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.
2.    University of Michigan. (2015) ENVIRONMENTAL HISTORY IN DETROIT.
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).
6.    University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. (2011). Building Affordable Housing in Cities after Abandonment.
8.    Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice. (2016)

[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]

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