Engaging Detroit Communities through Reforestation across Six Different Site Types: A Project of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

Research Issue

[photo:] Homes in Detroit's Delray neighborhood.

This project is made possible through support from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
Like many cities in the Rust Belt, Detroit has experienced both industrial and economic decline in recent decades. Although many of the manufacturing facilities that once occupied city land no longer exist, their environmental legacies remain. The development that occurred to support past factory expansion produced expansive impervious cover, often resulting in high runoff volumes during storm events. These heightened stormwater flows often inundate city stormwater infrastructure while simultaneously threatening quality of life for area residents and water quality in the Detroit River, itself a major tributary of Lake Erie. Additional impacts of the industrial era are evident in local soils, with elevated contamination levels observed in areas in which factories were once present.

We know that trees and forests can help improve water, soil, and air quality and slow stormwater runoff, in addition to a host of other benefits.  We also know that engaging in environmental stewardship can help communities prepare for, respond to, and recover from disturbance; can be a catalyst for revitalization; and can improve social cohesion and sense of place. In particular, the Delray neighborhood in southwest Detroit overlaps with the most polluted zipcode in Michigan, with related public health threats so severe that limitations to residential development are strictly enforced in the neighborhood.

Our Research

In 1930, Delray had approximately 24,000 residents; now the number hovers near 2,000 and the neighborhood is often described as a “ghost town” of abandonment and decay.  To effectively remediate stormwater runoff through urban forestry in such a context requires an approach that moves beyond a “one size fits all” approach (e.g. street or yard tree planting).  Researchers and practitioners are realizing that different site types, particularly one like Delray and other post-industrial communities, may require different approaches to planting, restoration, and management; new approaches can yield outcomes that are more cost effective and resilient.

Specifically, this project aims to increase canopy cover, reduce stormwater volumes, and reduce soil contaminant levels in Delray by planting and maintaining trees at six distinct site types (e.g., Neighborhood Tree Canopy, Vegetative Buffers, Land-based Venture, Parks and Greenways, Commercial Corridor Plantings; and Low Population Density Areas).  Site preparation and forestry practices related to afforestation, reforestation, restoration, and/or succession may use techniques borrowed from rural silviculture yet customized for urban and post-industrial contexts, to generate more efficient, cost effective, and resilient methods. 

This project leverages pre-existing partnerships and ongoing planting work in Detroit to prototype a type-specific approach to urban forestry that can be replicated and scaled across post-industrial cities in the Great Lakes Region to maximize acres planted and gallons of stormwater diverted.  In addition, this collaboration will add to a rapidly developing body of knowledge about how to effectively and efficiently improve quality of life, climate resilience, and environmental justice in vulnerable communities, from both a social and ecological perspective.

Expected Outcomes

This project will help to increase canopy cover in Delray, reduce stormwater volumes, and reduce soil contaminant levels at our selected planting sites. The project builds on the rich history of community engagement in Delray by collaborating with neighborhood groups, e.g., Ser Metro, Southwest Community Benefits Coalition, Southwest Detroit Benefits Coalition, Greening of Detroit in identifying and maintaining planting/study sites; selecting successional species for planting after the initial research period; sustaining long-term neighborhood tree cover; and promoting environmental education, advocacy, and workforce development for residential stakeholders. 

Research Participants

Principal Investigator

  • Asia Dowtin, Michigan State University, Assistant Professor, Urban Forestry
  • Rich Hallett, USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station, Research Forester
  • Max Piana, USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station, Research Ecologist
  • Nancy Falxa Sonti, USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station, Research Ecologist
  • Ron Zalesny, USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station, Research Plant Geneticist

Research Partners

  • Eric Candela, American Forests, Senior Manager Community ReLeaf
  • Lisa Perez, Region 9, USDA Forest Service Detroit Urban Connections Team Lead
  • Last modified: November 10, 2022