Climate change and urban renewal

In Detroit, getting ready for changing weather patterns has prompted a creative new way to use the city’s vacant lots left from demolished homes. This segment is part of  Peril and Promise, our ongoing series of reports on the human impact of, and solutions for, climate change. Lead funding is provided by P. Roy Vagelos and Diana T. Vagelos. Major support is provided by The Marc Haas Foundation and Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III.


Flooding and severe storms are one of the biggest worries for municipalities throughout the U.S. as they prepare for the effects of climate change.

In Detroit, getting ready for changing weather patterns has prompted a creative, new way to use the city's vacant lots left from demolished homes.

This segment is part of an ongoing public-media reporting initiative called 'Peril and Promise,' telling the human stories and solutions of climate change.

Across the country, cities are tasked with managing rainwater that falls on impenetrable surfaces -- a problem that's getting worse due to the effects of climate change.

The Clean Water Act mandates that municipalities keep runoff clean and manage overflows.

In older cities in the Great Lakes Basin, like Detroit, this is a serious challenge.

The strength of the storms is definitely different.

What that means is that there's more precipitation falling in a shorter amount of time.

In August of 2014, a storm dropped 5 1/2 inches of rainfall on Detroit, and the sewers discharged 10 billion gallons of overflows into local rivers and streams, as well as the basements of Detroiters.

My basement, a couple years ago, had like 8 inches of standing water in it after one particular storm.

I saw some pretty -- I'm talking about critical situations where people done work hard, where they property just got damaged during the floods.

Over the last 20 years, Detroiters invested over $1 billion to mitigate 95% of overflow.

To account for the last 5%, the city turned to green infrastructure.

The Urban Waterfront compared with the River State Park, each of them shown in phases.

Joan Nassauer, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Michigan, thought up a unique solution.

A bioretention garden is a form of green infrastructure.

Each of the bioretention gardens can hold up to 300,000 gallons of water.

Detroit had a very large number of vacant properties that I could hardly get my mind around.

It was so clear to me that there was enormous potential for managing stormwater if these vacant properties in Detroit could be used in the right way.

We said, 'What would happen if we filled those basement excavations, as part of demolition, with a highly porous material?

Researchers chose Northwest Detroit to host the bioretention gardens.

The minute I found out what its purpose was, I was all in.

I mean, there is nothing more important than making sure that families are safe, because there's a lot of bacteria that got into everybody's basements.

We were one of those people that had 3 foot of sewage in our basement.

There's health decisions to be made around stormwater management, in terms of the spread of infectious disease.

And so public health kind of gets left off sometimes.

In 2015, we completed our first survey around the sites, about 800 square feet.

They asked us how would we feel about a garden getting put across the street, and we told them it would be a lovely idea, because it was just naked.

They gave the field life.

Since we put the garden in, we actually have children that play out there now, riding their bikes.

We have people walking by the garden now.

People are getting back out into the community.

They're not tied in their house anymore, with their blinds pulled.

They're actually opening their blinds and enjoying life again.

And we want neighborhoods in Detroit to be beautiful places to live.

But there's another reason that's more of a tactic for sustainability as it relates to water quality.

If you pair an ecological benefit, like being able to hold stormwater, with beauty on the surface, then the ecological benefit is more likely to be sustained over time.

In addition to the bioretention gardens, the city of Detroit is investing in a multitude of green-infrastructure projects.

We know that climate change is already happening.

Since 1951 to 2015, we've seen a 4.5% increase in total annual precipitation across the state of Michigan.

When you're maybe economically insecure, and your basement floods several times a year, that can be a really stressful situation, and so this green infrastructure might be one strategy to take the burden off of residents who are experiencing that.