Sites of demolished Detroit homes used to soak up water

Charles E. Ramirez, and Christine Ferretti

It took more than just adding water. It wasn’t instant, either.

But Detroit’s water department and Land Bank Authority as well as the University of Michigan turned four vacant city lots into gardens designed to corral stormwater.

Officials with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, the city’s Land Bank Authority, UM and community groups held a celebration Wednesday for the pilot project’s completion. The event was held at one of the lots, located on Evergreen between Joy and Tireman.

Aaron Simmon, 39, who lives on the east side of Evergreen just across from the new garden, said it’s a vast improvement from the blighted home that was there when he moved into the neighborhood two years ago.

A "bioretention garden" built to collect rain runoff from Evergreen Road is seen in the Warrendale neighborhood of Detroit.

“It’s better than having an empty house here,” said Simmon, motioning to another vacant house just north of his home that also needs attention. “I’m glad they knocked it down. It looks good.

“Over here, it seems like they’ve been doing a lot. We’ll see how much more progress they get to.”

Wednesday’s celebration was about six months after the city and university announced they were teaming up to convert the vacant lots in the Cody Rouge neighborhood on Detroit’s west side into so-called “bioretention gardens,” which capture and soak up storm runoff as well as beautify the area.

Palencia Mobley, the water department’s deputy director and chief engineer, said the gardens will reduce the flow of stormwater in the city’s combined sewer system and reduce the amount of untreated combined sewage into the Rouge River. It will also reduce flooding in streets during big storms, she said.

Officials said each garden is expected to reduce annual stormwater runoff by 300,000 gallons.

It will also be used as a teaching tool for children in the area. Students at nearby schools will learn how the gardens improve the environment through hands-on activities at the gardens and classroom materials developed by UM.

Mobley also said the project shows how vacant properties can be made into environmentally friendly infrastructures that enhance the quality of life in neighborhoods and improve water quality in the Rouge River and the Great Lakes.

“The four bioretention gardens ... provide this impact while adding value to the neighborhood,” she said in a statement. “We look forward to creating additional green infrastructure projects in our city with community partners.”

A demolition site in Detroit’s Cody Rouge neighborhood now houses one of the project’s four pilot gardens.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department contributed $500,000 to the project and led its implementation, design and construction.

UM researchers conceptualized the project and surveyed residents about the garden concepts. Funding for that part, about $285,000, came through the university’s Water Center in support from the Erb Family Foundation.

Joan Nassauer, a UM professor of landscape architecture who worked on the project, said residents told researchers the gardens would help them feel safer and could improve property values.

“This can be done in a way that immediately benefits people who live nearby,” she said.

(313) 222-2058

Associated Press contributed.