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Sustainable Urban Development in Atlanta and Detroit

In the Spring of 2020, the American Council on Germany planned an immersive Study Tour on Sustainable Urban Development in Atlanta and Detroit with German and American experts and practitioners who had met in Düsseldorf, Heidelberg, and Mannheim in December 2019. Just days before the exchange in the United States was scheduled to start, the Covid-19 pandemic brought the planning and implementation of the program to a halt. Finally, after a nearly three-year hiatus, the study tour was able to take place from October 9 to 15, 2022.

After three years, the opening dinner on October 9 in Atlanta felt like a family reunion. Each person had changes in their life which they were happy to share – from new jobs to new children, and from marriages to new degrees. This Wiedersehen was a joyous occasion worthy of celebration.

On the morning of October 10, the group took a three-hour bike tour of Atlanta. Organized by Dr. Jairo Garcia, Professor of Sustainability and Urban Planning at Georgia Tech, the tour took the cohort through new developments such as the Atlanta Beltway and historical sites including the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., showing the city’s effort to embrace change while being conscience of the past.

In the afternoon, the group met with representatives from the City of Atlanta: J. Olu Baiyewu, Urban Agriculture Director; Chandra Farley, Director of Sustainability; and Douglas Nagy, Deputy Commissioner for Transportation and Sustainability. During the meeting in Atlanta’s City Hall, the group discussed the long-term planning of the city including the need for affordable housing and green spaces, as well as an improved public transportation system.

Over dinner, the group was joined by Matthias Ohm, (participant in the ACG’s 2021/22 Working Group on DEIA) Associate at Arnall Golden Gregory LLP. As an immigration lawyer based in Atlanta, he was able to paint a picture of some of the socio-economic challenges facing people living in the city.

Joined once again by Dr. Garcia, the next morning the group met with the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance (WAWA), for a discussion that focused on preserving the natural resources of predominately Black and Brown areas of Atlanta. Shaundon Moore, the Lead Environmental Educator at WAWA, explained that many neighborhoods are “food deserts” in that they have limited or no access to fresh food. WAWA works to educate the public and involve youth in urban farming.

On the afternoon of October 11, the group visited the Mercedes Benz Stadium, which is the most sustainable sporting and entertainment arena in the world. Later that day, the group met with Laura Heery, the architect of the Grove Park Community. Developed in the early 2000s, Grove Park focuses on a sustainable infrastructure including storage of stormwater while improving the quality of life for its residents. Ms. Heery provided background and insights on the development of this neighborhood.

On the morning of October 12, the group flew to Detroit for a series of meetings focused on the city’s renaissance since claiming bankruptcy in 2013. The group was first joined by Derrick Headd (2015 ACG Urban Affairs Fellow), a legal analyst for the City Council of Detroit who has worked for the city of Detroit for over 20 years. He arranged a last-minute meeting with Deputy Mayor Todd A. Bettison. Under the guidance of Mayor Mike Duggan, the city has been able to reprioritize the needs of the citizens from safety to education to economic mobility.

That evening, the group was invited into the home of David Whittaker, the Head of Legal Analysis for the City Council, for dinner and lively conversation with members of the city council. Guests included Mary Sheffield, City Council President; James Tate, City Council President Pro Tem, District 1; Scott Benson, City Council District 3; Latisha Johnson, City Council District 4; Kenyetta Hairston-Bridges, Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC) and Executive Vice President, Economic Development and Investment Services; Antoine Bryant, Director, Planning and Development, City of Detroit; and Bruce Simpson, Ombudsman City of Detroit, as well as the entire legal advisor staff. Recognizing that the city still has many challenges, the government officials expressed their devotion to improving the city.

The next day began with a meeting with Jeannette Pierce who serves as the Director of Detroit Experience Factory, a nonprofit that uses tours and experiences to take people beyond the headlines and to educate them about Detroit’s history, culture, and community. Ms. Pierce and her team took the group walking and bike tour of Detroit – which included new property development and the city’s efforts to remove the blight which has been synonymous with Detroit for decades.

Over lunch, the group met with members of the Michigan Municipal League (MML): Shanna Draheim, Director of Policy Research Labs; Mary Charles (2001 ACG Urban Affairs Fellow), Inquiry Coordinator; Herasanna Richards, Legislative Associate; and Helen Davis Johnson, President of the MML Foundation. The MML is a membership organization that puts the needs of cities in the State of Michigan at the forefront of its work. The discussion focused on the implementation of the American Recovery Program, a new initiative through the Biden Administration to help cities thrive following the pandemic.

Data is essential for understanding the needs of the citizens of Detroit. In the afternoon of October 11, the group met with Noah Urban, Director of DataDrivenDetroit (D3), a nonprofit which works alongside the city to collect data and access the challenges facing Detroit. These challenges include access to public transportation, abandoned properties, and demographics.

That evening, the group attended a Detroit Pistons basketball game with the Mayor of Harper Woods, Ernestine Lyons. Harper Woods is a suburb of Detroit with a relatively low population, but it has similar struggles as the City of Detroit. Mayor Lyons described the close partnership between her city and Detroit to improve services for both cities.

On Friday morning, the group met with Lisa Nuszkowski, President and Chief Operating Officer of the M-1 Rail. Realizing that Detroit does not have adequate public transportation, Ms. Nuszkowski created a bike-share program in 2015. She joined the nonprofit M-1 Rail which operates a light rail within the city. Though only three miles long, the light rail system which was launched in 2019 serves 20,000 people a day.

At the final meeting with external experts, the group was joined by Detroit Future City’s Kimberly Faison, Director of Community and Economic Development, and Edward Lynch, Head of Research. Referring to the organization of part think-tank and part do-tank, the two discussed how Detroit Future City is a public-private partnership that works to revitalize the city. The organization works primarily to improve the quality of life for the working/middle-class citizens of the city.

Although Detroit faces more challenges than most cities, the passion to improve the city was palpable in every conversation. The city was often referred to as a phoenix or going through a renaissance. The group expressed interest in staying engaged with the city officials and nonprofits over the coming years.

During the final wrap-up session, the group discussed their biggest takeaways. Some noted that although each city was very different, even different from their own, they gained new perspectives on how to address challenges. One German participant said the program showed him how important it is to have one-on-one conversations with his transatlantic counterparts. He said he gained a new understanding of America. This shows that diplomacy is not solely done at the national level; it can be done and is done at the sub-national level as well.