Returning the Motor City to its [Grass] Roots: Can the city that brought us the automobile define a model for the green economy?

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. In the face of constrained resources, can Detroit afford to focus on climate change now?

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 [1] [2]. 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 [3] [4]. 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 [5].

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 [6] [1].

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 [7]). 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). [8]

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 [1]. 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 [9].

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.

(Word Count: 777)

[1] American Fact Finder. U.S. Census.

[2] TRIP Research Group, 2015 “Urban Pavement Report.”






[8] Various news releases.



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Student comments on Returning the Motor City to its [Grass] Roots: Can the city that brought us the automobile define a model for the green economy?

  1. I really like how this post highlights the underlying tensions that policy makers face at the city level as they try to tackle complex problems. The short-term political pressure to demonstrate “quick wins” in job gains has clearly led to some economic development projects that don’t necessarily align with Detroit’s long-term goals to become a greener city. The difficulty of affecting a major economic turn-around within Detroit’s considerable resource constraints is also very important to consider. Your suggestions around land use are particularly attractive to Detroit because they seem to be relatively low-cost compare to more commonly promoted government strategies such as big investments in green infrastructure and tax subsidies. The big challenge in getting these done, I think, will be in gaining the political momentum needed to sustain a series of policies that are likely slower-acting and less visible than a big flashy project like relocating a stadium. Detroit’s government will have to think hard about how to celebrate small wins with these projects along the way as it may take longer to attract new businesses and residents. This could include hosting public events whenever the new parks open and finding a couple of green manufacturing companies that have already attracted heavy media attention.

  2. Great article that gets to the heart of the challenges policy-makers face.

    You clearly highlight the rationale and benefits of implementing green-focused policies in Detroit – a city that is evidently being impacted significantly by climate change. The difficulty is that policy-makers are under undue pressure, both from voters, individual parties and from influencers within the public arena in general, to deliver results quickly. This translates into short-term policies winner over long-term ones – regardless of the strength of the underlying drivers behind those policies.

    To get climate change on the top of the political priority list in Detroit, individual voters need to start caring about it. This means educating voters on how climate change impacts them and how the new initiatives you mention can directly benefit them in terms of job-creation, job security and economic sustainability.

  3. I particularly enjoyed your focus on a city instead of a typical business institution. Your post highlights an interesting issue that is uniquely Detroit’s – climate change is a present threat to an already troubled city, yet at the same time could be an opportunity for its resurgence. Having had many co-workers in Detroit and clients in automotive, I have seen the resilience and spirit of those who have stuck with Detroit through the recent troubled years and are committed to its promising future. I see this supported in the non-government channels that are rising up to advance the green initiative in Detroit ( With so many policy issues facing the legislature in Detroit, it is refreshing to see the residents and local businesses rising up to take this issue on. I like to imagine movements like this will lead to the future health and potential leadership of the city.

  4. This is a great article. The current situation is Detroit is tragic and needs to be rectified. It is hard to see what was once such an industrious city fall on such hard times. It has been said that the auto industry that helped build Detroit is also what crippled it. The city is extremely widespread and lacks critical infrastructure and accessible forms of public transportation. I applaud the green initiative that Detroit and its citizens have embraced. While I think it is a step in the right direction, is an eco friendly approach really going to save this city or does the government / city of Detroit need to invest (not sure where the money will come from) in the proper infrastructure that will enable the city to prosper? If this infrastructure investment can have an emphasis on eco friendly solutions that would be even better. However, the city really requires basic infrastructure needs in order to survive. If not, it is in a seriously troubled situation. Great post and thanks for bringing attention to such an important issue!

  5. I think the potential solutions you’ve outlined are very creative. Thus far, many of the posts have focused exclusively on the risks of failing to adapt climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies. There are significant direct and indirect benefits associated with taking on such strategies, however! It is clear cities will play an important role in climate change mitigation and adaptation. One article I read (Lancet 2015; 386: 1861–914) even suggests that by forming networks with other cities, cities can “…address climate change in ways that are often more flexible and more directly applied than those of the national or international levels.” It is encouraging and inspiring to see Detroit leverage its capabilities to turn a potential threat into an opportunity.

  6. Thank you for highlighting how a city might work to fight climate change. Cities and companies will have to both work together in order to be effective. Urban Detroit poses both a very interesting problem and opportunity with its many condemned homes and abandoned lots in the urban core. You mentioned the desire to attract development to the downtown part of Detroit. Being able to start over from the ground up on some of the empty blocks could be an opportunity to build transit-oriented development and redevelop the area with sustainability in mind. Also, the post references urban gardening, and having visited an urban farm on top of an old warehouse in Brooklyn, this idea is intriguing to me. Being closer to where your food is grown cuts down on transportation costs and food waste. Hopefully Detroit can take their tough economic times to innovate and be an example to other cities.

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