Blog: Rebecca Salminen Witt

Detroit Green City? Now comes Rebecca Salminen Witt, president of The Greening of Detroit, to cover the fresh ideas and opportunities that support green infrastructure in Michigan's largest neck of the woods.

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.