The community brings new life to the back streets of Detroit

Lane cleaning in the western McNichols area. Pictured (left to right): Amina Mikula, UM-Dearborn Student, Robert Turner, Resident, Anne Peeples, Resident, Solomon Draus, UD Jesuit Student, Charles “Chuck” Rivers, Neighborhood Resident and President Association, Peyton Lynch, UM-Dearborn Student, and Jacques Jones, UM-Dearborn Student. Image Courtesy: Paul Draus

An alley on the northwest side of Detroit is being staged to power the lights through rainwater harvesting as part of a plan to make the more than 9,000 lanes more functional and sustainable from the city.

The trial facility project brought together community leaders with researchers and students at the University of Michigan to build on the city’s large-scale program to clean up lanes of debris and overgrowth. The lanes were, at one time, a network for residents’ garbage cans and utilities, but have not served a real function for many years.

After clearing these alleys, it is up to the neighborhood associations to maintain them.

The rainwater harvesting project led by Paul Draus, professor of sociology at UM-Dearborn, is exploring ways to connect these lanes to neighborhoods in a way that reflects local history, current needs, and multiple sustainability goals. .

The pilot project aims to produce a working model of a net zero lane that is also an oasis belonging to the neighborhood. It will include the design of a clean, off-grid energy source made from recycled materials. The work is designed to help decision makers by presenting the appropriate technology in context and serving as a model for other areas of the city.

Other members of the research team are: Korey Batey, president of the nonprofit Detroit Ain’t Violent It’s Safe; Jacob Napieralski, professor of geology at UM-Dearborn; Carlos Nielbock, president and founder of CAN Art Handworks; Christopher Pannier, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UM-Dearborn; and Charles Rivers, the president of the Neighborhood Association.

Draus met Batey in 2019 during a community session for the Joe Louis Greenway Project, a 27-mile path around town. He recalls being impressed by Batey, who spoke about the alleys in his community where he grew up and where his parents still lived, and turning them into passageways that can accommodate small businesses and connect them to what’s going on in the rest of town.

“A lot of these neighborhoods have been geographically and socially cut off for years, at least from what happens in places like downtown,” Draus said. “I was really interested in how he would talk about the alleys as these spaces of possibility.”

Draus has partnered with the Neighborhood Association, a well-established neighborhood west of the Lodge Freeway between Outer Drive and McNichols. She had already started improving the lanes with her own resources and was interested in doing raised gardening, composting and installing rain barrels.

“It’s about doing something with the community that is already going in this direction. We’re just adding a few more resources and a few more ideas and frameworks to think about it, so coming together in this community allows some of these things to happen, ”Draus said.

Some of Draus’ students worked with the neighborhood last fall and came up with ideas for alley plans based on conversations they had with residents. A grant will finance the installation of smart rain barrels.

These barrels will be networked with a solar wind hybrid micro-grid energy system to create a hydropower closed loop inside a lane to show that it can be done. The rain barrel installation will also include Detroit windmills manufactured by Carlos Nieblock to generate power to power the lights and smart rain barrels.

The team will take measurements of how much water is diverted and how much energy is created. This data could inform policy decisions by other communities considering sustainable uses of underutilized land.

“It brings this lane activation work together with green energy work in a very locally applied way,” Draus said. “The project is really led and piloted by community partners.

He is planning similar projects across the city, including one in the far east of Detroit.


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