Detroit environmental group creates green spaces through urban acupunctureQ&A with Brodrick Wilks: Nonprofit Journal Project

Rescue MI Nature Now is a nonprofit organization developing ways to create green spaces in Detroit and providing nature-based educational programs. They also place bee hives in their green spaces to spread awareness of the pollinator's importance to our environment. Urban acupuncture is a project collaboration with the University of Michigan to redesign neighborhood alleyways to increase resilience, social equity and biodiversity. Brodrick Wilks is the program director and treasurer for the organization.

What is urban acupuncture?

Urban acupuncture is an approach to urban design that involves making small-scale community-driven interventions in specific areas of the city. These interventions we often refer to as the “pinpricks” that are associated with [human] acupuncture. They aim to address various social, ecological and economic challenges in urban environments.

The concept is based on the idea that by making carefully crafted, localized changes, the overall resilience and vitality of the city can be improved. It’s addressing a more systemic issue by focusing on smaller applications.

What kind of areas could benefit from urban acupuncture?

Those that are facing community challenges. This could look like neglect, underutilization, an abundance of blight and environmental issues. With that, vacant lots, abandoned spaces, neglected alleyways and just areas with limited green spaces become the prime candidates for urban acupuncture. These areas could be transformed into vibrant community assets through targeted interventions.

With a big city like Detroit, how do you find areas to re-energize?

It’s a lot of networking and collaboration. Typically, we find these spaces through community engagement and research. We partner with local community-based groups all over the city. These organizations have a pulse on the entire community and provide access to information, history and different things we need to know about the revitalization process.
Partnerships with organizations in the neighborhood, like Crossroads, have been pivotal in expanding our mission across the northeastern Detroit area.

The residents in communities also have valuable insights.

How are some of these areas brought back to life?

Through a variety of different interventions or applications. These can take various forms and shapes. Some that have worked in the past included creating community gardens and planting native vegetation. Installing solar lights for safety is often one we see as a concern when we enter a community. We like to incorporate art and murals and interactive ideas or concepts in these spaces. The changes not only improve the physical environment but also give us a chance to really engage with communities.

The first project we worked on was alley activation. Alley activation is a concept within urban acupuncture to transform the narrative that’s typically associated with alleyways, like small and narrow or scary. What we actually see is that the alleyway is just an underutilized space, and we can use it in various different ways. Like art, murals or community engagement spaces. We even have kitchen gardens. What’s special about the alleyways is that every neighborhood looks different based on its composition of houses. Our main headquarters site is not very dense with housing populations, so we have a better opportunity to transform the land and make it more open and engaging versus other neighborhoods where it's the exact opposite.

That’s where we create an inclusive design that all the residents would like to participate in, like kitchen gardens or having a local chef come by and teach in those spaces. We can also add sensory play fields for children.

Beyond the environmental impact, why is it important to have green spaces in a city environment?

It’s the environmental impacts that acupuncture brings, but it’s also good for community engagement, relaxation, recreation and gatherings. We also found that one of the areas that we work on is enhancing mental health and well-being inside of local community settings. In green spaces, there are tons of studies that show that green spaces are great for mental health and wellbeing but also promote physical health, especially after COVID-19, trying to get everyone outdoors to engage in outdoor spaces.

Because we suffer from something in urban communities known as the urban heat island effect, these green spaces allow for more cooling centers to prevent the negative associations with that. Overall, they just provide a deeper connection with nature and improve the quality of life for residents.

As more areas of Detroit become greener, how will this impact the community?

As the green spaces become more prevalent in Detroit, it gives greater access to residents to experience nature, which has historically not been the case. Just from a personal level, what we’ve experienced here at our local rescue nature site is that people are using the spaces more. We’re seeing them filled with families. The youth from the neighborhood are walking in our spaces. Incorporating green spaces into communities gives a stronger sense of pride for community members.

What are some of the future plans for Rescue MI Nature Now?

Right now we’re pursuing another grant with Design Core Detroit to create a rescue squad or an acupuncture toolkit. The idea behind these concepts is to be able to take the resources, the right people and the right tools and be able to identify what they are and what roles they play in urban acupuncture to transform communities and install interventions. We will be able to package it all up in a deliverable form so we can share it with the other communities around Detroit.

Our goal is to spread the framework of urban acupuncture of just doing a very little bit to affect the overall big picture and spread that philosophy across Detroit.

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change, and more are affecting their work and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.
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