Why Detroit's new Sustainability Action Agenda links climate action with quality of life

And why implementation will likely hinge on the Mayor's support

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by Brian Allnutt

The first thing Joel Howrani Heeres wants you to know about the new Detroit Sustainability Action Agenda is that it is not just a climate plan. 

"I felt it really wouldn't communicate as well if it was just focusing on climate,” Heeres, director of Detroit’s Office of Sustainability, says. “I wanted to focus on the full spectrum of challenges that Detroiters face.”

Heeres knows that immediate concerns like food and shelter trump worries over climate change for those who don't know where they are going to be sleeping that night or where their next meal is coming from. 

And yet, he points out that people with immediate challenges, and people of color, are among those the climate crisis will affect the most.  

The relationship between Detroiters' immediate needs and the threats they face from broader environmental hazards like pollution or climate change is the central organizing principle behind the sprawling document that clocks in at over a hundred pages.

The city's Office of Sustainability undertook the plan as part of an effort to make city operations more efficient by reducing energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions. But it did so within a framework that addresses quality-of-life issues like public transportation or housing, which also have significance for climate action. 

To bring people into the process, the city engaged with residents through town halls, “sustainability ambassadors” who helped explain wonky science and policy in everyday terms, and tools like a digital map that allowed for resident feedback.

The agenda proposes actions that would increase the quality of life for residents by adding more open space, reducing pollution, increasing housing affordability and energy efficiency, and installing green infrastructure to manage flooding. The city itself will be moving to reduce its own carbon emissions as required by its newly adopted greenhouse gas ordinance. These and other priorities are presented as 43 action items in the plan, grouped under four outcomes for “Healthy, Thriving People; Affordable, Quality Homes; Clean, Connected Neighborhoods; and an Equitable, Green City.”

Detroit’s plan is very specific to the city, dealing with issues like housing and safety that continue to make life difficult for residents. But it also fits into a larger pattern of cities taking on leadership when it comes to climate, in response to slow action by national governments and regressive policies such as the Trump administration’s decisions to back out of The Paris Agreement and roll back regulations at the Environmental Protection Agency. It also reflects the fact that as of 2007 a majority of the global population lives in cities which are also disproportionately affected by climate threats. 

It remains to be seen how the plan's deliberate linkage between quality of life and climate action will affect buy-in by residents and implementation by elected officials. But one reason for making the connection between climate action and quality of life is the way these factors can interact in times of crisis, according to Carolyn Loh, an associate professor of urban planning at Wayne State.

Loh points to findings in Eric Klinenberg’s book Heatwave on the Chicago heat event that killed 739 people in 1995. She notes that outcomes varied significantly by neighborhood quality-of-life factors, even when they contained people in similar socio-economic groups. 

“The neighborhoods that had a decent commercial corridor, that were a bit denser, people fared better in those neighborhoods because they felt safe coming out of their houses, going into a store, getting into the air conditioning,” Loh says. "But the neighborhoods that had a lot of crime and…just not any kind of like social fabric left. Those were the neighborhoods where people died at a much higher rate.” 

Sparsely populated and unwalkable areas in Detroit could produce a similarly disastrous outcome in the face of a heat or flooding crisis, Loh points out. 

According to Detroiter Sandra Turner-Handy, who works with the Michigan Environmental Council and helped develop the plan as Co-chair of the Sustainability Action Agenda Commission, framing the issue of sustainability around quality of life is also important for outreach.

“When we talk sustainability, a lot of residents don't understand what you mean by that,” Handy says. “But once we put it into an everyday context, they can begin to understand.” 

She uses housing as an example. Someone might not be worried about energy policy as it impacts global climate change, but they are concerned about paying both their rent and their heating bill in the winter. So goals such as reducing the total costs of housing and utilities that are included in the plan would help people deal with these problems while also stabilizing neighborhoods, minimizing the impacts of heatwaves and polar vortices, and reducing emissions.  

Although Handy is in “full support of the plan”, she does worry that it doesn’t include a heat preparedness plan or a flood plan, especially in light of this year’s heatwave and the ongoing flooding in the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood.  Heeres says that these will be forthcoming in the next few years as part of a broader “hazards management plan” under the aegis of the city’s Department of Homeland Security. 

“A lot of cities are taking this approach where, rather than creating a freestanding vulnerability and climate adaptation plan, what they're seeking to do is integrate that work into existing city policies and procedures,” Heeres says. He believes this makes it more likely that recommendations will be adopted and not just “sit on a shelf”.

Loh says that a sense of urgency is needed to create action on these issues, something she says happened in Chicago after the 1995 heatwave and led to the creation of that city’s sustainability office and sustainability plan. Both she and Handy hope that Detroit doesn’t need a similar disaster to get movement behind these issues. Loh also cautions that a lot depends on the Detroit Office of Sustainability’s power and the mayor’s investment in the outcomes. 

It's too early to know what to make of Detroit’s Mayor Duggan's record on the environment. On the one hand, he created the Office of Sustainability and has committed to upholding the Paris Agreement. But as Allie Gross notes in the Detroit Free Press, he also pushed through the Fiat Chrysler Jefferson North plant expansion in “an opaque and rushed process” that appears poised to increase pollution in an already polluted part of the city. Clearly, business and jobs are paramount.

So how actionable is Detroit's Sustainability Action Agenda?

“In a strong mayor city (like Detroit), the mayor's agenda is the city's agenda,” Loh says. “I think that's your answer: How much does the mayor care?”

One hopeful sign is that the plan sets out the departments responsible for each action item, as well as their partners in implementation from other offices, philanthropy or the private sector. The plan also details timelines for carrying actions out and indicates the sources of funding currently available to implement the actions. 

However, Heeres says “there are no specific enforcement mechanisms for these goals aside from current/future ordinances.” He points to the recently adopted greenhouse gas ordinance as an example of the sort of legislation that could add “more teeth” to actions outlined in the agenda.

Loh believes that outlining action items and those responsible for them is not only an important aspect of a serious plan but also a way for citizens to hold power to account. Because she says, implementation of the agenda and prioritization of its different actions will depend, ultimately, on resident (and voter) engagement. 

As Handy says, “If we don’t have resident buy-in, the plan will fail.”