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Detroit’s History Of Change Points Toward A Sustainable Future

Photo Courtesy Alberto Adán

The Fremen — native people hailing from the desert planet Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic, “Dune” — speak in hushed whispers of Lisan Al-Gaib, the messianic savior prophesied to liberate them from their oppressors and turn the arid planet into a green, plant-rich ecosystem. 

The books and various movie adaptations have some fairly significant differences (and the movies take a lot of creative liberties), but they all depict an atmosphere of inevitable change around Arrakis. And for good reason — signs hinting at the return of Lisan Al-Gaib constantly swirl in the peripherals of the story. 

Detroit is not Arrakis (and would be better compared to Arrakeen, its capital), but the two do have a few things in common: an air of change, signs hinting at a greener future, and seven letters in their name. 

Detroit’s unique history shows why its evolution into a leader in eco-friendly initiatives and sustainable business is not as surprising as it might appear. 

A History of Change 

On July 24, 1701, French explorer and commander Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac, along with approximately 100 fellow countrymen and 100 Algonquian Tribe members, established a settlement near the banks of the Detroit River. Cadillac chose Fort Pontchartrain du Detroit’s location primarily due to its highly defensible position, which sat at a point on the river where the channel was only half a mile wide — within the range of French cannons. 

Tensions between Britain and France were boiling over. Though they had not led to outright war yet, King Louis XIV had given Cadillac royal authority to establish the fort, knowing the conflict would soon escalate. It would also not hurt to control fur trading operations along the Detroit River, a massive means of transportation and trade in the region. 

Unfortunately, Cadillac had ulterior motives to enrich his personal finances through fur trade-related corruption and bribery. He was ousted as outpost commander due to “ill conduct” about a decade after Detroit’s founding.

Photo Courtesy Peter Mol 

The settlement never realized its full potential as a trading fur outpost, and after decades of peace with Britain, its importance as a military outpost dwindled. It got so bad that the French government reportedly abandoned it as a colony in 1727, although no one acted upon the decision. 

However, in 1744, France and England went to war, changing Detroit’s outlook forever. The site quickly developed into a vital military asset in the ensuing years. While it was never actually captured by British forces, France ultimately surrendered Detroit to the British during the Seven Year War in 1760. 

By 1796, Detroit was under the rule of the newly-formed United States and was officially incorporated as a city in 1815.

However, Motor City is best known as the automobile capital of the world, starting with Henry Ford’s Quadricycle in 1896 and leading to 60% of the world’s automobiles being assembled in Michigan by 1940.

Inevitably, Detroit lost its lead as the king of the automobile industry by the start of the 21st century. 

But, if the city’s past is an indicator of anything, it’s that change is nothing new — if anything, it’s expected. And there’s growing evidence that Detroit is doing just that, albeit in an unexpected direction: changing into a sustainability leader.

There Will Be Signs. Here Are Two 

What better place to start than the largest? As in the largest zero-waste event in Detroit’s history — the 2023 Detroit Free Press Marathon. An event must divert 90% or more of the waste it produces to achieve zero-waste status. The accomplishment is the culmination of years of hard work and improvement by the event’s organizers: the 2021 marathon achieved a 63% waste diversion rate, and 2022 saw that rise to 83%. 

Photo Courtesy tookapic

Jessica Loding, director of sustainability for Schupan Sustainability, a company that coordinated waste management for the marathon, talked to the Detroit Free Press about the importance of zero-waste events. 

“There are over 50,000 tons of material that get to landfill from live, public events on an annual basis, and so any events of any size, anything that they can do to minimize the amount of material that is going to a landfill creates huge community impacts and creates huge community economic impacts as well,” she said. “And, ultimately, it’s about just being good stewards of the community and of the environment in which they hold their event.”

Launched in 2022 by American Forests, the city of Detroit, DTE Energy, Detroit Future City, The Greening of Detroit, and others, the Detroit Tree Equity Partnership takes tree planting to an entirely new level.

The initiative set a goal to plant more than 75,000 trees in the area over the following five years, but that’s nothing groundbreaking. 

YouTubers Mr. Beast and Mark Rober planted more than 20 million trees in more than 30 countries in just a couple of years. The Detroit Tree Equity Partnership stands out because of its commitment to planting trees while simultaneously supporting the community.

The project has employed more than 300 Detroit residents through tree care and maintenance jobs and invested $30 million into local neighborhoods during the project’s five-year pilot phase. In addition, tree planting is definitely not random but specifically targeted for maximum efficiency using the American Forests’ Tree Equity Score tool. The data tool factors in historical, socioeconomic, and racial inequities to ensure that tree cover in cities is equitably distributed. 

Photo Courtesy Mohtashim Mahin

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Countless other sustainability and community-based projects and initiatives are making positive impacts, big and small, across Detroit. Motor City is turning a series of former industrial sites into a huge solar park project. Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and Detroit Future City would need entire articles to cover their efforts. The city also hosted the NFL Draft earlier this year, making the event carbon-neutral. 

It’s fitting to end an article about Detroit changing in a positive direction with a reference to the NFL. The Detroit Lions have been one of the least successful franchises in the league over the past few decades, but over the past few years, there have been signs of a change in mentality, fortune, and outcomes for the team. The future is bright, not just for the Lions but for the city, too.


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