Blog: Rebecca Salminen Witt

Since 1996, Rebecca Salminen Witt has served as the president of The Greening of Detroit, a non-profit organization devoted to promoting planting, environmental education and environmental advocacy in the city of Detroit. In that time she has orchestrated the growth of the organization from a staff of three with an annual budget of $235,000 to a 24-person, $3.5 million-per-year operation, planting 5,000 trees, educating nearly 10,000 children, and raising over 160 tons of food annually.  

As president of The Greening of Detroit, Rebecca develops and oversees the implementation of all current and prospective programming, supervises staff, ensures the fiscal integrity of the organization through budgeting and development work, and serves as the primary advocate and spokesperson for the organization. Prior to accepting her current position, Rebecca practiced law in the city of Detroit, working in the areas of corporate transactions, employment law, and environmental law. Earlier in her career she worked as a summer ranger for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.  

Rebecca serves as the president of the Michigan Urban & Community Forestry Council. She is also on the board of directors for City Year Detroit, a national youth service organization devoted to developing idealism in today's youth, and sits on the advisory committee of The Detroit Studio, an urban design studio devoted to service learning projects for architectural and urban design students at Lawrence Technological University.  Recently, Rebecca was elected president of the board of directors of the Communities Committee, a national 501(c)(3) organization devoted to advancing U.S. national policy on urban and community forestry.

Rebecca Salminen Witt - Most Recent Posts:

Post 3: Raising a Ruckus Around Local Food

Of all of the possibilities presented by Detroit's acres of open space, the possibilities for urban agriculture have certainly attracted the most attention.  Everyone from genius types to political heavy weights, and from millionaires to middle-schoolers, seems to have weighed in on the idea of growing food in Detroit's vacant spaces.  Will Allen has supported the idea, Jesse Jackson spoke out against it, Mayor Bing seems to be approaching the idea cautiously.  Meanwhile, more than 16,000 Detroiters have quietly made it a way of life.  

Last year, one in fifty Detroiters participated in the gardening movement.  In back yards and vacant lots all over the city over 160 tons of food was produced for Detroit tables.  The Greening of Detroit is asked all of the time what it would take to bring Detroit's gardening effort to a scale where it could really make a difference.  Our answer is that Detroit has what it takes already, and what we have now is not merely a beneficial pastime or happy hobby.  This is a movement that is making a real and substantial difference right now.  

Nine years ago the Detroit Agriculture Network, Earthworks Urban Farm, Michigan State University, and The Greening of Detroit formed the Garden Resource Program Collaborative to support Detroit's gardeners and to begin to create a change in Detroit's broken food system.  Gas stations and convenience stores were the most common venues for grocery shopping in Detroit and school children couldn't tell you where a tomato came from.  The Garden Resource Program Collaborative created an innovative model that combined resources, education and connection to support gardeners and create a ladder of success that encourages interested individuals to move from self sufficient family gardener to supportive community gardener to entrepreneurial market gardener.  The program, now entering its ninth year, has been spectacularly successful.  Last year it supported 1,234 gardens which cultivated around 300 acres of land for food production.  Eighty growers brought their food to local farmers markets under the Grown in Detroit label.  Local restaurants in every quadrant of the city served produce purchased from Detroit farmers.  

Estimates are that Detroit has at least 5,000 acres of soil suitable for growing food and if only 2,000 of those acres were farmed, we could provide Detroiters with over 70% of their daily vegetable requirements.  So, the question becomes one of scale and impediments.  Is there a scale at which food production can occur in Detroit that will allow us to feed our citizens without destroying the communities which embrace the industry?  Can we remove the institutional impediments to success that still exist?  Our answer is yes, and yes.  

As for scale, Detroit neighborhoods have already embraced hundreds of gardens ranging from ¼ of an acre to 3 acres in size.  These gardens are frequently the places where community is grown right along with collards and carrots.  At the smaller end of the scale, families feed themselves and their friends.  At the larger end of the scale, whole neighborhoods eat and individuals can achieve self sufficiency by selling their produce to commercial and institutional customers.  With hundreds of gardens like these we have seen a healthier community materialize.  With thousands, we will see a healthy industry fully emerge.

Post 2: New Growth Foresting of Detroit

Driving through Detroit's east side one day a couple of years ago, I started thinking about the forest that was once the dominant feature of this region.  I looked at the fields surrounding me, and wondered how close we were to the early stages of a naturally recurring forest.  Trees had begun to grow out of fence lines and foundations and an understory was starting to take shape.  Mounds of illegally dumped trash had been covered by dirt and plants and now provided a new topography to a formerly flat residential neighborhood.  I felt like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz; it sure didn't look like I was in Detroit any more.

Forest succession is the natural process by which unique plant communities replace each other until they mature into a stable ecosystem.  If we left it alone for 100 years or so, the process of forest succession would eventually create a hardwood forest in Detroit's fields.  Each stage of succession creates the conditions necessary for the next stage.  As I drove along, I noticed succession communities in some areas of Detroit that were indicative of third- and fourth-stage succession.  Pines had begun to show up, mixed in with young hardwoods – this stage of succession doesn't usually occur for 20-30 years.  Suddenly it struck me that if we wanted one, we could have a new forest here in Detroit.  Sure, the Pacific Northwest has its old growth forests, and they are spectacular.  But what city in America has a new growth forest?  Wouldn't that be spectacular too?

The work that forests do naturally could be a huge benefit to a city like Detroit, which is faced with plenty of environmental challenges.   Forests naturally clean ground water, soil and air, all of which are contaminated in different degrees throughout a city.  They also intercept rain water, preventing erosion in a natural environment and preventing sewers from overflowing in an urban environment.  In Detroit, where the urban environment is directly adjacent to a river which impacts the largest source of fresh water in North America, preventing sewers from overflowing is a big deal.  It is such a big deal, in fact, that the Environmental Protection Agency has required Detroit to fix its combined sewer overflow problem so that we stop dumping raw sewerage into the Detroit River every time the snow melts or we get a big rain storm.  There are plenty of expensive, heavily engineered ways to contain storm water, but forward thinking cities across America have begun to use less expensive green alternatives. Just as The Greening of Detroit began to think about the possibility of creating a new growth forest in Detroit's fields, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department joined their forward thinking counterparts in other cities and started thinking green about Detroit's combined sewer overflow problem.  The stage had been set for something spectacular.

We started with a discussion of green infrastructure for storm water mitigation and what that might look like in Detroit.  The discussions progressed and became planning sessions and before any of us knew it a really exciting new partnership had emerged.  Suddenly, those new growth forests that I imagined were looking a lot less imaginary!  The City is required to drastically reduce its combined sewer overflows (CSO) in the Rouge River area, and it must find a way to achieve this reduction economically.  Green Infrastructure, including trees, is one way to meet that challenge.  The Greening, with 20 years of volunteer-driven tree planting experience under its belt, created a plan for implementing an extensive tree planting program designed to maximize storm water benefits.  We proposed this plan to the Erb Family Foundation and to the US Forest Service, and received $1.5 million in grants to implement an extensive pilot program.  

The pilot has launched with a study of Detroit's existing tree canopy – this study will ensure that we have the data we need to plant trees in the areas where they will provide the most benefit to the Detroit River Watershed and the Rouge River CSO area.  In the spring, we will plant the first of those trees.  We will plant them along sidewalks in lovely straight lines so that some day they will over-arch the streets in the way that we all remember.  We will also plant them randomly in plots that will look like – and work like – miniature forests, cleaning the soil and the air while intercepting storm water before it ever reaches the storm sewers.  

Our new growth forests will be planted by volunteers.  Our plans call for us to plant twice as many trees this spring as ever before.  We need an army of volunteers to get it done.  I'm hoping that each of you will bring a car load of friends to help us plant trees one day this spring.  Justin and Jim are the Greening guys who are arranging it all, just call them up for the chance to help plant Detroit's new growth forests.

Post 1: People and Possibilities

People and possibilities.  In a couple of words, these are Detroit's biggest assets.  I've been a part of the city for the past 23 years, first as a student and a young lawyer, and for the last fifteen years as the leader of The Greening of Detroit.  There has never been a time when Detroit has had more people interested in what's going on here.  Sure, we've attracted more than our share of negative press, but people are interested.  That means that while they read the bad stories about us, they keep coming back to look for the good ones, too.

Journalists and film makers show up on The Greening's doorstep all of the time… they want to show the world another view of what is happening here, and they want to help the world share in the process of imagining what could happen next.  It's not a coincidence that they end up here; there is simply nowhere else in the world with as many possibilities as we have right now. 

So what will we make of ourselves?  The Greening of Detroit's work takes us, literally, into far greener pastures.  A lot of thought is going in to how we might re-think our city with these green spaces as a centerpiece.  A year ago, Community Development Advocates of Detroit rolled out its Strategic Framework, which outlines 15 different land-use scenarios that could coexist within the city of Detroit.  Six months later, Mayor Bing kicked off his Detroit Works project, garnering truckloads of additional input from Detroiters who care about their neighborhoods.  These efforts follow several other neighborhood-based planning efforts spearheaded by the likes of the Skillman Foundation, Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), and the Next Detroit Neighborhood Initiative.  Central to all of these efforts is recognition that the sheer amount of vacant space in Detroit (estimates range from 30 to 40 square miles) means that green space will most certainly play an important role in Detroit's future. 

Our green space has the potential to transform Detroit into a city like no other.  Picture a city that is transformed from a food desert into a city that feeds all of its people with food grown within its borders.  We have the space for that.  Picture a city with a landscape that works to clean its water and its air, without the expense of giant waste treatment plants.  We have the space for that, too.  Picture a city with well supported, fully occupied neighborhoods linked together by greenways and trails that encourage activity and connectivity.  We have the space.  Picture a city where green space is available to artists and entrepreneurs who use it to make something new.  There is plenty of space for that.  The possibilities are endless and we have the people to make it happen.

Over the next few posts I'll introduce you to some of the possibilities that The Greening of Detroit is exploring and the people who are working to make it all happen.  We'll take a look at new growth forests as a prescription for clean water and pure air.  We'll look at urban agriculture as a luscious answer to Detroit's food desert.  Finally, we'll check out some innovative business ideas and the growing green workforce already out in front of our seedling of a green economy.   A lot of great ideas are coming out of Detroit; you won't believe what's possible!

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