• Dan Robinson

Infrastructure and Caring for the Great Lakes: a Conversation with Ms. Nicole Brown

Who knew pipes and stormwater, roads and the electric grid, internet broadband access and housing would be such a hot topic? With President Biden’s infrastructure proposal, these and many more areas of life are being considered and argued about across the country and the political spectrum.


Closer to the grassroots, though, groups like Detroit Future City were already making infrastructure a priority and improving the lives of the people in their community and the health of the Great Lakes Basin.


Sunset over Detroit River (photo by themactep; proper rights reserved)


Ms. Nicole Brown serves as the Senior Program Manager for Land Use and Sustainability with Detroit Future City. In that capacity, she works with residents and organizations, helping them, as she puts it, get “acquainted with the wonderful concept that I have grown to love in my heart, which is green stormwater infrastructure, and showing them how this particular thing can really help to not only beautify your neighborhood, help protect our waters, but also can save you money.”


Saving Money and Caring for the Environment


Brown joined Detroit Future City in 2017, and since then she’s led the Land + Water WORKS Coalition of ten community partners, including Friends of the Rouge and the Sierra Club. Together, they have developed a campaign to “engage residents and Detroit property owners around our role as stewards of land and water in the Great Lakes area," according to Brown. She said the work is, "really narrowing in on the importance of educating them and engaging them in the process of helping to prevent combined sewage overflows within the city of Detroit.”


Combined sewage overflows happen when building sewage and stormwater runoff flow together in a community’s sewage system. After a storm, the volume of water can overload the system, dumping that water in an available water body instead of sending it to a sewage treatment plant.


Businesses and organizations were being charged a fee for the amount of impervious surface, like a parking lot, they had on their properties. Because the surface is impervious, rainwater isn’t absorbed into the Earth. Rather, it runs off into the combined sewage system. The fee was helping Detroit deal with the problem, but the cost was also hitting organizations like churches pretty hard.


That’s where Brown and the Land + Water WORKS Coalition entered the picture. The Coalition is working with church communities like Oak Grove AME, Bethany Lutheran, St. Suzanne/Our Lady Gate of Heaven Catholic Church, and St. Suzanne Cody Rouge Community Resource Center to improve their green infrastructure through rain gardens, bioswales, disconnecting downspouts, installing water catchment systems. and other bioretention projects. These efforts create a win-win-win situation for the churches, the city, and the environment.


According to Brown, “They're really looking at what are best practices around green stormwater infrastructure. How can it help support the efficiency of the current gray infrastructure that we have in the city of Detroit? How does this work help to improve quality of life for the Detroiters? And also, most importantly, how does it protect our Detroit River, which in turn protects our Great Lakes?”



Work Rooted in Faith


Brown sees the roots of this work in the Judeo-Christian scriptures. “I always joke with my mom that when Adam and Eve were placed on Earth, their first job, their only primary job, was to what? Take care of the land and the animals in the Garden of Eden where God had placed them,” she said.


“So, I really look at our role as still carrying that forward,” she added. “While we're busy doing all the things that we're supposed to be doing in life, we also need to make sure that we're still good stewards of the resources that God, or whoever your higher power is that you choose to worship, has given us to be able to interact with and live amongst on this great Planet Earth.”


As we talk, her enthusiasm for her work bursts through. “You know, as climate change is becoming more and more severe each passing year, it is much more incumbent upon us to make sure that we are truly being good stewards of this particular earth,” she said. “And so this work that I have the great fortune to be able to do allows me to combine personal passion along with professional mission, and being able to share this kind of education, and seeing how it really transforms the way people look at their role.”


The congregations that Brown works with are catching that enthusiasm as well. She said that they’re “taking it back to their very foundations, and really looking at how they're able to incorporate it into sermons. And so it's been refreshing to be able to see that in a couple of different forms. We've seen people weave it into a sermon series about caring for your neighbor. And part of caring for your neighbor may be making sure that we have healthy waters. And so it's been fascinating to see how everyone does it differently, to see how people are able to do that with younger children and Sunday school lessons.”


The congregations are able to both save money on drainage fees but also respond to their faith through good stewardship. “So it really has been wonderful to see the two things balance each other out,” she added.


Tending to Stormwater Means Tending to the Great Lakes


That stewardship cares not only for the land around the churches but also for the water that flows through the Detroit area, according to Brown. “People really develop a stronger connection and understanding of the place of importance that Detroit has, and making sure that we are helping to steward not only the water from the Detroit River, which is our drinking water source, but also the critical role that this plays in caretaking for nearly a third of the world's freshwater source.”


“We're out and about and we're working with communities and we're sharing with them the importance of where we sit. We're telling them about the freshwater source, how our Great Lakes make up 90% of the country's freshwater source,” she added. “When you start to tell people that it, you begin to see like this light bulb, where they have this ‘aha’ moment. It radically changes people's connection and perception of what they do and how it contributes to the health and well-being of our water, right? Because there's a sense of pride when you think about, you know, Detroit. Yes, we are the city that put the world on rails, but we can also be the city that leads the world in stewardship of our water resources.”