24 jul. 2016

The impact of economic growth on Detroit environmental sustainability.

Detroit has been documented as a city where urban planning failures, economic activities shifting, migration and population decay have shaped the city present and future. This post aims to evaluate from a different perspective the side effects that these forces have impacted on city environmental sustainability. Several research on Detroit sustainability matters, raise the issue that the city has faced several environmental injustice[1] episodes along its history. Socioeconomic analysis, define that migration flows and economic activities have shaped the city reality nowadays and that Detroit has passed four relevant historical periods. Hence, these periods will be evaluated under a framework of environmental sustainability and city economic growth.

The first period occurred before the 1800`s; where native Americans gathered and lived near the Detroit river before the french and other european settlers came to southeast Michigan. The land was occupied by Natives in consonance with nature and they were important collaborators with the first European settlers as they provided the newcomers with information about the land and the fauna in Detroit; putting in manifesto the richness of the land in this area in terms of natural resources. [2]

The second period corresponds to the european settlements in the 18th century, where they started to develop farming practices, becoming the state’s primary economic activity by building ribbon farms in Native American territory along the River. More immigrants began to settle, and Detroit was moving into a new phase as an industrial center. [2] The city grew significantly and the riverfront and farmland was transformed to a modern city with a rapid influx of new industries and workers. Low-cost housing took place around the factories so workers could walk to their jobs.  These changing demographics caused significant cultural shifts on the local level, and situated Detroit as a beautiful place filled with potential for growth. These changes in the economic activity, brought within, the automotive and other industries to the city; an with them, wealth, jobs and a high demand of natural resources such as energy, water and land. [2]

The third period, called by urbanists the “the Great Migration” occurred from the year 1920-1945. During the 1920s, industry representatives from northern cities, including Detroit, traveled to the south to recruit black people to work at their factories. An estimated one million black southerners to find better jobs between 1910-1930. [3] White people in the north resented the black people moving up north because they competed with them for jobs. The population of Detroit, along with other northeastern industrial cities, multiplied during the Great Migration as people came to work in automobile industry jobs. In this is process, racist official housing policies confined the newcomers to segregated neighborhoods, such as Black Bottom and Paradise Valley in Detroit. [3] The city began to grow and with it, more waste, air and water emissions were generated. The consumption of scarce resources such as water and energy also raised to meet industry and citizens demand also grew.  City was forced to build new infrastructure such as roads, sanitation systems, sewage treatment facilities, etc. Heavy road infrastructure was build to support heavy trucks and freights movement in the industrial city neighbourhoods.

The fourth period in Detroit, named the “Declining population” epoch from 1950 and 2000; was a tough challenge for the city. As Detroit’s residents gained more skills and more incomes, they moved out of the inner city and into the more peaceful surrounding suburbs. Population dropped by 1950, and after World War II, this trend went worse and more families with car, moved out of industrial areas. [2] Roads were making the city more accessible from the surrounding neighborhoods. Pollution was becoming a consideration and the proximity to factories was no longer necessary. New workers from the south, from Mexico, and from Puerto Rico took the place of these families in the mixed-use land neighborhoods. Anyway, this flux did not compensate the rush of white citizens to the suburbs. In this period, in the 50s, Detroit saw many businesses close their doors as the population changed; factories closed, and of course jobs disappeared.  The expansion of expressways across the city destroyed hundreds of homes, generating noise, heavy traffic and air pollution. The growth of new polluting industries such as the wastewater treatment plant in Delray, also forced people to move. The ones that could leave did but people who could not, stayed. [4]

Over the half-century beginning in the 1950s, Detroit has lost nearly half of its population, most of them white citizens. Detroit has been ranked among the 10 most segregated cities in USA, since the mid-20th century. [2] Persistent residential segregation made it difficult for black citizens of Detroit, move into the suburbs, aggravating discrepancies in living standards, poverty levels and environmental pollution exposure. The famous race riots of July, 1967, were a response to the ongoing problems of housing and an affection in urban environmental quality faced by african american residents. All the economic decline in the 1970s resulted in a variety of issues: crime, race relations, migration and the changing demographics of the city. [4]

This four periods, suggest that the city has faced a heavy environmental abuse compounded by the failure to adapt to a changing economic landscape. With a population of more than 700,000 people, Detroit is now the largest U.S. municipality with risks of bankrupcity and holds several of the most polluted zipcodes in the country [2] The city economic realities and events reflect environmental neglecting and have made the city unsafe.  In addition, the rapid decline in population since its heyday in the mid 20th Century, resulted also into some 78,000 vacant structures that are occupying space, generating pollution and waste until today. [4]

The city has done several efforts to improve environmental quality of the city and generate wealth to its citizens. An important movement to recover the importance of natural resources in the city occurred in 1974, when Detroit’s first African-American mayor, Coleman Young, announced his “Farm A Lot” program, the latest in a long line of citywide gardening programs that employed agriculture as a means to clean up the city, help struggling Detroiters help themselves, and reactivate abandoned land.  Young envisioned this program as a tool to enhance the land to a degree that would attract people to buy the land and therefore increase landownership in Detroit.  Although the program was not a 100% success, “Farm-A-Lot” has established a legacy for helping communities help themselves. It has become a symbolic program that leverages the importance of urban agriculture in the history of cities and of empowerment of disadvantaged populations. [2]

The construction and expansion of the waste water treatment plant in Delray, in the year 1980 has also marked Detroit environmental agenda. Delray is not just a neighborhood of the city, but rather an example of environmental injustice and inefficient land use policies, lax regulations, poor zoning laws, and narrow-minded decision makers. [3] The Delray community is situated by a major expressway, a waste treatment facility, an industrial hub (directly upwind), and abandoned industrial lots. In 2010, Delray was named most polluted zip code in Michigan. Now the US Environmental Protection Agency is working to reduce the environmental effects of odors and water pollution in this district and others across the city [1]. The story of Delray is one of investment versus divestment. The current residents struggle to either leave the neighborhood or to improve their conditions by renovating their homes and yards. But on the other hand, industries generate environmental infractions and the city does not provide basic services to help clean the community or make sure that it is safe.  [3]

Policies of the city related to abandoned building demolition have also impacted city environmental quality. According to local NGOs, they have not taken into account the cost and management of the resulting waste and debris of the process. Responsible bodies, have not been taken to landfill, leaving piles of waste material scattered around Detroit. There is even a website that an interactive map of these sites, detailing where there are materials to be salvaged, and the types of material at each site. [5] Where many see a symptom of decline and regression, in a circular economy perspective, demolition has to been seen as a resource, which rather than being a wasteful way to remove the homes of people long gone, could be a way to benefit the lives of those still living in Detroit. Waste can be recycled and used for other purposes. [6]

Another major environmental challenge that the Municipality of Detroit is facing, is the air pollution problems associated to the presence of the Marathon Oil Refinery in Southwest Detroit which, which is part of the Refineries and heavy industries surrounding Wayne County. All these facilities are being evaluated as major contributors to the air pollution crisis in the city; generating emissions to the atmosphere that in some locations exceed environmental norms; and especially in neighborhoods were black and hispanic people leave. Population is increasingly demanding environmental justice from these activities. [7]

For decades, residents from the City of Detroit and especially nearby downriver neighborhoods have been affected by a number of heavy industrial operations in their communities. Although the city recently adopted an ambitious sustainability strategy, it is challenging to save and clean the city from decades of ecological insanity. This of course, impacts city economic development as the municipality has to invest resources in the control and manage of pollution across the city. In addition, citizens can not work if they are sick or being affected by air, water or soil pollution. 

Municipality should start working on assessing the real impacts of economic growth and decay of Detroit also on environmental and health costs. The internalization of these costs must be crucial when designing new urban and economic policies to promote city sustainability.


1.    Environmental Protection Agency. 2016. https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice
2.    University of Michigan. (2015) ENVIRONMENTAL HISTORY IN DETROIT. https://detroitenvironment.lsa.umich.edu
4.    Danielle Trauth-Jurman. (2014) Bowling Green State University. The Story of Delray: A Case Study on Environmental and Restorative Justice in Detroit.
5.    The Sustainable Initiatives Deconstructing Detroit (2013). http://www.archdaily.com/419865/the-sustainable-initiatives-deconstructing-detroit
6.    University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. (2011). Building Affordable Housing in Cities after Abandonment. http://closup.umich.edu/files/closup-wp-31-deng-affordable-housing-detroit.pdf
8.    Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice. (2016) https://dwej.org

[1] Environmental justice is “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” [1]

24 may. 2016

The history of Urban Ecology in cities

Ecological and environmental management principles in the urban planning context seems to be a revolutionary concept and non intuitive at all. The good news is that these notions have been in the urban agenda for decades. Nowadays cities face serious environmental challenges such as climate change; air, water and soil pollution; loss of biodiversity, among others. They also face a reduction of supply of natural resources such as water and energy, due to increasing urbanization patters. In this sense and looking forward to the future, is important to understand how environmental concepts have been included in city planning and development for the last 40 years.

It was the year 1969, when Ian L.McHarg published his book Design with Nature, introducing for first time the relationship between landscape architecture, urbanism and ecology. He described several challenges in this relationship. First, the absence of any knowledge between environment and planning, secondly a lack of integration within the proper environmental sciences (geology, meteorologists, hydrologists, ecologists, biologists, etc) and finally several deficiencies attempting to address the problem of human adaptation in cities. All efforts were separated and isolated and the book made a contribution to try to overcome them. For first time the concept of a method by which environmental data could be incorporated into the planning process in cities was introduced.

In addition to this, Design with Nature was one of the books that supported the inclusion of maps development and overlapping in the process of the environmental impact assessment for any project development. This book was written in a moment where environmental hazards and problems were not clear to the human eye. No information was available on disasters such as Bhopal, Love Canal, Etzon Valdez, nor evidence on climate change, ocean level rise or ozone depletion, was offered.  In this sense, this book constituted a milestone in the inclusion of environmental criteria in the urban and national planning processes.  After 20 years, the author Mc.Harg did a review of his book and he stated that “a dream in 1969, it is in 1991 a practical possibility”. I believe he was right. Nowadays, almost all the development of any project require an environmental impact assessment, and most of cities consider ecological and environmental aspects in their planning processes.

The book introduced principles of Urban Ecology and concepts as preservation, management, landscape, culture, tradition, innovation, theory and practice. It showed the example of New York and Staten Island as a failure in terms of the lack of inclusion of these principles the city future design. Natural resources and landscape features such as mountains, forests and the ocean, were removed from the city scenario during urban planning processes. Their inclusion in the city master plan would have been crucial for city sustainability nowadays. The opportunity was lost and what it would have been splendid if these features would still be part of the city. The author notes with melancholy this loss, and how urbanization and human occupation have changed the city landscape and natural processes.

Design for nature, also includes an analysis of the relationship between social values, land and natural processes and establishes several examples in this matter. A flat land with good surface and soil drainage can be suitable for intensive recreation or commercial-industrial development activities. Areas of diverse topography can be suitable for passive recreation and/or residential development.  L. McHarg, introduces a method to evaluate how land use can be defined and can be affected by several factors like; geology, tidal inundation, water-table, forests extensions, air pollution, slopes, drainage, erosion, etc.  This method includes an evaluation of more than 30 factors that could have influence in five (5) types of land use: Residential Development, Commercial-Industrial Development, Conservation, Passive Recreation and Active Recreation.

This analysis gives insights of the suitability of different areas for particular activities and also highlights the importance of this evaluation for city planning.  The method is supported by coloured thematic maps of the aspects evaluated and the influence on land use.   In addition, the method could give a guide for the the identification of areas that can be suitable for different land uses at the same time. Although this can be seen as a challenge or an opportunity, this will depend on the city and the type of land uses, culture and social aspects of the city.

To complement this method approach, Michael Hough in his book City form and Natural Processes, goes beyond the concept of Design with Nature, and introduces the term urban ecology as a basis for city design. Within this principle, two aspects should be covered. The first one related to the need of an environmental view for urban design and secondly the recognition that environmental problems have their origin in cities, and consequently solutions must be sought in them. He also mentions that there are two landscapes that co-exist in cities. The first one, related to the “pedigree” landscape of beautiful parks and planned gardens and places for people to meet or mainly for civic purposes. The second, the natural landscapes of not that beautiful places, which may be forgotten places of the city. For example, places flooded after rain or abandoned industrial places in the city.  In this sense, Hough suggests to develop urban planning activities merging both landscapes, including environmental thinking and promoting social cohesion.

The use of urban spaces should reflect the attitudes and values of people in relation to the places they live in. But some cities have been also influenced by external factors such as rapid urbanization and industrialization. Others instead have kept their landscape and original character. In all of them social interactions take place: business, parks, markets, small stores, walking places, etc.  All these activities affect the landscape and are sometimes are disconnected to the countryside realm and vice versa.  In the city, the natural services are not seen nor valued creating a disconnection between the city and the countryside.  For example, the user does not know the water source that is providing potable water through the tap. This disconnection can be restored with the design process that includes the concept of urbanism and ecology, introduced by Hough.

The design principles in urban ecology by Hough, can be applicable nowadays. Initially, this design should have an understanding that urban landscapes are not static.  Secondly that the nature of landscape design should include man as its most important aspect.  It differs in concept from conservationist view of cities –where nature is first- and it suggests that change in landscape can be constructive and improve citizens’ quality of life.  Another principle is economy of needs, introducing the concept of efficiency and resource optimization. Municipalities expend a lot of money in infrastructure and works for the city, so this must be used efficiently. In addition, the design should also promote diversity in all it senses, including physical, biological and human aspects.  In a city there must be diverse places to meet citizens needs.  Another principle introduced by Hough refers to environmental education on natural systems and cities especially to children and on a community level. The final principle in this process of Urban Design, includes human development and enhancement of the environment.  This consideration aims to make clear that any activity causes a disruption on the environment and should be taken into account for planning purposes.

This concept of urban ecology has been used in different cities of the world. In 2006, Konjiaan Yu, introduced the concept of the relationship between landscape architecture and its environmental implications. He stated that landscape have been commercialized in a “industrialized, motorized globally connected society” but it can  be the basis to promote landscape design projects in harmony with nature, and with people in mind. This design should also have “spirits in mind”, connecting land and people as individuals.  Landscape architecture may also play a significant role in dealing with big environmental and survival issues. For example, floods, draughts, soil erosion, water management, the protection of biodiversity and cultural heritage, urbanization and land resources management. 

Urban Ecology and Landscape Architecture principles, have been fostering city planning with a long term vision in the last decades. They have anticipated in some extent urban environmental challenges and have identified relationships that simple urban planning has not been able to realize. They were aimed to promote environmental and socially healthier cities but still there is long path to go. 

The contributions of Ian L. McHarg, Michael Hough and Konjiaan Yu, reflect how throughout the last four decades, the inclusion of environmental aspects have shaped urban planning strategies silently and with restricted success. Now, we know that environmental sciences must support urban design processes in cities, as now they face serious natural resources constraints (i.e water or energy) and high pollution levels. Urban Planning can not be seen as an isolated subject anymore and with the only responsibility of architects and urban planners. Other professionals, especially environmental experts must take part of city sustainability planning initiatives worldwide.

23 may. 2016

Uso de datos climáticos para toma de decisiones

Actualmente hay mucha discusión sobre la necesidad global de datos específicos y acceso libre a distintos tipos de información. En la era del “open data”, los altos índices de penetración de internet en el mundo,y la evolución de sistemas de sensorización,  debemos estar seguros de que existe información sobre monitoreo del clima y parámetros ambientales que puede ser usada con muy buenos propósitos.

Existe una extensa cantidad de datos abiertos de temas ambientales y del clima dispersos en la red o en repositorios de información, que están esperando ser utilizados. En este post reflexiono sobre la importancia de tener información climática para una mejor toma de decisiones. Ésta puede usarse para sistemas de alerta temprana, planificación para respuesta a emergencias o simple conocimiento de los ciudadanos.

Uno de los mayores grupos de información de carácter ambiental en el mundo es el proveniente de sistemas de monitorización meteorológica. Actualmente, estos datos y números están concentrados en el Servicio de Información del Clima Mundial (World Weather Information Service). Toda la información aquí contenida se encuentra disponible en la web y es usada generalmente por gobiernos y entes relacionados, en lugar de ser usada por la gente normal o las autoridades locales (municipios, ayuntamientos, cabildos, etc.). Parte de esta información es recogida generalmente para predicciones de clima por entes locales, empresas de tecnología o medios de comunicación.

Sin embargo, la Organización Metereológica Mundial (WMO) comenta que aun se requieren muchas más predicciones y modelos de datos climáticos históricos. Aún existe un fuerte vacío entre lo que es posible comunicar en temas de cambio climático y lo que está pasando. Según el WMO, hace falta un conjunto de servicios para gestión climática basados en registros históricos de datos para lugares específicos; resúmenes estadísticos de los patrones de temperatura; medias a largo plazo o mapas, o análisis de riesgos de condiciones extremas. Menciona que hay varios sectores de la economía que necesitan información sobre el cambio climático para poder tomar mejores decisiones: agricultura, electricidad, construcción, infraestructura, petróleo y gas, minería, turismo, automoción, químicas, financieras, sanidad; entre otros. La información está ahí, pero no está llegando al usuario final. Asimismo, las ciudades también requieren información para tomar mejores decisiones en caso de alertas climáticas o desastres naturales. Además, los ciudadanos necesitan acceder a esta información fácilmente para decidir o planificar lo que se debe hacer si viene lluvia extrema, huracanes o tornados. 

El que ahora podamos saber casi con exactitud si va a llover es porque existen modelos que pueden predecirlo, que se han construido con información meteorológica gratuita.

En su página web, la WMO, pone a disposición de los ciudadanos varios grupos de datos 
a través de su iniciativa Data Exchange & Technology Transfer.

Ahora nos preguntamos, ¿se pueden utilizar estos datos para modelar otros problemas ambientales? ¿Necesitamos expertos en ciencias de los datos para usarlos eficientemente?. Yo creo que si. Problemas como la contaminación del aire requieren nuevos modelos de gestión y previsión. El modelamiento de datos climáticos con medidas de concentraciones de contaminantes en la atmósfera, podría convertirse en la nueva herramienta de gestión de calidad del aire en la ciudad.

Este tema lo exploraremos en un nuevo post.