July 10, 2009
  Sustainable Assessment Team Envisions Leaner, Greener Detroit

by Russell Boniface
Associate Editor

How do you . . . create a framework for sustainable growth within a city?

Summary: The AIA’s Communities by Design Sustainable Design Assessment Team (SDAT) has issued its final report of recommendations for the Detroit SDAT project proposal, “Detroit Motorcity: Infrastructure NOW.” The Detroit SDAT proposal calls for sustainable initiatives throughout Detroit that would contribute to improving its economy. The Communities by Design final report, “Leaner, Greener Detroit,” provides an action plan for Detroit to implement those initiatives.

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The AIA SDAT programs bring together architects and other professionals to provide plans for various cities seeking to improve sustainability. In Detroit, a consortium of organizations and businesses, led by the Detroit-based WARM Training Center and AIA Detroit, assessed conditions in Detroit and identified opportunities for sustainable development. Architects, planners, economic development specialists, and residents worked together on improvement ideas along with experts in community and economic development, open space planning, food security, and transportation and energy systems planning.

Rethinking Detroit
The Detroit SDAT held a three-day charrette and site visit last fall to address Detroit’s economy, land use, transportation, energy systems, and food security. The charrette was facilitated by Detroit SDAT team leader Alan Mallach, a research director with the National Housing Institute.

“It’s a great opportunity to rethink a city that is over 300 years old,” says Diane Van Buren Jones, co-chair of the steering committee for the Detroit project. Van Buren Jones is director of Rebuild Michigan-Detroit for the WARM Training Center, a nonprofit emphasizing sustainable development for housing. Van Buren Jones served as public director for the AIA National Board from 2007 to 2008. For the SDAT Detroit project, the WARM Training Center worked with AIA Detroit, community development corporation groups, and the local architecture firm Zachary and Associates.

SDAT strategy on a neighborhood level
“We have had a lot of buzz about the SDAT,” says Van Buren Jones. The focus of SDAT Detroit’s project study is sustainable re-use on a neighborhood level of vacant city land. Detroit’s population has dropped to 900,000, less than half of its 1950s peak, with and an estimated 40 square miles of the 138-square-mile city empty. The vacant land includes swaths of abandoned industrial sites.

“It was a planning effort for neighborhoods to look at distilling down SDAT planning principles to neighborhood levels,” says Van Buren Jones. Detroit’s SDAT project study focused on neighborhood-level planning around five topics: land, the transportation system, urban agriculture, the economy, and alternative energy. “It has become a grassroots effort, adopted by many organizations as a way to look at planning guidelines for their neighborhoods,” says Van Buren Jones.

Communities by Design final report
The AIA’s Communities by Design recommendations for the Detroit SDAT suggest Detroit incorporate the model of urban villages. The urban villages would form the foundations for urban agriculture, green energy and economic development, and sustainable transportation. Increasing density, land reconfiguration, and connectivity are three themes in the report that complement the SDAT recommendations for the urban village concept. The report estimates that 75,000 jobs could be created.

In the final report, urban villages would have walkable neighborhoods, encourage biking, increase social interaction, and be linked by transit. The villages would attract investment, limiting sprawl. A long-term urban agriculture approach would take advantage of hundreds of community gardens and small commercial agricultural operations. Large-scale agricultural production in Detroit would use 10,000 acres of the city’s vacant land over the next 5 to 10 years for urban agriculture to support hundreds of farms, generating jobs.

Manufacturing would adapt green energy technologies and focus on creating jobs in manufacturing, construction, and installation and in retrofitting older homes and buildings for greater energy efficiency. Manufacturing and installing wind turbines, solar arrays, and other renewable energy technologies would become a major growth sector in the economy. Wind energy is a particularly attractive option for Detroit due to electrical generation from offshore wind energy in the lakes surrounding Michigan.

Transit vehicles in the urban villages would be sustainable, and non-motorized transportation would be connected.

Where Detroit goes from here
The final report recommends that Detroit recognize itself as a smaller city in population than it once was and reconsider its land use, economy, and transportation network around that reality. Says Van Buren Jones: “We just received the final report and are looking at developing a process for implementation. Our state Housing Authority is interested in working with us, and a number of neighborhood organizations are interested in the next step. We are seeking funding to put the planning effort together to help give direct assistance to neighborhoods.”

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The Detroit SDAT Team members include:
Team Leader
Alan Mallach, FAICP
Community Development and the reutilization of vacant land in urban areas
Research Director of the National Housing Institute

Subrata Basu
Community Development
Interim Director
Miami Dade County Planning and Zoning Dept.

Stephen A. Gazillo, AICP
Transportation and Transit
Director of Transportation Planning
URS Corporation

Jason King, ASLA, LEED-AP
Open Space
Associate, Landscape Architect
GreenWorks, PC

Teresa Lynch
Economic Development
Senior Vice President & Director of Research Initiative for a Competitive Inner City

Colin Meehan
Renewable Energy
Renewable Energy Specialist Texas Climate and Air Program
Environmental Defense Fund

Edwin Marty
Local Food Systems and Community Gardens
Executive Director
Jones Valley Urban Farm