Detroit’s hurtling roadways have sliced a metropolitan area encompassing 139 square miles - a patchwork mesh that’s undergoing a revival. Thanks to dozens of grassroots efforts, formerly neglected and blighted neighborhoods have emerged as successes since the city’s bankruptcy in July 2013. Urban farms, meadows and patches of woodland have emerged the Neighborhood Beautification Program (NBP), embracing stormwater principles, habitat restoration and the preservation of wild spaces as an intended part of a city design.
The Nolan district in District 3 on the east side of Detroit is home to a standout case study. Butted against the I-75, a main artery connecting the downtown Detroit to Michigan’s northern frontier, 29 parcels of land with Nolan have been cleaned up and pointed towards nature. A collaboration steered by non-profit Rescue MI Nature Now has involved university students, local residents and city youth in a clean-up effort that started in 2019. University of Michigan-Dearborn Dr. Paul Draus has helped frame the project within the broader concept of Urban Acupuncture, enhancing spaces by making small changes the catalyze systematic change.
Founded by Tharmond Ligon Jr. in 2019, the 501c(3) acquired the plots from Detroit Land Bank Authority. Outdoor plantings include 100 trees (23 donated by The Sterling Group) and flower gardens with Solidago (goldenrods) to providing food for honeybees. Industrial hoophouses open the prospect of year-round growing, with kale, cauliflower, beets, Swiss chard, radish, mustard greens and dill being grown and sold at both an on-site and nearby farmers markets. An alley on the east side of the plot has been cleared, and invasive species have buried according to traditional Hügelkultur techniques.
Beyond the pool of student volunteers, Rescue MI Nature now have trained and supervised youth from the City of Detroit and surrounding areas to help clean up and manage the gardens. Youth program GDYT helps to recruit paid youth from the city - 30 people have participated with eight committing to daily contributions. Team members are also taught how to sell the produce they grow at Eastern Market and the Palmer Park Farmers Market. Go Cutters Lawn Care (Facebook), a neighborhood business helps mow and maintain properties when youth go back to school.
Upcoming is the introduction of native hedgerows with red clover, horsemint, Japanese Spiraea japonica. A Black Willow sapling has been planted in a smaller plot, surrounded by yarrow beds. Funding of $14,990 from Neighborhood Beautification Grant will contribute to transform and beautify 4 vacant lots. Huntington Bancshares have contributed to the RMNN innovative educational studios which will feature a culinary and pollinator studio.
On November 2nd, Mayor Duggan and Council President Sheffield celebrated 34 recipients of 1st Neighborhood Beautification Program grants - ranging from $500 to $15,000 to support neighborhood clean-ups, community gardens, and public space activities. A total of almost $500,000 has been donated to groups across Detroit, representing all seven City Council districts. Youth participant Jacob Williams spoke at the event - Jacob has been participating on Derby Street since its inception, when he was just nine years old.
“We know that it can be hard for those who grow up in poverty to succeed without proper nutrition,” Ligon said. “I grew up on Derby, and moved back here in 2018, so I know the challenges in having access to healthy food. We’re also instilling in these youth skills they can use for the rest of their lives and will hopefully share with others and future generations. This grant will allow us to continue our beautification efforts, while educating Detroit youth and others about the quality-of-life benefits in their own neighborhoods.”
The national picture
NBP is part of the Neighborhood Improvement Fund (NIF), championed by Council President Sheffield as part of the development deal for the Detroit Pistons’ new headquarters and training facility in District 5. The initial funding for the program is $2.25 million over three years, which includes $1.25 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding and $1 million in NIF funding. NIF dollars are derived from the net income tax revenue collected from NBA players’ salaries during home games played at Little Caesars Arena and the salaries of Pistons and Palace Sports & Entertainment employees.
Detroit has a way to go. 25,000 side lots are vacant, with other abandoned plots used for illegal dumping (see Sea of Tires on YouTube). But the precedent on Derby Street demonstrates that spaces can be revived, maintained and converted into productive spaces - a yardstick for Detroit and other area metropolitan areas handling neglected patches and places.