As climate change worsens, Detroit needs a plan, experts say

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Donele Wilkins, known as Detroit’s mother of environmental justice, and other practitioners, say the city needs a climate action plan that supports residents' basic needs. (BridgeDetroit photo by Valaurian Waller)

Detroit is facing many environmental challenges — air pollution, water quality, flooding and more. The accelerating pace of climate change only threatens to worsen the impacts of these issues. Here’s what some of Detroit’s environmental advocates and practitioners have on their wish lists to secure the city’s future and improve the quality of life for all Detroiters. 

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Basic needs and quality of life

“Basic human needs for clean air, clean water, (and) safe spaces to live” are at the top of Donele Wilkins’ wish list for Detroit. Wilkins, a veteran of the environmental movement who some refer to as “the mother of environmental justice in Detroit,” is the founder of the Green Door Initiative. Detroiters, Wilkins said, are “struggling for a quality of life that every human being should experience.” 

Investments in Detroiters’ basic needs should be distributed equitably, Wilkins said. Rather than resources going primarily to newer residents in “higher-value” areas, investments should focus on longtime residents, who may not be as mobile. Prioritizing longtime Detroiters’ basic needs, including easy access to “healthy, quality food,” would show “respect for the people to make environmental quality a priority,” she said. 

Nick Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, echoes Wilkins’ emphasis on basic needs. Leonard said affordable access to key utilities —  “drinking water, electric and gas service, and air-conditioning” should be a priority. 


“These services must be affordable for all residents to establish a baseline of health for Detroit’s population,” said Leonard. 

Climate adaptation

Within the context of the climate crisis, it becomes even more imperative to secure utility services, baseline health and basic needs for Detroiters. For example, as temperatures rise, utilities like air-conditioning, Leonard noted, will become more essential as basic needs for survival. In no uncertain terms, “Detroit must do more to plan for climate change adaptation,” he said.

Though Detroit has already passed an ordinance that is intended to limit greenhouse gas emissions, recent events like extreme temperatures and flooding show that Detroiters, especially longtime and elderly residents, remain at risk from a variety of immediate climate impacts. “Climate action,” according to Leonard, “will require fundamental shifts as to how Detroit currently functions.” 

Infrastructure, investments and green jobs 

Many of these fundamental shifts will need to happen in the infrastructure sector. “Sewage, electrical and transportation infrastructure” will all be “severely strained by climate change,” said Leonard. Investing in infrastructure will promote the “basic needs” that Wilkins and Leonard prioritize.

Water infrastructure is of particular importance, said Nicole Brown, senior program manager at Detroit Future City

Brown wants Detroit to make better use of technology and “ensure water quality and the safety and health of our water system for our residents.” 

Policymakers and private sector must work together 

Erma Leaphart, organizer with the Sierra Club, said that state, city and regional policymakers must develop a shared vision on water resources, pollution and infrastructure issues.

“What I want for Detroit and southeast Michigan is to work together and say, ‘What are the big projects we need to do, wherever they are, that protect water quality, and prevent CSOs, and flooding, and basement backups?’ We can do projects in Detroit, but if the flow is coming from north of Eight Mile, there’s more we need to do as a region.” 

Leaphart also hopes, along with other local water advocates, for a Detroit River Watershed Management Plan, similar to the one that exists for the Rouge River Watershed. A management plan encourages regional collaboration around issues such as pollution, soil runoff and combined sewer overflows that impact Detroit’s East Side.  

Brown believes that these infrastructure improvements are impossible without smart “physical, as well as human capital, investments.” Both Brown and Wilkins also said the private sector and the public sector must work together to invest in Detroit’s infrastructure and communities.

Wilkins identifies the Justice40 Initiative, which President Joe Biden established within his first weeks in office, as one promising opportunity for public sector investments. The initiative pledges to deliver “at least 40 percent of the overall benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities.” 

For Detroit, Wilkins said she wants this to be “true investment that reaches people on the front lines.” The same communities repeatedly remain vulnerable to climate impacts, she said. 

”The people who are going to be left hanging (in the future) are the same people who were left hanging in 2014 (following Detroit’s historic flood),” said Wilkins. Targeted investments can help mitigate some of this inequity and protect those communities that are currently vulnerable.

Workforce development, particularly in respect to green jobs, is another high-impact investment opportunity that both Brown and Wilkins identified. Brown hopes Detroit can “increase economic mobility into jobs that are really going to be on the frontlines of the future,” and Wilkins says there is “great potential in the green economy to bring people up and out of poverty.” Involving affected Detroiters in the workforce with respect to infrastructure updates and climate adaptation projects has the potential to benefit communities on multiple levels.  

Community must come first

Investing in these communities, which are often on the front lines of climate change, is urgent and necessary at all levels, advocates agree. Collaboration across sectors will enable Detroiters to successfully fight against adverse environmental impacts in the coming years. 

“How are we equipping and enabling residents to really be a part of this (climate adaptation) process in ways that fit with their lifestyle?”  asked Brown, who recommends investing in existing community programs. 

These groups know from firsthand experience, Brown said, what their communities need. Detroit’s environmental advocates also underscore that the city is home to vibrant communities, many of which are home to  longtime residents. 

Leonard would like residents and advocates to focus on City Council and how City policy is developed. 

Detroit must pass ordinances,” he said, “that engrain health impact and environmental impact considerations into city decision making processes regarding new residential, commercial and industrial developments.” 

Surabhi Balachander is a PhD candidate in English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she studies race, environment and rural America. She is working with BridgeDetroit this summer as part of the Detroit River Story Lab, an interdisciplinary program that seeks to research and amplify narratives of the Detroit River. 

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