In the wake of a population decline that began in 1950, the departure of industry and countless jobs, and notorious degradation of basic city services, the City of Detroit is pursuing an urban resurgence. The Mayor’s Office – responsible for coordinating transportation, public works, safety, housing, health, employment, planning and development for the city’s 700K residents – has aligned its operations to promote population growth and enhance economic opportunity. But the physical impacts and regulatory costs of climate change threaten its growth. In the face of constrained resources, how essential is a sustainability plan to advancing Detroit’s viability over the long-term?
Detroit already seeing extreme weather; its industrial past foreshadows a costly regulatory burden
As the incidence of extreme weather events rises, Detroit’s high poverty levels – 35% of families in poverty in 2014 – and degraded infrastructure – less than 20% of its roads were in good condition in 2013 – heighten its vulnerability to climate change and the urgency of adaptation  . Indeed, the city has seen an a 1.4°F increase in temperature and 11% increase in total annual precipitation in the period 1981-2010 relative to the 1961-1990 average; recent severe weather events include a 2014 flood that caused 10B gallons of sewer overflow and $1B in property damages  . While such events pose existential threats to all coastal and lakeside cities, in Detroit, we see low tree cover that aggravates heat waves, high rates of asthma and cardiovascular conditions made sensitive on warm days, subpar housing stock that cannot withstand flooding, and a high share of paved surfaces impervious to rainwater drainage .
Regulatory reform likewise may unleash a disproportionate impact on the former industrial metropolis as cities and companies globally are required to comply with GHG emission standards. Indeed, its energy efficiency today has been rated as 48th out of the 51 largest cities; and over 80% of its residents depend on private cars for transportation  .
Land of opportunity: Redefining Detroit’s comparative advantage
Green conversations and initiatives emerge from several corners of City Hall today. Grassroots efforts have promoted an urban gardening movement and placed agriculture on the economic development agenda (its largest farm grew 60 acres of fresh produce in 2015 ). Detroit’s Public Works Department recently applied for federal funds for electric buses. Its Parks Department has launched a competition for citizen-driven park stewardship. Its Water & Sewage Department received $9M in federal relief dollars to re-design the parts of the city most vulnerable to flooding using green stormwater infrastructure techniques (e.g., stormwater ponds, permeable surfaces, green roofs, and irrigation techniques in flood-prone areas). 
However, amidst pressure to secure short-term growth and stem the history of decline, Detroit’s recent economic development initiatives have focused on bringing sports stadiums downtown, and attracting new jobs in manufacturing and real estate development – certainly not ‘green’-oriented industry.
Sustainability as a strategic lens
The question in City Hall isn’t necessarily whether to confront climate change, as much as where it falls on the list of priorities. However, the phenomenon presents a unique opportunity for Detroit: 40 of its 140 square miles of land is vacant today . If Detroit were to place sustainability at the front of its economic development strategy, it could transform vacant, blighted land into an asset and ignite new sources of job and population growth:
- Land for economic opportunity: Detroit can build on existing urban agriculture activity to codify an economic development strategy rooted in ‘green’ industry, with corresponding requirements for land use, emissions, and waste. In addition to modeling adaptive techniques through its land use strategies, Detroit could target and incentivize the companies that specialize in irrigation technologies or green manufacturing techniques to set up shop in the city – the very companies poised to benefit from climate change. In this way, the city can serve its workforce development priorities while modeling adaptation technology.
- Land for quality of life: Prospective residents look for safety, community, accessibility in their neighborhoods. Through thoughtful landscape design, parks and public space can serve as gathering spaces, host plants and wildlife, and walking and biking paths for commuting. Put simply, beautiful natural environments can attract new residents to Detroit’s neighborhoods. If guided by principles of green stormwater infrastructure design, the irrigation techniques and increased tree cover can counteract GHG emissions, limit pollution, and minimize disruption from severe weather events .
Stories of decline and blight have characterized Detroit since the mid-twentieth century. But with thoughtful adaptation strategies that stem the threats of climate change while enhancing the city’s attractiveness as a place to live and work, it could become a model for the green economy.
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 American Fact Finder. U.S. Census. http://factfinder.census.gov
 TRIP Research Group, 2015 “Urban Pavement Report.” http://www.tripnet.org/national-info-reports.php
 Various news releases. http://detroitmi.gov