Posts Tagged ‘infrastructure’

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.


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?

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.”