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Q&A: Victoria Byrd Olivier on Detroit Future City and green infrastructure

January 27, 2017

Article Summary

Victoria Byrd Olivier, Detroit Future City’s (DFC) director of land use and sustainability, shares the DFC Implementation Office’s strategy on how to deploy green infrastructure across the City of Detroit using the DFC Strategic Framework.

Q&A: Victoria Byrd Olivier on Detroit Future City and green infrastructure
Model D
December 15, 2016

Victoria Byrd Olivier is director of land use and sustainability for the Detroit Future City Implementation Office, where she works on strategies to implement the Detroit Future City Strategic Plan. The office has been active in working on green infrastructure, particularly through its Field Guide to Working with Lots and its mini-grant program.

With an undergraduate degree in Urban Planning from the University of Virginia and a Master’s Degree, also in Urban Planning from the University of New Orleans, Olivier began her career in New Orleans, focused on post-Hurricane Katrina recovery work with an emphasis on neighborhood planning, adaptive reuse, and historic preservation. She began working at Detroit Future City in August of 2013. She’s also a co-founder of Brick + Beam Detroit, a project to help residents restore historic homes in the city.

Much of Olivier’s work involves strategizing on how to deploy green infrastructure across the city best. Model D chatted with Byrd to find out more about her work.

Model D: Why did you want to leave New Orleans to come to Detroit?

Victoria Byrd Olivier: There are many connections with New Orleans’ circumstances and the types of challenges that both cities were going through. But it was really about the energy that was going on in Detroit; the type of people who had been working here and who were starting to move here, that were collaborating. I was interested in being able to apply the skills that I had picked up in the New Orleans’ environment to Detroit, and having an opportunity to explore a whole new part of the country.

In Detroit, you can’t ignore what an amazing opportunity we have. We’ve started with the assumption that there were 20 square miles of vacant land and that continues to grow every day with demolitions throughout the city. We’re looking now at 30 square miles of vacant land. Vacant land can be a blight, and we can’t assume that just having a building down makes it a more positive environment for that neighborhood.

Model D: Talk about the role green infrastructure plays in the Detroit Future City Strategic Framework and the Implementation Offices’ operations?

Byrd: The strategic framework was the first planning document where Detroit had focused on acknowledging the realities on the ground. One of those realities was the amount of vacant land. It was not looking to the traditional solution for that, which is, “Let’s build more houses, let’s fill that land,” but recognizing that due to market conditions and other factors, it was about, “How do we intentionally turn that vacant land into open space? How do we use that land to distinguish Detroit as a national or international leader in turning a liability into an asset to improve food security, to explore renewable energy production, and to improve health outcomes? The framework took the first step in both acknowledging the issues and looking at positive solutions for vacant land.

But it was just a start. The DFC Implementation Office is about carrying that work forward. We also recognize that looking positively on vacant land and open space as an opportunity is still something that’s relatively new in the city. DFC and groups across the city are continually trying to work on the culture shift, where vacant land can be seen as an opportunity and not just an absence.

Model D: What are some examples of work DFC is doing to promote green infrastructure in the city?

Olivier: We see green infrastructure as part of a greater open space network in the city. The strategic framework started with a map that showed the different green options across the city. There are a lot of really tough questions that go along with that, including who owns that land, how you pay for it, how you maintain it, and how you deal with liability.

In the past year and a half, DFC has put together two reports that look at some of those questions. The first was called Achieving an Integrated Open Space Network in Detroit. It tried to broaden the idea of what green space could look like.

While green infrastructure is really important, it has to be integrated into many land uses, for example, natural areas that are a little more passive, like meadows, and wetlands, and forests, and then also productive landscapes. If you’re looking at food or energy production or tree farms, green infrastructure can be a part of that, as well.

We have a variety of parks and greenways across the city, and those are very compatible with green infrastructure, and we have the new parks improvement plan that started to outline that idea. And we’re also thinking about buffers between our industrial areas and health outcomes that can improve through addressing them.

We also put together a second report on open space with the Center for Community Progress that looks at ownership and funding considerations that could help inform our work. There have been several models across the country and the world that Detroit can start to look to once we figure out how we want to use that land. We interviewed many stakeholders across the city to get their input on that report.

We’ve also been convening an open space working group for the past seven months; we meet monthly with 25 to 40 different participants that are coming at this open space puzzle from various perspectives, but all with the same goal of how to best use our land. And we’ve been working alongside the city as they’re looking at the urban planning process, to see how we can support work in tandem.

Model D: What role is DFC playing in DWSD’s efforts to encourage ratepayers to implement green infrastructure as part of reducing their drainage fees?

Olivier : All of those groups that are working with open space are going to be finding ways to align with the big changes that are about to occur with DWSD’s drainage fee and green infrastructure credits.

At DFC, we’re working align everything we’re doing and planning so that we can take tools like our Field Guide to Working with Lots or our mini-grant program and think about how the DWSD credit program is going to work, and how we can create designs as options or the credit programs. We’re also thinking about how we can provide more technical assistance in the office and build up our capacities so we can help people get those designs into the ground.

Model D: What are the greatest obstacles and the challenges to implementing green infrastructure in the city, and how do you address them?

Olivier: Maintenance is a big obstacle. Just on a small scale, we’ve tried to address that through the second round of our mini-grant program, which provides specific funding for maintenance. It’s also part of our technical assistance. We wanted to make sure we looked into resources to help sustain these projects; that’s something that we prioritized.

Another challenge is workforce development. I think a great opportunity for green infrastructure in the city is how it can be part of improving employment opportunities for Detroiters. We’ve found that there is a bit of a gap in the contractors and landscapers that have the expertise and are comfortable with implementing these designs. So making sure that we can align with other groups that are doing workforce development is important.

And another big challenge is that there are likely different incentives and funding models for each user group–whether businesses or non-profits or residents. So we need to understand what the resources are, both financial and human resources, to see how green infrastructure can not only provide an environmental benefit but fit into other goals.

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