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Greening of Detroit

1418 Michigan Avenue
Detroit, Michigan 48216

Rebecca Salminen Witt

by Tunde Wey
August 23, 2012

That soothing axiom -- “every crisis is an opportunity” -- may be truest in Detroit, where sometimes challenges and opportunities reside in the same breadth of space.
Here, immediately obvious is the challenge of land. The city has a preponderance of the stuff: uncomfortable stretches of grass and weed-carpeted lots in the summer; barren, snow-sprayed fields in the winter.
The opportunity? Active green space. Parks, community gardens, and produce and livestock farms in viable neighborhood clusters.
The city’s 40 square miles (over 25,000 acres) of vacant, low-cost land presents thrilling possibilities unavailable in other cities of comparable size and history. According to Rebecca Salminen Witt, President of The Greening of Detroit, two thousand of these acres, if farmed appropriately, will provide 75% of the daily recommended portion of fruits and vegetables for city residents.
Salminen Witt is seriously pursuing and demonstrating what could happen if this opportunity was seized resolutely and responsibly. “Any uses of land should be appropriate for the formation of community around them,” says she. “We exist for the benefit of community. We want as many people to benefit as much as possible.”
Founded in 1989, The Greening’s mission is to guide and inspire others to create a “greener” Detroit through planting and educational programs, environmental leadership, advocacy, and by building community capacity.
At the helm of The Greening is Salminen Witt, 45, who was raised under the influence of abundant fresh air and fertile soil. Born in the Michigan Upper Peninsula, her father’s job as a conservation officer was migratory, moving the family over 18 times to different rural areas across the state. She grew up intimately conversant with the rewards of nature, as well as the work necessary to preserve it.
She went on to study organizational communications, now reflected in the way she has built a culture at The Greening focused on responding to the needs of the community. After completing her undergraduate education, she moved to Detroit to attend law school at Wayne State University. As a lawyer, she worked in a markedly different environment from her bucolic roots. At 29, eager for opportunities to work with diverse people to create innovation, Salminen Witt joined The Greening.
She describes her career transition (and accompanying pay cut) as a conscious choice. It was an investment in an organization whose work deeply resonated with her. Sixteen years later, the return on Salminen Witt’s investment is apparent and impressive.
During her tenure, The Greening has grown to become one of the more successful and respected nonprofits in the region – earning distinctions from local media and credibility within the community. Beyond well-deserved accolades, the value and impact of The Greening’s work under Salminen Witt’s leadership is best appreciated through the sheer size of its achievements.
The organization has grown from a staff of three, when she first joined in 1996, to an organization with 40 full-time employees, 30 interns and a seasonal staff of around 400 (employed through The Greening’s adult and youth employment program). Its annual budget is over $6 million.
What began as an organization dedicated to reforesting Detroit now boasts a much broader mission. The Greening is currently active in four focus areas: Tree planting and greenspace creation, gardening, education, and workforce development & employment. Each of these interconnected departments have recorded distinct and evolving victories, too numerous to mention but important to highlight:
The Greening has overseen the planting of some 70,000 trees in parks, schoolyards and along neighborhood streets and major thoroughfares throughout the city. (Conservatively this is a cumulative benefit of about 1 million pounds of CO2 per year being absorbed from the atmosphere.)
Its Garden Resource Program -- a collaboration between The Greening, EarthWorks Urban Farm, Michigan State University Extension, and the Detroit Agriculture Network -- supports more than 17,000 local gardeners throughout a network of over 1,400 community, school and family gardens, with program participants profiting from the production of around 160 tons of food and sales totaling about $100,000.
The Greening also launched Grown In Detroit, a cooperative of over 80 community gardens and urban farms throughout Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park that sell produce at local farmers markets. This initiative supports and promotes sustainable farming practices and equitable healthy food access.
Their education programming has reached nearly 25,000 youth, and their workforce development programming trains and certifies about 120 adults annually in green jobs, landscaping, and agriculture industries. The youth portion of this program has employed about 1,200 Detroit teens, earning them over $1.5 million in wages for maintaining 700 public green spaces throughout the city.
For Salminen Witt, this defining of The Greening’s impact through an economic calculus is intentional. She recognizes the need to communicate the value of green practices by “framing the argument in terms people understand and can invest in.”
“What make sense to people are dollars and cents,” she says.
In her work, Salminen Witt must also make clear the interconnectedness between green infrastructure (the grown environment, with its natural resources, such as land and water) and grey infrastructure (the built environment, with its manufactured systems of roads, sewers, utilities and buildings) -- both important elements of a healthy city.
“All the infrastructure in the grown and built environment work together,” she explains. “The green infrastructure can impact how the grey infrastructure works. How roads survive over time has everything to do with what is planted along the roads; trees shade roads and greenspace keeps water off.”
Yet too often, green and grey are at odds.
Salminen Witt experienced this first-hand with The River Rouge, which was suffering from sewage overflow. The City’s wastewater treatment system needed to be upgraded to accommodate the excess rainwater, which was running raw sewage into the river.

The City’s assessment estimated the cost of the necessary upgrade at $12 billion – too high for the City – and yet they were bound by a Federal mandate to address the situation. When The Greening joined the conversation, they moved the City to consider investing in green infrastructure. They suggested solutions that would bolster the natural water retention qualities of the area, permitting the water to be absorbed by the soil and the natural ecosystem surrounding the river.

The City adopted The Greening’s proposal, receiving approval from the State and the Environmental Protection Agency to advance the recommended upgrades. The resulting implementation considerably lowered costs for the City, which also pledged to invest $30 million in green infrastructure over the next 20 years. The Greening will continue to provide expert advice and training to City officials throughout this project.

The capacity to weave two seemingly disparate and often times opposing elements into an inspired solution is one of The Greening’s great strengths. Rather than declaring differences as antagonistic, Salminen Witt says that the diversity of opinion is the start of innovation.
After all, what is innovation if not reconciling challenges and opportunities?
Thanks to Salminen Witt and her team, The Greening is not just advocating for solutions, but actively creating them. And not just for the environment, but for the health and wealth of Detroit’s greatest asset -- its people.
Portrait by Marvin Shaouni.

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