Posts Tagged ‘Detroit’

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!


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. (

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.

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.

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.

“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.

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.”