After months without, Detroit has a new sustainability director to lead environmental efforts across the city.
This week, Mayor Mike Duggan announced the appointment of Jack Akinlosotu as the city’s new Director of the Office of Sustainability.
The office was created in 2017 to guide the city’s work to “create healthy, green, vibrant, accessible neighborhoods where all Detroiters can contribute and benefit,” including initiatives like transitioning to clean energy and transforming the city’s fleet of cars to electric vehicles.
Akinlosotu comes from Washington D.C. with a decade of experience in cities across the United States doing climate change work in the private and public sectors, holding past positions at the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment and the New York Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, under Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“There is a great deal of opportunity in Detroit to be more creative in developing lasting sustainability,” Akinlosotu said in a press release. “The sustainability programs we need will be a transformative leap for Detroit, including the deployment of renewable energy options that make sure people that have limited incomes have equitable access and opportunity. We are here to make sure no one is left out.”
But during a Monday budget hearing for the mayor’s office when the appointment was discussed, Council Member Scott Benson raised concerns about a lack of funding and staff support for Akinlosotu, and how the city’s Office of Sustainability is structured.
“We want to make sure that we’re going to fund this properly and ensure that the new director has the support that they need,” said Benson, adding that he doesn’t want the job “to be seen or become the punishment of Sisyphus.”
Sisyphus is a Greek mythology character who was made to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity, and everytime he was near the top of the hill, the boulder rolled back down.
This is the first year that the sustainability director is reporting directly to the mayor’s office, specifically to Trisha Stein, who holds the newly created position of Chief Strategy Officer. Before, the office was under the General Services Department.
During Monday’s meeting Benson asked how much funding the office has, but Stein said it was not quantifiable because the work is spread out across departments. Stein said the office was structured this way on purpose.
“There has to be a champion, there has to be FTEs [full time employees] within all departments that are focused on sustainability,” Stein said. “This has to cut across operations and not just be in a single department and a single focus of a unit.”
Benson, who has championed recycling and other environmental causes in the city, disagrees.
“It would be good to have something that’s a little more concrete that we’re able to express to the community and to the residents, when they ask about what we’re doing,” he said.
With climate change, Detroit is expected to see more instances of severe flooding and potentially fatal extreme heat, as well as changes in the city’s land and water ecosystems, and a more noticeable impact of greenhouse gasses in the air, like worsened allergies and asthma.
More than 70% of people across 17 countries are concerned that climate change will harm them personally at some point in their life, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey. But much less are confident that sufficient action is being taken to address the crisis.
Benson said he wants an office with separate funding and at least one or two support staff members dedicated to sustainability work, citing cities like Seattle, Minneapolis, and San Francisco with similar offices.
“They all have very robust offices of sustainability with independent departments with independent budgets,” he said.
Detroit’s Office of Sustainability is young. It was first led by Joel Howrani Heeres from 2017 to 2022.
In 2019, the city created a road map to addressing climate change and increasing resiliency. The same year, the sustainability office crafted an ordinance requiring the city to cut its greenhouse gas emissions into the future. In February, Stein declined to say whether the city was on track to meet its first benchmark next year of reducing emissions by 35%, compared to 2012 levels.
Benson said he understands Detroit had to start somewhere with sustainability but wants something more concrete moving forward because it seems “ethereal.”
Detroit Documenters contributed to this report.
Detroit can’t even get the basic recycling program to work. So, in your opinion, will this “position” do anything more than give people the illusion that the city and mayor will actually do something positive about the local environment and sustainability?
When can I apply for a job with this department?
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