The City of Detroit’s Office of Sustainability was established in 2017, with a mission to create healthy, green, vibrant, accessible neighborhoods where all Detroiters can contribute and benefit through (1) collaboration between city departments and agencies, (2) engagement and partnership among the city, citizens and relevant organizations, and (3) process and policy improvement.
The Office of Sustainability launched Detroit’s first strategic plan for sustainability, called the Sustainability Action Agenda, in 2019. It was developed to create a more sustainable Detroit where all Detroiters thrive and prosper in an equitable, green city; have access to affordable, quality homes; live in clean, connected neighborhoods; and work together to steward resources and build on decades of progress made by organizations across the city.
Now that two years have passed, the city wants to share progress made with residents and community stakeholders. This is where I came in: In my summer fellowship, I worked on two main projects, focused on measuring and sharing progress on the city’s sustainability goals and creating repeatable processes for the future. This included creating a two-year progress update for the Sustainability Action Agenda, which will serve as the foundation for regular sustainability reports going forward, and launching a public Sustainability Dashboard based on performance metrics from the Sustainability Action Agenda.
Here are some lessons learned in the process.
Defining what sustainability means to each community is crucial. Every community has different lived experiences, landscapes and exposure to natural disasters, and levels of resources. During my internship, I was fascinated to learn about the engagement process that the Office of Sustainability underwent before developing the Sustainability Action Agenda. “Sustainability” in Detroit—a community that is about 80% Black and about 8% Latinx, with 35% of residents living below the federal poverty line and a population that is less than half of what it was at its height—will not look the same as it does in Seattle, San Francisco or Denver. The city recognized this difference and led a yearlong community engagement process to define what sustainability could mean in Detroit, holding town halls, hiring residents as sustainability ambassadors and engaging with residents online. This generated quite a broad definition of sustainability, including many environmental justice topics with a focus on people, homes and neighborhoods before broad, city-level climate goals. In my work, it was important to think about what was important to residents as I developed the progress update and reviewed comparable reports from other cities. As sustainability initiatives become more common, every community will need to determine what sustainability means for them to best serve their community.
How sustainability is framed is important. In a city with many other challenges, sustainability is not the top priority. However, I am curious to see how this changes in the coming years, as climate-related weather events become more frequent and severe. An example is the extreme flooding in Detroit in June, when thousands of residents’ homes flooded, and 154.2 million gallons of sanitary sewer overflows and 5.3 billion gallons of combined sewer overflows went into waterways, according to a Detroit Free Press investigation. Sustainability is often seen as a luxury, but sustainable initiatives such as green stormwater infrastructure that can help manage stormwater may become necessities. In a city where resources can be scarce, the additional up-front cost or maintenance required for sustainable infrastructure and initiatives can deter decision-makers from investing, but I believe this will change.
Processes need to be replicable. As a recovering management consultant, I cannot help but focus on documentation and making processes replicable for future parties. The initial Sustainability Action Agenda contains clearly defined goals and metrics, but measuring progress and repeating calculations for key performance indicators is challenging without comprehensive documentation and tools. This is an area where I enjoyed bringing my expertise, with the hope that these updates will be more streamlined in the future.
This internship provided the opportunity to explore a career with local government and to build relationships with people I hope to collaborate with in my future career.
I am thankful for the financial support of the School for Environment and Sustainability, the Erb Institute, the SEAS Marshall Weinberg Internship Funding, and the Ross Business+Impact Initiative for making my internship feasible, the supervisory support of Joel Howrani Heeres and the many collaborators at the City of Detroit.