Michigan’s young people are looking to live simply and sustainably, enriching their communities and their environment through what University of Michigan professor Thomas Princen calls the “logic of sufficiency.” UniverCities Connection is helping them find that older cities like Ypsilanti, once a hub for aircraft and auto manufacturing, offer a bountiful harvest of opportunities to redefine their American dreams.

The View From Above: Broderick Tower Offered Michael Stepniak a New Angle on Detroit

June 27, 2011

Atop Detroit's Broderick Tower. Photo:

Working as a mason tender gave UniverCities intern Michael Stepniak a better feel for metro Detroit’s urban fabric than most people ever have. An itinerant private contractor assisting at construction and demolition sites, he found himself “essentially living in [his] work truck several times over the years.” Moving around the region, he saw change in concrete form, as it happened on the ground: in the clean lines of a freshly poured basement, or the dust of a jackhammered loading dock.

During a job at downtown Detroit’s Madison Building, Michael found himself drawn to a dramatic new perspective. Next door to the Madison stood the vacant thirty-five-story shell of the Broderick Tower, commanding the corner of Woodward and Witherell at Grand Circus Park. An open window on the Broderick beckoned within reach of Michael’s scaffolding. The attraction proved irresistible. After work one day, he climbed through onto the Broderick’s ninth floor and made his way up twenty-nine flights of stairs to the roof.

Michael back on the ground.

“From 360 feet up,” he recalls, “the wagon-wheel corridors of Detroit stretched out to the horizon. I thought that I knew the city like the back of my hand, but I had never seen anything so breathtaking.” Years before Google Maps made aerial photos commonplace, the panorama led Michael to reflect on the infrastructure spread out below him. “I began to consider the systems upon which my way of life depended: streets, sewers, power plants, police departments, sidewalks, buses, and so on. It is one thing to live in a major metropolitan area, it is quite another to attempt to understand what makes it one.”

Now an urban studies major at Wayne State University, Michael hopes to attend graduate school for urban planning, feeding the fascination with cities that he’s fostering this summer with UniverCities in Southgate. Wherever that takes him, though, he knows he’ll find himself pulled back. “For some reason, other cities lack some intangible quality that makes Detroit my home,” he says. “I love this town.”

Think Tank Urges Growth in Knowledge Workers to Sustain Michigan’s Prosperity

June 21, 2011

One of the chief goals of UniverCities Connection is to give local students a reason to stay in Michigan after graduating. That’s a goal shared by Michigan Future Inc., an Ann Arbor-based nonprofit that has authored a number of reports on keeping youth here and recently released its third annual “Michigan’s Transition to a Knowledge-Based Economy” report. The assessment argues that we need to bolster the state’s high-education attainment industries: those where at least 30% of workers have a bachelor’s degree.

Pittsburgh: a model for economic restructuring?

Between 2001 and 2008, employment in Michigan’s low-education attainment industries plunged 13.7%, in consequence of the auto industry’s troubles. Yet the high-education attainment industries suffered a loss of less than 2%. For Michigan Future’s Lou Glazer, the lesson is clear: we need to support growth in those high-education attainment industries by building up their essential infrastructure, including schools, universities and livable places.

The report points to Pittsburgh as a potential model for the Detroit region. Despite the rapid collapse of the city’s dominant steel industry in the 1980s, it’s made a successful transition to the knowledge economy by building on the educational, financial and medical institutions that steel wealth created. While manufacturing is still an important component of the region’s economy, Pittsburgh’s no longer so bound to the sector. The metro area ranks as one of the nation’s more prosperous, and the city tops the national average in the proportion of citizens with a bachelor’s degree. Michigan Future argues from this example that deindustrialization need not mean the end of Michigan’s middle class, if we make the right decisions along the way.

So much for Arthur Pond’s 1940 assessment of the Motor City. “Fundamentally,” he wrote, “modern Detroit exists to build and sell motor cars, and once it quits doing that it will lose its chief reason for existence.” What do you think? Is Pittsburgh’s comeback a good model for us, and how would we go about making the shift beneficial for everyone? What new “reasons for existence” might Millennials have in mind?

Called to Contribute: Stephanie Chueh’s Path to Climate Planning

June 17, 2011

Chueh: Looking to clear the air in metro Detroit.

Born and raised in the Ann Arbor area, UniverCities Connection intern Stephanie Chueh says she didn’t always feel a strong connection to her metro Detroit surroundings or have much familiarity with Tree Town itself. During her first semester at the University of Michigan last year, she had to call a friend from Malaysia for directions when she got lost on campus, and took two weeks to find her way through the University’s Diag.

Stephanie’s attention to national media helped her make that connection to surrounding communities. While still in high school, she’d been shocked to read an article in Time that stated less than half of Detroit’s students passed the state writing test. She herself couldn’t stand to get less than an A- on tests, while less than an hour away her peers could “barely…dream about graduating high school and attending college.” Clearly, the region faced enormous challenges. Yet at the time, she wasn’t sure what she could do to help.

At UM, Stephanie caught the student community’s growing enthusiasm for serving the metropolis. “All around me, friends at classrooms and at church constantly talked about lifting up the Detroit region,” she says. The excitement in these campus spaces, an excitement that captivated newcomers to the state as well as longtime Michiganders, spurred Stephanie to strengthen her own commitment. “If they were so dedicated to this region, then I, who have lived and been blessed here all my life, certainly had a responsibility to metro Detroit.”

Thanks to a grant to the Michigan Suburbs Alliance from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment, Stephanie has a chance to contribute to the region in a sweeping way: building a library of strategies that cities across the nation are using to cut pollution. Out of the library will come a guide for metro Detroit communities seeking to save money, reduce emissions and combat global warming. That work can help improve the prospects of today’s young people and generations to follow.

In less than a year, Stephanie’s come from getting lost on campus to showing the whole region the way forward, making sure metro Detroit finds the best path to sustainable prosperity. We look forward to hearing what the future will bring!

The UniverCities Story, Part 3: The Energy Savings Protocol

June 16, 2011

On the heels of the June 2009 inaugural meeting, the Millennial Mayors Congress adopted fiscal and environmental sustainability as its first official focus. The issue exemplified the benefits of partnership between young people and elected leaders. City officials sought to save their town money, while Millennials voiced their generation’s growing consciousness of climate change and enthusiasm for solutions to environmental crises. Both proved more than ready to jettison the old notion that these causes were somehow at odds. “The economic future that young people want,” said Madison Heights Millennial Andy Wakeland, “is one in which environmental sustainability and economic development go hand-in-hand.”

To bring about that future, the Congress drafted an Energy Savings Protocol that would commit participating cities (above) to reduce municipal energy consumption from non-renewable sources 15 percent from 2005 levels by 2015, and sought a 5 percent reduction from the community at large. The previous year, the State of Michigan had adopted its own energy efficiency goals, requiring a 25 percent reduction from 2002 levels in state buildings by 2015. As of 2010, the state had already hit the 23 percent mark. Since local governments have limited staff to implement energy conservation programs, however, meeting our goals is a bigger challenge than it’s been for the state.

That’s where this summer’s UniverCities Connection interns come in. Now that cities have less than four years to generate substantial energy savings, the interns are racing to advise metro Detroit governments on how best to do the job. They’re crunching the cities’ energy data to check out their performance so far, reviewing conservation and climate protection strategies implemented by other communities, and consolidating energy program management in the City of Southgate.

This concludes our three-part UniverCities history series. It’s time we learned more about the interns themselves.

The UniverCities Story, Part 2: The Millennial Mayors Congress

June 15, 2011

The metropolitan youth voice is heard.

Metro Detroit is one region, but our hundreds of local governments don’t reflect that. In contrast, places from Portland to Indianapolis have adopted various forms of metropolitan government to supplement local governments and tackle big-picture issues, like transportation and urban development, at a regional level. Here in Michigan, the lack of platforms for regional thinking has hindered collective action, but in 2009, the Suburbs Alliance sought to fill the vacuum with a new kind of metropolitan forum. Its special ingredient? Young people.

The Millennial Mayors Congress pairs elected officials in participating metro Detroit cities with youth from their communities, aged 18 to 35, who serve together as delegates to the Congress. Why the youth element? As the U.S. economy shifts away from the manufacturing that once dominated Detroit, young people have supplanted factories as a region’s most valuable resource. Yet metro Detroit’s centrifugal pattern of sprawl development hasn’t helped produce the kind of places where today’s young people want to live. Millennials, aged 18 to 35, tend to favor more diverse, sustainable, compact communities where they don’t need a car to get around. By partnering young people with elected leaders, the Congress makes sure their voices help shape a more sustainable, prosperous future for everyone in the region.

The region's elected leaders take note.

Bringing in fresh faces helped ready the Congress to meet the challenge of its second major innovation: making decisions by regional consensus. In the past, metro Detroit’s communities have competed against each other, instead of uniting for the benefit of the region at large. The results haven’t been pretty, and even the short-term “winners” of this contest end up losing in the long run, as youth take off for places where new development isn’t limited to cul-de-sacs.

The Millennial Mayors Congress replaces that broken paradigm with a new model for regional prosperity that respects the autonomy and individuality of each community, but also insists on cooperative action for the common good. It’s only natural that in its first major initiative, the Congress opted to better steward our communities’ ultimate collective treasure: the planet. We’ll conclude the UniverCities saga next time with the story of the energy conservation initiative that brought this year’s interns into action.

The UniverCities Story, Part 1: The Michigan Suburbs Alliance

June 10, 2011

Stronger together.

The UniverCities Connection program may seem like the new kid on the block. True, it’s just now graduated from its old web page into the blogosphere. But like any fresh face, it’s got its own unique ancestry. This year’s UniverCities interns are here thanks to a chain of events stretching back almost a decade.

In 2002, city officials from the older suburban towns around metro Detroit realized they faced common problems that demanded collective solutions. The region’s continued outward sprawl had hit these “inner-ring” or “first-tier” suburbs with the population loss and disinvestment already hobbling the central city. They decided that for the long-term prosperity of the entire region, these destructive patterns had to be replaced by cooperative action that benefited all communities. The Michigan Suburbs Alliance was born.

The Alliance's Ferndale headquarters.

Since that time, the Suburbs Alliance has grown from 14 metro Detroit communities to more than thirty. It’s helped cities remove barriers to new investment through its Redevelopment Ready Communities program and launched the Regional Energy Office to help them collaborate in cutting energy use and promoting environmental sustainability.

As early as 2005, the UniverCities Connection program provided the Suburbs Alliance with vital student talent for research that helped get major initiatives off the ground. This summer’s intern program, however, has a special connection to one of the Suburbs Alliance’s newest projects: the Millennial Mayors Congress. We’ll bring you the full story next week.

Orientation: A Gathering of Millennial Minds

June 6, 2011

Southgate Energy Intern Michael Stepniak.

The day after Memorial Day, when we honor those who’ve served the nation in arms, UniverCities Connection interns rallied together to kick off a campaign of their own. Its goals: slash city energy bills, beat back Michigan’s tradition of disinvestment in older urban centers, and claim higher ground in the battle against global climate change. Some say the latter struggle should be the moral equivalent of World War Two for the Millennial generation (people aged 18 to 35), and these young metro Detroiters certainly aren’t wasting any time taking it on. Read the rest of this entry »