Environmental and Social Impact Assessment of Alley Maintenance in the City of Detroit

Client Organization: 
The Villages Community Development Corporation (TVCDC)
Project Location : 
Detroit, MI, USA
Summary of Project Idea: 

Goals & Objectives:

TVCDC us a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to accelerating economic development in the Villages of Detroit, a collection of neighborhoods located on Detroit’s near eastside, the boundaries of which are Mt. Elliott to Cadillac, and the Detroit River to Mack. One of the neighborhoods within TVCDC’s service footprint is West Village, site of one of the city’s first Green Alleys, or an alley that incorporates green infrastructure as part of its central function and use for stormwater management and placemaking purposes. The West Village Green Alley serves an important case study and will provide an important demonstration of innovative green infrastructure and potential innovative public financing within the City of Detroit.

This project seeks to assess the state of ownership of alleys across the City, an unprecedented task that will enable future evaluation and risk assessment of an often overlooked but essential infrastructure and connectivity medium for urban development. Beyond assessing the state of ownership, this project will take a closer look at the physical condition of alleys within District 5 of the City of Detroit (the District to which all TVCDC neighborhoods belong) and triage what aspects of alley improvement and maintenance can result in more sustainable neighborhood development to inform future city and neighborhood planning initiatives.

Theoretical Justification, Social Benefit, or Significance: 

Real-world experience from the West Village Green Alley project has uncovered that there is no central clearinghouse of alley statistics within the City of Detroit, despite the crucial role alleys play as “arteries” to city movement. This research is critically important because it will survey and provide the first-ever look at the state or condition of all alleys in the city, which are either “vacated” by the city (fall to private property ownership) or owned by the city.

Alleys in Detroit host a number of utility lines and infrastructure systems. Without understanding these neglected pathways, future city development risks discounting the environmental impact of development along and upon surfaces that constitute a significant land area within the city. So far, no known estimates of this area or exact alley coverage by ownership exist.

Finally, a better understanding of stormwater runoff from Detroit alleys will inform development of the Detroit Water and Sewer Department’s (DWSD) new stormwater drainage fee program that charges DWSD account holders for all impervious surface area that contributes to runoff from an account’s property boundaries.

Specific Activities & Duration: 

The research methods appropriate to tackle this question include working in conjunction with the City of Detroit’s Department of Public Works (DPW), studying existing plans and maps and creating layers of new mapped systems that survey existing conditions. Beyond a land survey, research can include studying stormwater runoff patterns and calculating annual stormwater runoff volumes and runoff rates in alleys, and the impact these quantified stormwater impacts have on the city’s drainage system. The calculated infrastructural cost of neglecting these alleys will also be important to determine. The scale of these studies present a reasonable effort for five students over 16 months.

Integrative Approach: 

The proposed research will engage multidisciplinary departments from around the city, community organization stakeholders, and sustainability and planning professionals. Furthermore, the opportunity to quantify costs presents the opportunity to research innovative financing systems associated with alley improvements and maintenance, an area that is only broached with the West Village Green Alley project but that requires more data and research to understand the potential for significant city development impacts.

SEAS Program Areas: 
Environmental Policy and Planning
Sustainable Systems
Landscape Architecture
Role for each program area: 

Environmental Policy and Planning: Policy and Planning expertise is required to interact knowledgeably with City departments and evaluate the applicability of existing policy to alley-related improvement and maintenance issues within Detroit. Innovation in policy setting and planning as related to alleys will serve an important role in determining how the City of Detroit can reconsider the role of alleys in city growth and development.

Sustainable Systems: As stated, alleys represent the “arteries” of an urban environment -- cars, pedestrians, cyclists, freight, and more travel through alleys in the city daily, yet these systems are not given the same priority as streets and thoroughfares in city development. Neglecting the impact of alleys on sustainable city systems neglects an important source of stormwater runoff, degrading infrastructural impacts, social and environmental resource accumulation (e.g. water, crumbling buildings, human interactions/gatherings), and other sustainability evaluation inputs. The social impact of alleys also merits studying, such as alley contributions to perceived and real safety within neighborhoods or their potential for placemaking.

Landscape Architecture: The design and activation of alleys requires architectural planning and drawings to re-imagine and envision a new use, application, or role for alleys in the city. Until a meaningful and compelling alternative to current alleys is presented, new life cannot be breathed into this large land area at scale across the city.

Professional Career Development Benefits: 

TVCDC interacts on an ongoing basis with numerous city, private, and institutional organizations that will offer researchers significant professional career development benefits.The primary points of contact on this project are:

  • Mac Farr, Executive Director of The Villages CDC
  • Alessandra Carreon, PE, LEED AP, The Villages CDC board member (Product Environmental Engineer at Ford in Sustainability and Vehicle Environmental Matters, Co-Owner of PizzaPlex L3C in Detroit, board member of EcoWorks and the West Village Neighborhood Association)
Funding Sources: 

While no current funding exists for this research, the West Village Green Alley was funded by a foundation grant with matching funds from Invest Detroit.

Identify expected products/deliverables: 


The team will deliver:

  • A report outlining the quantification of vacated/public alleys across the city and the land area that alleys represent in Detroit, the qualitative state and physical condition(s) of a majority of alleys in the city, and enumeration/network map of parties responsible for alley improvement, maintenance, supervision and administration
  • Maps with multiple layers of asset identification and notable degradation at the sub-surface (where available), surface and surrounding area level
  • A report on innovative financial instruments or programs that could connect to the new DWSD stormwater drainage fee or other environmental policy/planning schemes related to infrastructure financing
  • Financial estimates for the baseline improvement and maintenance of alleys within TVCDC’s footprint if kept at “code” (and an explanation of minimum code adherence expectations)
  • Designs and proposal for new Green Alleys at high-potential sites within TVCDC’s footprint


TVCDC seeks to increase its level of participation and subject matter expertise in alley improvement and maintenance in order to pursue additional Green Alley installations and propose a new area of focus to increase safety and sustainability within its service area. The project outputs will be used to inform planning and developing strategies for future neighborhood development and to pursue relevant grant opportunities to fund green infrastructure improvements. The project team’s recommendations can be shared with potential funders or the City of Detroit to revolutionize the role of alleys in terms of city operational maintenance priorities and within the fabric of the city’s landscape.

Contact full name: 
Mac Farr
Job title: 
Executive Director
State or Country: 
SEAS Faculty Advisor: 
Mark Lindquist
Contact information: 
Master Students Involved in Project: 
  • Roberto Astudillo
  • Shruti Soni
  • Wona Sung
  • Xinyi Wang
Alessandra Carreon, a TVCDC Board Member and co-contact on this project, is a UM Ross School of Business Alum
Project Status: 
In Progress