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Beyond Greenways: Green Communities and Sustainability in Southeast Michigan

How trails and greenways contribute to sustainable cities and neighborhoods in the Detroit area.

By Tom Woiwode, Director, GreenWays Initiative
Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan

Map of MichiganIntroduction

In 1987, the Bruntland Commission, more formally the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, convened to explore the impact of development around the world, and coined what has become the most common definition of sustainable development: "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." The United Nations 2005 World Summit Outcome Document refers to the "interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars" of sustainable development as economic development, social development and environmental protection. It involves the simultaneous pursuit of economic prosperity, environmental quality and social equity.

photo of bikes on trail

The Macomb Trail is part of southeast Michigan's system of greenways

Environmental sustainability is the ability of the environment to continue to function properly. Inherently, the concept of sustainable development is intertwined with the concept of carrying capacity.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, green communities are sustainable communities, communities that integrate a healthy environment, a vibrant economy and a high quality of life. They strive to use resources in a way that doesn’t compromise the natural environment, promote diverse, locally owned businesses, encourage economic equity, actively engage citizens from all sectors of the community, create and maintain safe, clean neighborhoods, and develop transportation systems that provide and accommodate broad public access.

The Issue

This spring, gas reached $4 per gallon. The cost of cement has doubled in the past 18 months. Because of ongoing problems with air quality and cost, the city of Detroit cancelled its waste incinerator contract, yet does not have a city-supported recycling program. Material from construction sites is clogging local landfills. New York financial institutions are refusing to underwrite new coal-fired power plant construction because of the financial and environmental costs, while energy costs are expected to increase dramatically.

photo of trail bridge

Greenways help develop a more vibrant economy and sense of community

Commodity prices, including food, are setting new highs daily. A number of communities in Michigan have had to ship in bottled water because their principal water source has become either contaminated or, as in Atlanta, has virtually disappeared. Huge segments of the landscape, especially in urban areas, are unavailable for future use because of contamination of the soil or water.

We have created a disposable society. And we simply cannot sustain a society that is so dismissive of our natural and human capital.

Communities are finding ways to respond. A decade ago, New Yorkers, faced with the prospect of underwriting the $10 billion cost of a new water treatment plant, opted instead to spend $2 billion to purchase land along the Hudson River, thus providing the natural cleansing that water needs, and eliminating the need for the water treatment plant. Chicago and Boston "fast-track" development proposals that include significant sustainability components, including open space set-asides, energy efficiency and green construction materials; and housing built with those amenities are commanding a premium over the more traditional housing stock.

photo of a trail along river channel

Re-use of abandoned railroad corridors is one strategy for linking communities

Houston and Denver found that their new light rail systems exceeded ridership estimates at virtually every station they opened system-wide; they’ve now both accelerated the development of a more expansive light rail system. Approximately 15 percent of the population of Portland, Oregon commutes to work using non-motorized transportation, including biking and walking. Denver has built its greenways system of around 600 miles using in significant part water management district maintenance roads, thus doubling the benefit of the built infrastructure.

Closer to home, the redevelopment of the Ford Rouge plant included the construction of a green roof which, with the included skylights and energy efficient lighting, is estimated to save Ford Motor Company as much as $50 million. As a part of that redevelopment project, Dearborn and Wayne County rebuilt Miller Road, including in the median swales and natural plantings that clean the water flowing from the site; and Ford included a pervious pavement parking lot, which allows water to flow naturally through the pavement and into the groundwater, thus cleansing the water as it enters the Rouge River. And Rochester Hills just completed a 4.5 mile greenway using recycled road materials, which saved them two-thirds the cost of trail construction.

The Opportunity

Communities around the country are finding that more ecologically sound planning and development efforts are paying dividends. Those that are integrating the combination of social, economic and environmental components of their communities are developing a more vibrant economy and sense of community, and a more engaged populous. Cities such as Grand Rapids, with its Green Grand Rapids plan; Ann Arbor, with its greenbelt and transportation strategy; and Traverse City, working on community development that honors its most valuable resource, the Grand Traverse Bay, are finding increasing success with such sustainability strategies.

photo of bikes on trail


In southeast Michigan, and even in cities like Detroit, projects that contribute to greener communities are finding wide acceptance and strong support. The new greenway that connects the commercial district of West Dearborn with the University of Michigan-Dearborn and Henry Ford Community College has been embraced enthusiastically by faculty and staff, many of whom now bike or walk to the school. The urban farming program in Detroit is one of the most active and engaged in the country. And the redevelopment of the Detroit riverfront has transformed the way people think about the city.

Since 2001, the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan has been investing in greenways. Through the GreenWays Initiative, the Community Foundation and its funding partners, public and private, have invested over $100 million in greenways design, planning and construction. This investment has begun the development of what will become a linked system of non-motorized transportation opportunities that connect the entire region.

Over the course of the years, in addition to the grants program, the GreenWays Initiative hosted a series of educational programs about the benefits of greenways. They included conversations about the greenways themselves, such as design, construction, wayfinding and branding. They also included discussions about how the greenways would affect the community, including programs on the economic benefits of greenways, healthy lifestyles and community outreach. Those programs introduced the conversation about what constitutes healthy, vibrant communities—green communities.

In order to understand what is being discussed, one must first understand what green communities are. In addition to the definitions and examples offered above, the following are components that also contribute to green communities:

Well Designed and Built — a sense of place; user-friendly public spaces, with facilities for all, including children and older adults; sufficient range, diversity and affordability of housing; appropriate scale, design and layout of developments that complement the local character of the community; high quality construction using sustainable construction materials; buildings and public spaces that promote health and are designed to make people feel safe; accessibility to jobs, services and facilities.

Environmentally Sensitive — actively seek to minimize impact to the environment and encourage the use of renewable resources; minimize waste and dispose of it in accordance with good practice; make efficient use of natural resources, encouraging sustainable production and consumption; protect biodiversity; create cleaner, greener and safer neighborhoods that encourage more active lifestyles and maintaining pleasant public spaces.

Active, Inclusive and Safe — a sense of community identity and belonging; friendly, cooperative behavior in neighborhoods; opportunities for a variety of community activities, including leisure, sports and culture; tolerance and respect for people from different cultures, backgrounds and beliefs; a feeling of safety with visible, effective and community-friendly policing; social inclusion with opportunities for all.

Well Run — representative governance which encourages visionary leadership, strategic partnership and active participation by the public; effective engagement at the community level; strong, informed partnerships that lead by example.

Well Connected — transportation facilities, including public transportation, that helps people travel within and between communities ; facilities to encourage safe walking and biking and healthy lifestyles; good access to regional, state, national and international communications networks.

Well Served — public, private community and volunteer services that are appropriate to people’s needs and accessible to all; a strong business community with links into the wider economy; economically viable and attractive town centers; a good range of services (retail, fresh food, commercial, etc.) which are accessible to the whole community.

Fair for Everyone — recognize individuals' rights and responsibilities; respect the rights of others, both individuals and communities, to be sustainable; respect the needs of future generations in current decisions and actions.

The Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan is pursuing opportunities to help communities develop and implement strategies that will make them more sustainable. It encourages consideration of the building stock, transportation systems, water and air quality, community connections, and community design. The GreenWays Initiative focused on creating pedestrian opportunities in the community. Future infrastructure investments will expand on what the GreenWays Initiative started, and explore all aspects of community design and infrastructure.

It is the hope of the Community Foundation that those projects will highlight the potential for what can be done in southeast Michigan, and will be used as educational tools for other communities to learn from as they pursue more sustainable agendas. It is our way of supporting green communities.

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