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Leon Kaye headshot

10 Sustainable Business Trends Underway in Detroit (Photo Tour)

By Leon Kaye

Since TriplePundit spent a few days in Detroit for the Auto Show earlier this month, I thought I would share some of the positive trends that are underway in the Motor City. It is easy to focus on Detroit’s negatives: the derelict buildings; the crime and grit; and a dysfunctional city government that maintains an infrastructure supporting two million people when its population is now just over 700,000. But, out of crisis comes opportunity for those who want to retrofit an incredible home, enjoy Michigan’s natural beauty and Midwestern grace and hospitality.

To that end, let me share some developments pointing to why I believe Detroit’s transformation is turning the city into an exciting sustainability laboratory:

Urban Farming: We have covered urban farming in Detroit in the past, and the movement is still growing. The local planning commission also approved a new urban farming ordinance last month, which will recognize the scores of farms and orchards that have sprouted across the city. Meanwhile a local entrepreneur who has been deeply involved in the movement, John Hantz, has pledged to purchase over 140 acres, clear out the debris and plant 15,000 trees.

Food Deserts are Blooming: One of Detroit’s must-sees is Eastern Market, a public market that boasts Michigan’s bounty throughout the year. This market has been around for decades, but business has boomed since Dan Carmody took the helm a few years ago. Eastern Market’s growth is important because finding fresh food can be difficult for Detroit’s citizens; and even though some drugstores try to fill the gap with milk and fresh fruit, the pickings are slim and most of the produce is packaged and imported from afar. Carmody is working on developing a network of food hubs throughout the city as well as a community supported agriculture (CSA) program to bring food to residents instead of them having to take a long bus ride or taxi to suburban supermarkets.

Public schools going green. As 3p editor Andrea Newell points out, Detroit’s public school system is attempting to “go green.” So far the results are mixed, but the beleaguered school system is making gains in six areas of impact: energy and water; waste and recycling; transportation; the outdoor environment; the indoor settings; and nutrition.

Automakers getting a clue. Hopefully, some of those Detroit public school students will end up having meaningful careers at one of the Big Three automakers. Ford is making strides from having a climate scientist and futurist on the payroll to ramping up its electric vehicle offerings such as the Ford C-MAX Energy plug-in hybrid. Meanwhile, GM has made progress on meeting solar energy targets, has a booming recycling business and even goes so far as to compost . . . coffee grounds. Now even trucks are going plug-in! At last week’s North American International Auto Show, some of Ford’s speakers talked about how the Detroit infrastructure could become the Silicon Valley of transportation. Let’s hold them to their word.

Green building: With all the brownfields in Detroit, the jump on LEED points is an easy one to make. The local U.S. Green Building Council (USGSB) chapter in Detroit is an active one--buildings from those on Wayne State’s campus to the first LEED certified project, Lithuanian Hall, are emerging as some of the Motor City’s staunchest advocates are determined to groom Detroit as a 21st century sustainability laboratory.

Renewable energy: Did you know over 140 buildings in downtown Detroit are heated by district energy? Detroit’s huge cogeneration system, fueled by 3300 tons of municipal solid waste, is now expanding midtown to the Wayne State University campus. Detroit Thermal’s system is more efficient than each individual building having its own boilers and furnaces.

Bicycling: It may seem odd to talk about bicycling in a city that is the birthplace of the automobile, but Detroit is a great place to explore on two wheels. The symptoms of the city’s economic decline: empty roads and reemerging woodlands add to the city’s bike paths. Earlier this month, a local advocacy group organized a bike-a-thon to raise money for a local nonprofit bike shop. The Hub of Detroit and Back Alley Bikes are among the businesses working to turn Detroit’s residents and visitors onto bicycling.

Green jobs: Just a few miles from downtown Detroit near the city’s museum district is Tech Town, one key towards transforming southeastern Michigan into a 21st century greener economy. Housed partly within a 1920s Chevrolet factory, dozens of startups, including those in the clean energy sector, is a buzzing hub of entrepreneurship.

Bio-fueled public transport? Detroit’s public works, including its bus system, is a basket case, but some are attempting to fill the void. The Detroit Bus Company is attempting a privately-run approach and is currently seeking residents to fill out surveys on potential routes. A bus loop connecting Hamtramck, a thriving town surrounded entirely by the Motor City, and downtown Detroit is set to launch soon.

Hope for Michigan Central Station: Once a glorious transit center, this Beaux-Arts beauty has been derelict since the last trains rolled out in the 1980s. Matty Maroun, the building’s current owner, as well as the trans-border bridge that links Detroit to neighboring Windsor, Ontario, has caught plenty of heat over the years for leaving it empty--though in fairness there is huge risk in retrofitting the building into a facility no one will visit. Anyone can send a suggestion, however, to talktothestation.com. We applaud one tiny step, however: the Maroun family spent some coin illuminating the station over the holiday season.

Take our photo tour to see what Detroit offers and its future potential.

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This is Leon Kaye's 750th article on Triple Pundit. Based in Fresno, California, he is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable BrandsInhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost). He will explore children’s health issues in India next month with the International Reporting Project.

[Image credits: Leon Kaye]

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye