Sustainability Clinic in Detroit to help combat impacts of climate change

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The School for Environment and Sustainability has launched the SEAS Sustainability Clinic, which aims to help the city of Detroit and nonprofits serving it address the impacts of climate change on the natural and built environment, human health and city finances, while working to enhance sustainability policy and action.

The clinic builds upon SEAS’ mission to have a real-world impact for people, communities and businesses. It is made possible through support from The Kresge Foundation, which has committed $1 million in funding over the next three years.

“We are thrilled to partner with the Kresge Foundation, which has a real understanding of the need for capacity and for institutions, such as ours, to help serve as problem solvers and bridge builders,” said Jonathan Overpeck, the Samuel A. Graham Dean and William B. Stapp Collegiate Professor of Environmental Education at SEAS.

“As we begin this new chapter of resident engagement, I know that we will benefit from the Kresge legacy of community-driven collaboration.”

Wendy Lewis Jackson, managing director of Kresge’s Detroit Program, said Detroit’s flooding crisis is real and that addressing it is important to both Kresge and the university.

“Many communities in Detroit have been hit repeatedly by severe flooding due to the effects of climate change and the city’s aging infrastructure. This means families who may already be facing economic hardship have to constantly work to recover when a flood destroys their homes or personal belongings,” Jackson said.

“By working in partnership with the community through hyperlocal nonprofit partners, we have an opportunity to address the impacts of climate change in neighborhoods with the greatest need.”

Helping cities combat and adapt to climate change while advancing racial and economic equity is a major priority for Kresge. The foundation has an initiative dedicated to combating urban flooding titled Climate Resilient and Equitable Water Systems, which supports communities across the United States in efforts to implement equitable solutions to climate-driven flooding that disproportionately affects residents of color.

The SEAS Sustainability Clinic will launch its inaugural partnership with Jefferson East Inc., a multiservice neighborhood organization that serves low-income populations on Detroit’s east side and five historic adjoining neighborhoods.

JEI will complete a multidisciplinary investigation of historical and recent flooding events that devastated the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood and adjacent communities. The project will identify short- and long-term efforts that JEI, along with its local, regional and state partners, can implement to minimize flooding and create a safe and resilient community.

“Students will have an opportunity to better understand and meaningfully support the Detroit community by bringing to bear the resources of a world-class university in our state,” said Joshua Elling, JEI’s chief executive officer. “The challenges posed due to our rapidly changing climate — more flooding, heat waves and extreme weather — are an existential threat to the neighborhoods we serve.

“These challenges need top minds and expertise, which when guided by the wisdom of local residents, will help craft equitable solutions that Jefferson East and its partners can implement to protect our most vulnerable citizens.”

While the clinic’s main emphasis will be on serving the community, the work also extends the mission of SEAS aimed at promoting multidisciplinary sustainability with a collaborative approach.

“The clinic was created to build long-term capacity and partnerships by embedding itself inside Detroit, while also boosting the local impact of the school’s work and its collaboration on sustainability and equity,” Overpeck said.

By using a single-point-of-contact approach, Overpeck said, the clinic will connect Detroit residents, non-profit organizations, businesses and city government to clinic resources and expertise. This will allow for easier and durable access to collaborators, master’s students, internships and projects that provide the capacity for real, tangible and lasting results.

Photo of Kerry Duggan
Kerry Duggan

Kerry Duggan, a former deputy director for policy in the Obama administration and currently an appointee to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Council on Climate Solutions, will serve as the clinic’s founding director.

She said the partnership with JEI provides a prime example of the approach that the SEAS Sustainability Clinic will adopt in its work.

“The focus of the clinic is about responding to immediate and real problems for Detroiters,” Duggan said. “This is about really listening to the needs of the Detroit community through our longstanding relationships with NGOs, civic and small businesses, and residents.

“We’re building and providing capacity through multiyear engagements with clients. By embedding the clinic within Detroit, U-M deepens its connections as a problem-solving ‘resident’ in the city.”

She said the clinic’s work will focus on three goals:

  • Seeking equitable and just solutions to the city’s most pressing sustainability-related issues.
  • Lowering operating costs — particularly in energy management for city operations — while reducing carbon emissions.
  • Supporting the delivery of services directly to the city and, through partner programs, to improve residents’ quality of life.

Efforts to achieve these goals will target five primary areas:

  • Energy and Water Justice, with a particular focus on drinking water access and affordability.
  • Green Infrastructure and Neighborhoods.
  • A Detroit Sustainability Action Agenda.
  • The Erb Corps, a new Detroit-oriented program at U-M’s sustainability and business-focused Erb Institute.
  • Water, habitat and sediment restoration, including the vitality of the Detroit and Rouge rivers.

Overpeck stressed that an essential component of the clinic will be the position of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Leader in Residence.

“This role will ensure that the principles and practices of environmental justice are integral to all clinic projects while serving as a valuable resource to the clinic’s clients,” he said.

The clinic will launch with offices at U-M’s Detroit Center and is a part of the university’s ongoing commitment to the city of Detroit, Overpeck said.

The SEAS Sustainability Clinic is part of an overarching statewide SEAS initiative that is slated to launch in 2022. The statewide Michigan Sustainability Clinic will work across Michigan with the goal to support the vision that the Great Lakes State lead the nation in the implementation of 21st century resilient infrastructures that address climate impact, racial inequity, unemployment and economic fallout from the global pandemic.

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