Sierra Club in Detroit: Rain Gardens to the Rescue

Ryan Anderson, Brown University

Upon arriving at my internship, I was very excited to see what opportunities lay ahead of me. I was particularly interested in seeing what working in a small office for an NGO could look like, and I have not been disappointed by the plethora of projects offered to me. The project that I dedicate most of my efforts to is the Rain Gardens to the Rescue program. This program is a collaboration effort between Sierra Club, Friends of the Rouge, and Keep Growing Detroit, and has been helping residents plant rain gardens in their communities. Since the project’s inception, one of its main goals has been to protect the Great Lakes from climate change impacts. As warmer climates will lead to more intense storms, it is critical that Detroit invest in Green Infrastructure projects that will manage stormwater effectively. One such project is the use of rain gardens to capture stormwater that runs off of impervious structures such as roofs and streets. Rain gardens are particularly helpful for Detroit as its combined sewer system has resulted in the dumping of untreated wastewater into local rivers during large rain events. Furthermore, cleanup costs and the costs associated with the upkeep of aging infrastructure incentivized the Detroit Water and Sewage Department to offer “green credits” to citizens who reduce that amount of impervious pavement on their property.

The internship kicked off with a bus tour of previously planted rain gardens in Detroit, which gave this year’s rain garden recipients an opportunity to see how successful rain gardens operate. The next step of the process consisted of site visits where I helped residents estimate the size and location of their future garden, and the rest of the process included attending a series of workshops that guided recipients through the native plant selection, garden design, and rain barrel construction processes. Further, rain garden recipients are encouraged to educate other Detroiters on how to build upon the network of green infrastructure by building their own rain gardens. This program provided me the opportunity to engage with community members throughout the rain garden process, and allowed me to learn more about the people of Detroit as well as about how relationships are built and maintained within the community.

In addition to the Rain Gardens to the Rescue program, I worked on a variety of projects including presentations, reports, and social media schedules. These projects required significant amounts of time conducting research on everything from reforestation as a green infrastructure solution to the impacts of proposed budget cuts to the Great Lakes Restorative Initiative. Much of this research was supplemented with community engagement efforts. From rain garden workshops, green infrastructure tours and several Detroit City Council Green Task Force meetings, I could garner a diverse understanding of the ways that different green groups are working toward Detroit’s goal of becoming one of the greenest cities in the country. Also, I had the opportunity to attend several Detroit City Council meetings where I was able to witness the political process first hand. At these meetings, Detroit residents have the opportunity to speak before the council, express their grievances, and request the support of their elected official.

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity I had to learn about the ways one can integrate research with community engagement. My passions lie at the heart of the intersection between hard and social sciences, and I wish to bring an interdisciplinary perspective to all work that I do. Specifically, this internship taught me new ways to think about green infrastructure, its importance, and its implementation, and I am extremely interested in continuing my education on these matters in the future.