Detroit says its new climate strategy will empower...

Detroit says its new climate strategy will empower residents. Activists have questions.

The plan will come with small grant funds to implement neighborhood-scale projects.

On the corner of Whittier Street and Greensboro Street, Sandra Turner-Handy of the Michigan Environmental Council gathered a group of volunteers from Camp Restore Detroit to help clean up the corridor. Credit: Rosa Maria Zamarron

Detroit is rethinking its climate strategy, this time leaving more power to its residents by providing them with tools and funding.

The Detroit Climate Strategy planning effort aims to produce a roadmap that will outline how the city will meet its “obligation to its residents to proactively prepare for climate impacts and create a more resilient Detroit.”

Anxiety from flooding, rising temperatures, and power outages in the summer months have Detroit’s residents wondering what the city will do to mitigate the effects of climate change and other environmental concerns. 

The plan effectively replaces the 2019 Sustainability Action Agenda, which identified goals and actions for a broad range of environmental and public health issues, including healthy housing, recycling, and green transportation.

According to Joel Howrani Heeres, the city’s sustainability director, the new plan is intended to function as a hybrid between a mitigation plan and adaptation strategy. Mitigation reduces the causes of climate change, while adaptation prepares residents for the effects.

Stormwater projects, tree planting, and neighborhood solar projects are a few possible measures for mitigation and adaptation. On a broader scale, cities like Chicago recently introduced a fleet of electric buses as a commitment to becoming a greener city.

Joel Howrani Heeres, the city’s sustainability director, in Midtown Detroit. Credit: Rosa Maria Zamarron

The plan will also provide implementation mini-grants directly to residents and a “climate resilience toolkit.” The toolkit will help implement community-led strategies in neighborhoods to reduce the vulnerability of residents to climate change, according to Howrani Heeres. Mini-grants will be awarded based on criteria informed by high-priority needs expressed by residents during the city’s engagement process.

“We want the strategy to be resident-centered,” Howrani Heeres said. “There’s a number of things residents can do to make impacts in their neighborhood, and to be able to empower them with some dollars to get those projects off the ground I think is really exciting.”

But some community advocates are skeptical. “The reality is that we already have the solutions; the solution should be coming from the community,” Jamesa Johnson-Greer, climate justice director at the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, told Planet Detroit.

Gloria Lowe, founder and executive director of a grassroots organization within her neighborhood called We Want Green, Too, focuses on getting residents “involved in designing protocols that are affordable for us to be able to upgrade our homes, and be able to dial back these enormous costs that we have in utilities here in Detroit.”

She noted current efforts her organization already has underway, such as raising funds for home repair and addressing energy poverty

In metro Detroit, 43% of Black households and 38% of Hispanic households are spending more than they can afford on their utilities, which prevents Detroiters from having the necessary funds to contribute to things like home repairs — another citywide issue.

A self-sufficient approach is “creating those programs, projects and relationships that embrace community and educate community about what we can do,” Lowe said. “Now, if the city wants to join with us in those efforts, it is fine. But we’re not going to put everything on hold waiting for them.”

Gloria Lowe, founder and executive director of We Want Green, Too, at the community office located on Pennsylvania Street in Detroit. Credit: Rosa Maria Zamarron

A resident-led advisory council 

Detroit Climate Equity Advisory Council will steer the planning process and help ensure accountability from local departments and government. The city’s Green Task Force, led by City Council member Scott Benson, took a lead role in forming and facilitating the advisory council.

Seven of the 13-member council were chosen through an application and stakeholder nomination process to represent zip codes most vulnerable to climate change. The areas have the highest number of residents over 65, the highest number of people beneath the poverty line, and the lowest tree canopy â€” which amplifies the effect of heatwaves. The council will meet throughout the planning process alongside city departments to communicate on behalf of their communities. 

“We wanted people that had expertise or experience in those specific challenges that many residents face in the city,” Howrani Heeres told Planet Detroit. “[The advisory council] is helping to hold [Detroit’s administration] accountable in terms of making sure that the actions and goals that we’re developing are resident-centered and rooted in racial equity.” 

Sandra Turner-Handy, a community engagement director for the Michigan Environmental Council, is looking forward to seeing the process place emphasis on Detroiters’ voices.

“You have to show that you value people, you value their concerns, and you’re going to work towards alleviating their concerns,” Turner-Handy told Planet Detroit.

This fall, Howrani Heeres’ office led a series of surveys and focus groups to garner input from residents across the city on what should be in the plan between now and the end of the year. The final initiative for feedback will end with town halls on Nov. 9Nov. 10, and Nov. 13

The planning process is assisted by a consulting team, including EcoWorks, NextEnergyData Driven DetroitGood Done DailyElevate Energy, and Center for Neighborhood Technology. Consulting fees for the project are fully covered by the Kresge Foundation, totaling $500,000. (The Kresge Foundation has also approved a grant to fund the fellowship program that produced this article. Funders do not have access to Planet Detroit’s or the Energy News Network’s editorial process.)

The planning process is expected to wrap up by the end of December. 

On the corner of Whittier Street and Greensboro Street, Sandra Turner-Handy of the Michigan Environmental Council gathered a group of volunteers from Camp Restore Detroit to help clean up the corridor. Credit: Rosa Maria Zamarron

Who is accountable?

Implementation of the plan will depend on the actions of many different city departments. Howrani Heeres convenes an interdepartmental workgroup composed of department staff monthly to discuss sustainability strategies and challenges.

“For each recommended action item, there will be a responsible department, funding resources, and metrics to track progress towards those actions,” Howrani Heeres said. The General Services Department’s effort since 2017 to plant 10,000 trees throughout the city with a measurable goal of 1,500 trees planted per season is a continued goal that Howrani Heeres says is focused on more vulnerable neighborhoods currently. “There are various layers of accountability: mayor, City Council, the climate equity advisory council, and the interdepartmental workgroup.”

According to Turner-Handy, the most effective way to hold elected officials and staff accountable is “protesting and putting it out there to the world.” 

Turner-Handy was deeply involved in the effort to shut down the Detroit Incinerator in 2019. She also advocated for the creation of the Office of Sustainability and contributed to the creation of the city’s Sustainability Agenda. 

Turner-Handy supports Howrani Heeres’ efforts and trusts that he’s leading the plan in the right direction. But she wants to make sure there’s a mechanism for accountability if actions aren’t as aligned with words. 

In the end, it comes down to money, according to Justin Schott, a consultant with EcoWorks who is helping manage the Detroit Climate Strategy. He said that one way to be accountable is to “bump [climate strategies] up the chain of capital priorities for the city.”

Federal funding is coming to Detroit; the city ranked fifth of large cities in terms of the amount of money it will receive from the American Rescue Plan Act. While ARPA funds will not directly fund climate resiliency planning, Howrani Heeres said he suspects that federal infrastructure funding will help fund some of the implementation actions recommended in the Climate Strategy.

Turner-Handy exhorts city residents to get involved in the planning process.

“The thing is, if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu, and we’ve been put on the menu too long, she said. “So we have to be at the table to know, but then we can go outside and counteract whatever is going on in the room.”

Residents can follow, find more information, and get involved with the planning process here.