A Breath of Fresh Air: The Delray Carbon Forest as a Template to Address Ecologic, Social, and Economic Inequity

Honor Award

Urban Design

Farrah Dang, Associate ASLA
Faculty Advisors: Julie Bargmann, ASLA
University of Virginia

The Delray neighborhood of Detroit has faced a number of setbacks since its economic height, including depopulation, crumbling infrastructure, and respiratory ailments caused by the industry that once made the neighborhood thrive. Re-planting Delray would go a long way toward lessening the air quality effects that residents have borne in recent decades, starting with hedgerows along major corridors that buffer residents from transit noise, particulates, and fumes. A second phase would expand this approach outward in secondary corridors, infilling vacant properties with bosques to be maintained and harvested by locals, thus becoming a refreshing and revitalizing economy to replace greenhouse gasses with greenery.

- 2020 Awards Jury

Project Credits

Delray Youth Program Director, Interviewee and Advisor on Community Affairs
Dr. Cassandra Montgomery

Project Statement

Detroit, a post-industrial city, is experiencing the aftershocks of intensive industrial development, industrial collapse, and sudden depopulation. After rapid decentralization of the auto industry, the one-time “motor city” powerhouse is now dealing with wide-scale blight and an under-funded, underused urban infrastructure originally built around cars and manufacturing. The Delray neighborhood represents the most extreme of these post-industrial challenges. Remaining inhabitants suffer from respiratory illnesses and cancer as neighborhood lots continue to be zoned for heavy industry. This project finds opportunity in these conflicts to develop an urban template for health, resiliency, and sustainable land use. The green infrastructure proposed here symbiotically knits incompatible land uses together, providing spaces to inhabit that simultaneously fortify its inhabitants, cleaning the air they breathe. A series of windbreak hedgerow typologies target specific “ailments” in Delray’s infrastructure, providing an economically self-sustaining foundation that judiciously connects to the city’s existing healthy assets. In giving back to its underserved inhabitants, the Delray Carbon Forest reveals a new type of productivity that is possible for the post-industrial city.

Project Narrative

Context, Challenges, and Opportunity

What sets Delray apart from other Detroit neighborhoods is also the source of its greatest challenge: An intensely incompatible mix of land uses. The Delray story is one of displacement, division, and declining health, all resulting from decades of unbalanced planning and a singular focus on industry.

Delray’s rich natural resources instigated its rise and eventual decline. Its proximity to a vibrant river, plentiful springs, and salt deposits first drew in the ancient “Mound Builders,” then colonial settlers. During America’s wave of 19th century industrialization, factories conglomerated around rivers for the benefit of transportation and shipping, and Delray was no exception. The 1889 Detroit International Exposition and creation of neighboring Zug Island as an iron foundry kickstarted major transformative construction projects in Delray and the broader city of Detroit. Marshes were drained, canopy coverage collapsed, and while the wealthier could afford to relocate, others chose to stay closer to work and lower property prices.

The legacy of social, economic, and ecologic inequality continues today. Delray is increasingly zoned for industry, even after the collapse of Detroit’s auto industry. A new U.S. customs plaza underway, and its corresponding Gordie Howe Bridge linking to Canada, have displaced over 700 residents. Remaining residents contend with rising rates of cancer and respiratory illness due to smoke stacks, chemical seepage from manufacturing, and noxious, headache-inducing odors from the local Detroit Water and Sewerage Treatment plant. The reduction in population has meant a reduction in funding for infrastructure, a fact witnessed in the broken concrete and asphalt rubble of abandoned lots and underfunded roads.

Detroit’s Bridging Neighborhoods Home Swap program has met with mixed results in Delray, due to misunderstandings/lack of access to information, resistance to change, and lack of desirable housing offered. Overwhelmingly, however, the residents cite discomfort with moving away from a tight-knit, quirky community of pet possum and chicken owners, truck drivers, and multi-generational families. This is especially a point of contention for the newer population of undocumented workers who took up residence in Delray’s affordable properties; their legal status makes them reluctant to work with government authorities.

Modern Delray has been described alternately as “Detroit’s backwater” and “the bowels of the region.” Yet, there is opportunity for healing in the very fissures between land uses. The Delray neighborhood provides a window of possibility into how such a healing infrastructure can serve as a template in other American cities experiencing similar changes in industry and population density. The work starts with treating the land as one unified parcel and respecting all inhabitants equally, creating common ground for them.

The Delray Carbon Forest is a response to the sustained environmental injustice wrought from years of short-sighted planning. It’s a strategy whereby current occupants have the power of choice in becoming part of reforestation efforts. The project scope covers 3.63 square miles (940.17 hectares).

Given the complexity of Delray’s challenges, the approach must be layered: The project features 3 major phases of development in which each phase provides the foundation for the next. Just as important as the phases is the form of green infrastructure deployed to target the health, pollution, and connectivity issues in Delray. The planted form and function directly reinforce the phases of the Delray Carbon Forest.

Planted Form and Function of the New Green Infrastructure

Air pollution drift is the biggest and most immediate health hazard in Delray. To address this problem, the green infrastructure uses a multi-scalar strategy. On the macro-scale, the urban form with the most promise is the windbreak hedgerow, which consists of shrub, understory, and tall canopy layers. The plan’s hedgerows act as thick filtration and enrichment corridors that stitch together the disparate land uses in Delray. The neighborhood’s tight parcels and corridor-dominant spaces lend themselves to 5 landscape prototypes:

• Industrial-Strength hedgerow – Upright, strong, and columnar plant forms that maximize density. Targets land strips bordering heavy industry and factories
• Rail Trail hedgerow – Irregular and “wild” forms that fill in awkward gaps along railways while providing a relaxing sense of “being away” from the city. Targets active railway corridors and creates waterways during flood events (mimicking historic marsh water channels)
• Doublewide Hedgerow – Thick, bold forms that employ color, feathery forms, and fragrance pleasing to people. Targets residential land strips
• Fat-Wet Trail hedgerow – Planted forms and species that recall pre-settlement Detroit larch swamps. Targets the disused railway that runs from Delray’s central active railway toward the Detroit River
• Woodland bosque – Varied and lush plantings that maximize species diversity and provide rich habitat for wildlife. Targets contiguous vacant lots that offer abundant space

Hedgerow gap densities closer to 50% rather than 100% will be implemented, as they more effectively lift wind up and dissipate it over a factor of 10 times the plant height. Thus, the plant palette incorporates as many 50’ growth species as possible, in order to more effectively cover the span of a large city block.

On a micro-scale, the plan leverages plant species with waxy surfaces, abundant trichomes (surface hairs), fringed leaf arrangement, and wooly seeds or flowers. This physiology is well-suited to catching pollution particulates of various sizes and slowing down airflow. Every hedgerow incorporates at least one evergreen species to increase year-round filtration benefits. Last, but not least, evidence-based research informs the Carbon Forest’s plant palette; special consideration is given for species that most effectively phytoremediate hydrocarbons, arsenic, VOCs, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide—the most concentrated pollutants documented in Delray.

Phases of Development

The general guiding operations of the master plan are 1) Refine major corridors, 2) Revive the railways, 3) Infill vacancies, 4) Unite lots, and 5) Permit ebb and flow of future development. Implementation of Delray’s new, green infrastructure occurs in 3 phases:

• Phase 1 – The master plan establishes hedgerows along the major transit corridors (including railway) first. This allows Detroit the “biggest intervention bang for the buck” while immediately providing inhabitants pedestrian and bike amenities nestled within the protective hedgerows. The corridors also strategically connect Delray to pre-existing, healthy civic assets surrounding the neighborhoods, such as nearby Clark Park and several public schools. Phytoremediation begins for a pilot housing program sited northeast, away from the customs plaza and major industrial polluters.

• Phase 2 – With the green backbone in place, the plan calls for filling in remaining vacant spaces with bosques, and secondary corridors receive the hedgerow treatment. Lots are united when possible, and discontinued roads converted to green space. With phytoremediation in the northeast zone complete, Delray’s housing-employment pilot program launches. It is a modification of the successful Vienna model; city-vetted developers reserve half of the newly constructed homes for employees who will maintain the new green infrastructure. These residencies become the new option in Detroit’s current home swap program. (Further increasing this plan’s viability, one of the major polluters, the DTE River Rouge power plant, is scheduled for decommission during this phase, and Gordie Howe construction completes.)

• Phase 3 – The Delray Carbon Forest reaches completion. As portions of the forest reach maturity, Delray’s resident-workers thin plant growth as needed; these harvests can be sold as lumber and other wood products, financing future resident labor. The established green infrastructure provides a stable backbone around which development can ebb and flow sustainably, no matter what stage of the economic cycle.

The Delray Carbon Forest has the power to offer a unique Detroit experience. The master plan’s river ramble, bridge underpasses, and observation points provide stunning views where land uses merge harmoniously and exotically—the sight of people tending the forest against a backdrop of wetland birds soaring by smoke stacks. In a nod to its working-community heritage, Delray’s challenges become its assets—instead of an industry of cars and factory labor, Delray can offer Detroit an economy of land stewardship and carbon harvest.