Future Joe Louis Greenway site at former Conrail property over Woodward Ave, in Highland Park. Photo courtesy Doug Coombe.
Paul Draus was doing a research project comparing Detroit and Berlin when he hit upon the concept of utilizing green spaces to benefit communities that have been impacted by system racism. He began calling the idea “green reparations.”
“I got interested in how former industrial spaces could be turned into publicly accessible green spaces,” Draus, a professor of criminology and sociology and director of criminal justice graduate studies at The University of Michigan-Dearborn, told Planet Detroit. “And how this might be not only a kind of health intervention, but also address issues of historical trauma and injustice.”
In Detroit, more than 17% of the city’s land is vacant space that could be used to “green” Detroit. But Detroit’s challenge is that this opportunity cannot be separated from its history of racism and long-lasting impacts on its communities.
Learning from the mistakes of other cities
“Black communities, in particular, were cut off from the larger region, the larger economy and each other by the building of highways,” he said, noting that connecting the many marginalized communities living within close proximity to the greenway presents one opportunity to repair that injustice.
His research also looks at how the greenway could address historical inequities through improving the cleanliness and safety of the neighborhoods, or by increasing financial opportunities for residents.
Draus is well aware of the troubled history of greenways and surrounding neighborhoods. In one study of 10 U.S. cities, researchers found that neighborhoods located within half a mile of a new greenway were 200% more likely to become gentrified. The study also found that the longer greenways were, the more likely they were to gentrify.
Take the example of the BeltLine in Atlanta, a 33-mile trail that ended up pushing some residents out, with housing prices along the greenway rising as much as 8% in some neighborhoods.
To learn from the mistakes and successes of the BeltLine, the City of Detroit sent Detroit residents on the Joe Louis Greenway Advisory Council down to Atlanta, along with city employees, to meet with officials and tour the BeltLine.
RuShann Long, a member of the Advisory Council, says the Joe Louis Greenway has safeguards to ensure people don’t get pushed out by the greenway’s redevelopment, something the Atlanta BeltLine didn’t have.
A path to serve ‘forgotten neighborhoods,’ not erase them
To help create those safeguards, Long and others formed a nonprofit called the Greenway Heritage Conservancy. In 2019 they held two community events and passed out flyers to 1,500 homes to help residents understand what the Joe Louis Greenway is and encourage their involvement in the planning process. Another Conservancy goal is to advocate for protection against high property taxes, so residents aren’t pushed out.
Long said the group’s work focuses on helping residents “understand that they should be trying to protect where they live, also that they are on the cutting edge and can have some input in the process.”
Another Conservancy member was able to help an older resident with the paperwork necessary to purchase the lot next to his through Detroit’s side lot program.
“Some people still don’t have internet, or they don’t go on it, they don’t know how to maneuver systems,” Long said. The hope is that residents will be able to use side lots next to their homes to set up shops, small businesses, or pop-ups so that local residents can benefit from increased traffic, instead of outside businesses that are attracted to the developing area.
Long lives on the west side of Detroit at the start of the Greenway.
“We’re one of those neighborhoods that we call a forgotten neighborhood,” she said. Last year the Greenway Heritage Conservancy invited city employees on tours of different neighborhoods. “We need to show people that there are still things in the city worth saving,” she said.
Redefining reparations to answer for ‘historic trauma’
Draus points to the present-day site of the former Berlin Wall, which has been transformed into a greenway, and areas along it into parks, as an example of “urban wildspace.”
“That led me to start thinking about what was happening in Detroit, looking at it through that lens of historical trauma that Detroit has been through, he said, “specifically in regards to race, racial segregation and exclusion.”
To him, the Joe Louis Greenway presents an opportunity to undo some of these “historical crimes,” Draus said.
Maxine Burkett, Co-Founder & Senior Advisor of The Institute for Climate and Peace in Hawai’i and professor of law, does work in “climate reparations.” Her work includes proposals for things like increasing healthcare access in marginalized communities to address the disproportionate health impacts they suffer due to climate change or creating safeguards to protect vulnerable communities against increased risks like severe heat events.
Terms like climate reparations and green reparations may seem like a stretch, but Burkett says this is because of our historical understanding of reparations.
“The challenge in the U.S. context is that we have a strong sense of reparations in the popular media. . .and a precise understanding of what reparations can do,” she said. “Usually, it is just about redistribution of money, specifically payouts. But that’s just one aspect of reparations.”
Burkett said environmental repair as a part of reparations isn’t new. Take the example of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and the over $5 billion the country had to pay to repair damages done like contaminating the groundwater through oil dumping and degrading the land through military construction. The Green New Deal also has aspects of reparations in it, she added.
It’s essential to give special attention to environmental reparations, Burkett said, as environmental harm impacts marginalized communities disproportionately, and environmental restoration efforts don’t always address these disparities.
If Detroit’s Joe Louis Greenway is to avoid the fate of the Atlanta BeltLine, it will need to be intentional, according to Draus. The design team, city parks and planning officials, the Detroit Land Bank and residents and community groups will have to work together and consider who gets control of adjacent properties.
“[The Joe Louis Greenway] is cutting through boundaries, connecting communities and could deliver benefits to the communities that have been most left out,” Draus said. “There are components of the green reparations framework at play. Whether or not it’s going to work out that way sort of remains to be seen.”
An ‘epic challenge’
The worst-case scenario, according to Draus, would be a green ring that could separate a gentrified central Detroit from the rest of Detroit,” he said. Currently, Detroit has one of the lowest gentrification rates of major U.S. cities. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not happening here — the city has many pockets where residents are getting pushed out due to rising rents.
Before the city took the lead on the greenway design and construction, the Detroit Greenways Coalition was responsible for the project. Todd Scott, executive director of the Detroit Greenways Coalition, said the city taking over the project has been a “great step forward” because of their increased capacity, access to resources and ability to collaborate with other entities.
“We were envisioning more or less a trail, and they see it as a development tool, a neighborhood revitalization tool,” he said.
Scott acknowledges that for many residents, a greenway isn’t their priority. One resident he worked with questioned why she should support the greenway when the city hadn’t responded to her requests to clean up her neighborhood.
“Well, you probably shouldn’t,” he told her. “You should demand that if the city wants to build a greenway, they first need to clean up the blight and get rid of the dumping.”
To Scott, it makes sense to do everything at once, and that’s why the city expanded the project’s scope to address the desires and needs of neighborhood residents.
At a recent city council meeting, residents expressed their interest in redeveloping businesses along Oakland Boulevard and Grand River. The city did not have a plan for the area, but the greenway goes right through there. Scott said it could catalyze the kind of development hoped for by residents.
The city’s goal for the Joe Louis Greenway reads: “to bring new possibilities of empowerment and equity-driven by you—to the neighborhoods that intersect with and surround it.”
As a resident, Long feels the city is putting this sentiment into action.
“They’ve had workshops all through the city so people can come in and see the process, give their ideas,” she said.
“It’s really kind of an epic challenge in a way, to make that project work,” Draus said, adding that the ultimate success of the project will hinge on the continued involvement and centering of residents’ voices and needs in the planning and design process.
It will also require a lot of money. The city has pledged $20 million for the first phase of the project, and the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation has committed part of a $40 million grant for trail construction.
“There are so many struggles going on right now, not just in Detroit, but in the country, and this is just another one,” Draus said. “But I think it’s connected — especially in terms of issues of structural inequality. A project like the Joe Louis Greenway can be a hopeful sort of vision for where we can go, not only in Detroit but in the whole country. If you can address this issue in Detroit, then you can address it anywhere.”
Residents interested in joining the Joe Louis Greenway Advisory Council can do so by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “advisory council” and their district, or to attend one of the design planning sessions.