Leveraging environmental restoration to advance economic and social revitalization in Michigan’s coastal communities: sustaining community leadership and restoration gains

Client Organization: 
Michigan Office of the Great Lakes (MOGL)
Project Location : 
Lansing, MI, USA
Secondary Client Organization: 
Great Lakes Commission
Summary of Project Idea: 

Goals & Objectives:

In this Masters Project we will work directly with the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes (MI-OGL) and selected (perhaps 4-6) coastal communities to determine how best to continue the momentum from restoring heavily degraded Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOC) into the next phase of community revitalization and economic and social development. The SEAS Project Team will consider: (1) how to sustain both community leadership and restoration of nearshore ecosystem condition and services accomplished throughout the AOC process, including possible policies, programs, structures, processes, funding, and other measures to sustain momentum into the next phase of revitalized economic and social development; and (2) how best to integrate gains in understanding the nearshore ecosystem into ongoing urban planning processes and cultures.  The Team’s final report will be presented as recommendations to the MI-OGL.

Theoretical Justification, Social Benefit, or Significance:

Michigan’s 14 Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOCs) reflect the state’s legacy of industrial development, and the resulting environmental degradation of tributaries and nearshore ecosystems. This legacy of heavily impacted waterfront areas has long posed a significant obstacle to promoting new economic development and recreational uses in coastal communities. The AOCs were designated under the 1987 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and have been undergoing a process of systematic cleanup and restoration since that time, led by federal and state agencies and with substantial involvement from local communities. This process accelerated significantly under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a comprehensive federal restoration program for the Great Lakes begun in 2010. Several of Michigan’s AOCs have been formally “delisted” (removed from the list of AOCs) in recent years or are nearing this historic milestone. For their proximate communities, this presents a new opportunity to leverage environmental restoration to move beyond a degraded “rust belt” status; think inclusively about the potential ecological and societal (economic, health, and equity) aspects of a next, more vital and prosperous, future stage.  

Specific Activities & Duration: 

For Objective #1, the student team will combine application of literature on community engagement in government programs, maintaining ecological restoration, and quantifying nearshore ecosystem services; with direct engagement with selected AOC coastal community leadership, using a comparative case study approach.  For Objective #2, the student team will engage with communities to co-develop spatial, “story-maps” of ecosystem structure, function, and associated services and work with municipal leaders and urban planners to explore how best to integrate this information into planning, zoning, economic development, and related processes.  Secondary advisors will include: (1) Matt Doss (Great Lakes Commission), who brings a wealth of experience with the AOC program; and (2) Dr. Joel Hoffman, (USEPA, Office of Research and Development, Duluth), who leads a research group also examining the transition from “restoration to revitalization” for AOC coastal communities.

Integrative Approach: 

The challenge of revitalizing coastal communities degraded by legacy pollution and industrial impacts requires attention to multiple dimensions and attributes, including environmental, economic, social, and cultural conditions and values. The ideal SEAS Project Team will bring integrated skills across disciplines, including governance, behavioral change, urban planning, economics and business development, ecosystem services, environmental remediation, aquatic ecology, community outreach, and conservation planning.  Team members should have an intellectual curiosity to explore and integrate multiple disciplines (including those with which they are less familiar), and a desire for engaged learning with the various actors within the AOC program community. 

This course will be further integrated with classes from several other UM schools/departments (Business, English, Law, Urban Planning), that will focus on complementary aspects of post-AOC coastal community revitalization. The SEAS Project Team will meet regularly with these sister efforts to forge a series of integrated products.  Across-campus coordination is provided through the Michigan Engaging Communities through the Classroom (MECC) initiative. 

SEAS Program Areas: 
Conservation Ecology (Aquatic Sciences, Terrestrial Ecosystems, and Conservation Biology)
Environmental Policy and Planning
Behavior, Education, and Communication
Environmental Justice
Role for each program area: 

Conservation Ecology: Students will work alongside stakeholders and local experts to jointly clarify and map the essential (BUI-relevant) structure, processes, and ecosystem services of the nearshore ecosystem for each selected AOC community.  This model of knowledge co-production helps to legitimize the science tools and ensure their use by stakeholders.  They will maintain a focus on the coastal context of the affected communities and their unique proximity to the nearshore ecosystem.  They will assess ongoing maintenance plans for restored nearshore habitats and populations, and explore means of integrating nearshore ecosystem knowledge into ongoing municipal planning processes and cultures.

Environmental Policy and Planning: Students will explore how best to sustain community leadership following completion of the AOC program (and the structure it provided for decades), into the next phase of revitalized economic and social development.  They will work directly with stakeholders to examine, and make recommendations concerning: policies, programs, structures, processes, funding, and other measures to sustain continued progress in environmental, economic and social revitalization. 

Behavior, Education, and Communication: This project is fundamentally about behavioral change in response to environmental restoration; how communities can evolve their narrative and associated perspective from one rooted in environmental degradation and melancholy, to one built on hope and new possibilities (particularly those tied to their association with the “blue economy” encompassing substantial ecosystem services and nearshore values).  Students in the Behavior, Education, and Communication program will examine the driving motivations of behavioral change in response to future possibilities.

Environmental Justice: The consequences of communities within or adjoining severely-degraded AOCs have impacted different community segments unequally.  Most AOCs adjoin former working-class neighborhoods whose options have declined along with their legacy industry jobs.  Likewise, as these communities move into new stages of development, there will likely be inequalities in how sectors of the community are represented in planning and decision-making, and in the distribution of benefits from revitalization accomplishments.  Environmental Justice students will ensure that our teams are cognizant of the EJ aspects and dynamics throughout the project, and will identify ways that these considerations are built into recommendations for sustaining revitalization.

Professional Career Development Benefits: 
  • Exposure to multiple dimensions of environmental restoration, waterfront development, community revitalization, and conservation planning.
  • Interaction with leaders in a variety of professions drawing from a diverse array of educational backgrounds and areas of expertise.
  • Integration of multiple sources of information from diverse dimensions to focus on a complex socio-economic, political and environmental challenge.
  • Introduction to the application of multiple disciplines in real-world professions in contemporary contexts.
  • Networking with federal, state and regional agencies as well as leaders in the AOC communities.
  • Opportunities to present both in local forums and professional conferences.
Funding Sources: 

Funding for summer stipends for 4 students is available from the MI-OGL.

Identify expected products/deliverables: 


The Team’s final report will be presented as recommendations to the MI-OGL, in both written and oral formats.


The Team’s recommendations will be considered in our agency’s ongoing efforts to strengthen implementation of the statewide AOC program, both across current AOCs and into the future as communities are able to achieve AOC delisting.  The team’s recommendations will be shared with the Statewide Public Advisory Council for Michigan’s Areas of Concern program and at U.S. EPA’s annual conference for the regional Great Lakes AOC program in spring 2019. There may also be opportunities to present the team’s findings and recommendations to the Great Lakes Commission and to other regional agencies and organizations, such as the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition and the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, among others. 

Contact full name: 
Richard Hobrlar
Job title: 
Great Lakes Management Unit Supervisor
State or Country: 
SEAS Faculty Advisor: 
Paul Seelbach
Contact Phone: 
Contact e-mail: 
Contact information: 
Staff member of a potential client organization
Master Students Involved in Project: 
  • Collin Knauss
  • Juliana Lisuk
Project Status: 
In Progress