Final Report: Environmental Design to Address Air Pollution and Equity in Southwestern Detroit

EPA Grant Number: SU833950
Title: Environmental Design to Address Air Pollution and Equity in Southwestern Detroit
Investigators: Larsen, Larissa
Institution: University of Michigan
EPA Project Officer: Nolt-Helms, Cynthia
Phase: I
Project Period: August 15, 2008 through August 14, 2009
Project Amount: $10,000
RFA: P3 Awards: A National Student Design Competition for Sustainability Focusing on People, Prosperity and the Planet (2008) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: P3 Challenge Area - Built Environment , Pollution Prevention/Sustainable Development , P3 Awards , Sustainability


This project focuses on mitigating the impact of coarse particulates such as fugitive dust by using bioengineering strategies that incorporate the use of vegetation. The use of vegetation is a practical and cost-effective land use practice that can help suppress airborne particulates, thus improving local air quality. Although this report makes frequent reference to particulate matter (PM), the recommended bioengineering strategies center on mitigating the impacts from unregulated sources of fugitive dust including industrial facilities and activities, unpaved and barren land, or unwashed roadways.

One of the most concentrated pockets of heavy industrial manufacturing in the United States exists in Southeast Michigan at the confluence of Southwest Detroit and Southeastern Dearborn. Fugitive dust is a prominent source of ambient air pollution in this area. It emanates from numerous unpaved lots, storage piles, and rail yards. In 2004, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated the seven-county Southeast Michigan region as a non-attainment area for the fine particulate matter (PM2.5) standard. A three-mile airshed buffer around each of the two air monitors recording the highest PM levels in the area defines our project boundaries.

The goal of this project is to identify long-term interventions that will reduce fugitive dust with bioengineering techniques that can be used at large industrial sources as well as smaller and less regulated sources.

Ensuring environmentally healthy neighborhoods is an important goal for residents of Southeast Michigan. To this end, University of Michigan graduate students and faculty in collaboration with Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision (SDEV), a local grassroots environmental non-profit, and the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) propose supplementing current regulatory processes with a set of bioengi­neering strategies to mitigate fugitive dust and particulate matter in Southwest Detroit and Southeastern Dearborn. The use of vegetation is a practical and cost-effective land use practice that can aid in suppressing airborne particulates, thus improving the local environment for all.

Because of adverse health and environmental effects, several forms of PM are regulated by the EPA to meet annual and daily National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) under the Clean Air Act. In 2004, the EPA designated the seven-county Southeastern Michigan region as a non-attainment area for the fine particulate matter (PM2.5) standard. The Southwestern High School and Salina Elementary School air monitoring stations exceed the PM2.5 annual arithmetic mean standard of 15 μg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter), with measurements of 16.4 μg/m3 and 18.2 μg/m3, respectively. Through traditional regulatory processes and creative mitigation strategies, MDEQ and SEMCOG are working to bring the region into attainment by 2010.

This report provides an overarching framework for mitigating fugitive dust using vegetation. It demonstrates the effectiveness of vegetation as a long-term strategy to manage fugitive dust. Vegetation may be used to supplement shorter-term mechanical solutions that primarily block or suppress dust. Specifically, vegetation reduces fugitive dust by absorbing and filtering airborne particulates, reducing local temperature variability, and blocking wind and airborne particles. In order to demonstrate these strategies in practice, this report identifies a number of specific bioengineering techniques that can be used on a variety of sites. Each of these techniques is designed to maximize the effectiveness of vegetation in dust mitigation. They may be used not only as described for particular sites within the study area, but also can serve as templates for sites in areas where fugitive dust poses health risks outside of Southeast Michigan.

Summary/Accomplishments (Outputs/Outcomes):

The project area is defined by 3-mile airshed buffers around two Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) air monitors located at Detroit’s Southwestern High School and Salina Elementary School in Dearborn, Michigan. Industrial facilities in the area include, but are not limited to, coal-fired utilities, municipal waste incinerators, sewage sludge incinerators, refineries, iron/steel manufacturers, coke ovens, and chemical plants. Federal and state authorities are work­ing with the largest industries to implement technical solutions to mitigate stationary stack emissions and initiate fugitive dust management strategies. However, located within the project area are many smaller industries and transportation companies that contribute to the fugitive dust problem but are not regularly monitored.

Source Selection:

In order to catalogue sites for fugitive dust mitigation, we used a combination of site visits, aerial photography, and a list of potential fugitive dust sources from MDEQ. A total of 50 sites were selected and categorized in the following manner.

  1. Unpaved Lots at Active Businesses
  2. Uncovered Storage Piles
  3. Barren Unpaved Land
  4. Facilities with Trucking Activities (Track-Out)
  5. Major Truck Routes

Plant Selection and Plant List

Because the purpose of this project is to remediate fugitive dust pollution with bioengineering strategies, the functional characteristics of plant species are extremely important. We developed a list of appropriate trees, shrubs, and herbaceous ground covers based on relevant criteria, including mature height, density, hardiness, precipitation needs, and growth habitat. This plant list is designed to provide guidelines for selecting the plants based on their ability to minimize fugitive dust. Appropriate plants are well-adapted to the local climate, and thus this list includes mostly native species. Native plants minimize maintenance and watering needs and are able to withstand extremes in local temperature and precipitation. While the list focuses on native species, it also includes non-native evergreen species with dense, coarse leaves. Plants with denser canopies more effectively filter and absorb air pollutants than those with porous canopies. Invasive species were carefully excluded from the list to avoid damage to beneficial and desirable plants.

Additional Benefits of Vegetation

Planting vegetation on a site provides benefits that extend beyond improving air quality. Vegetation also is useful in enhancing soil and plays a significant role in managing water quality as well. Air pollution particulates that are not absorbed or filtered through tree canopies collect on the ground where there is a higher potential for them to be dispersed into the air by passing traffic and other activity. They also are frequently carried away in runoff from rain events, as stormwater. Poorly managed stormwater runoff can exacerbate this problem, spreading pollutants across roads and lots, depositing large quantities of sediment in the path of vehicles. While bioengineering strategies discussed throughout this section focus on removing particulates from the air, those that include plants with broad canopies may be used to prevent fugitive dust generation that results from buildup of sediment in streets due to stormwater runoff. Providing proper stormwater drainage and directing runoff into natural filtration areas prevents water erosion and sediment runoff onto roads. Bioengineering techniques that focus on collecting and filtering stormwater through areas planted with trees, grasses, and shrubs can alleviate this problem. Fugitive dust mitigation strategies should include stormwater management techniques in order to more comprehensively address pollution and achieve greater reductions in potential future generation of fugitive dust.

Site Selection Process

We identified vacant or underused properties that have the potential to serve as vegetative buffers. Over the course of 2 months, our team scrutinized aerial imagery and conducted groundtruthing visits to identify more than 50 potential sites. While vegetative bioengineering strategies can be effective on any sized property, we targeted sites exceeding 1 acre in area. Although the suitability of each site for vegetation varies according to site characteristics, soil quality, and climate, this area-wide inventory indicates the potential range of sites possible for vegetative mitigation. From our initial inventory of more than 50 sites, we narrowed our selection based on the criteria that vegetation should be planted close to dust sources and serve as a buffer for residential neighborhoods. We used information from the 2000 U.S. Census to identify block-level populations. Sites located within or near densely populated blocks were given priority. We also used GIS software to determine which sites were located closest to dense areas of fugitive dust sources. Using a combination of these two criteria, we prioritized and selected our demonstration sites based upon identification of ownership and on-the-ground investigation. The result is a short list of four sites for which bioengineering strategies will be most effective given their proximity to both residential areas and fugitive dust sources.

Site # 1 – Mellon/Dix

Current Conditions:

This 6-acre site currently is owned by KDR Land Corporation. The lot is in a high-traffic area amid numerous trucking facilities, storage piles, and unpaved lots. The lot is unpaved and used as a truck storage yard with vehicles frequently entering and exiting. Directly to the southeast is an unpaved equipment storage facility, and an active storage pile sits to the northwest. Both Mellon Road and Dix Road are major truck routes and experience high volumes of industrial traffic.

Proposed Strategy:

This site represents both a source of fugitive dust as well as an opportunity to plant vegetation to capture ambient particle pollution. Thus, the recommended strategy is source-specific. Because of the high traffic volumes in and around the site, it is unlikely that most vegetation will survive on the site itself. In lieu of stabilizing the site with vegetation, we propose covering the unpaved lot with varigated gravel, which will withstand the weight of the trucks and suppress dust. We also propose planting a ring of conifers, such as Colorado Spruce and Austrian Pine, around the edges of the site. It is important to stagger the trees and space them far enough apart (roughly 20 feet) to allow them to fill out as they mature. This will maximize their exposed surface area and allow them to absorb more dust particles. Planting trees around this site will not only absorb ambient dust but also will prevent the wind from carrying dust off this lot.

Site # 46 – Ormond St./ Luther St.

Current Conditions:

This 1.8-acre site serves as a buffer between the single-family residential area to the east and the industrial area to the west. It currently is owned by the Global Gas Corporation. The prevailing wind tends to blow from nearby unpaved industrial areas into the adjacent residential area. Thus, vegetation will create a natural buffer to protect residents. Currently, sparse deciduous trees surround the otherwise treeless site. A fence runs along the site’s northwestern edge.

Proposed Strategy:

The deciduous trees along the site edges will be augmented with a row of co­niferous trees in order to take advantage of the “edge effect” and create more surface area to capture airborne dust. Species such the Austrian or Scotch Pine are useful in screens and masses and are therefore good choices for this site. Because there is no heavily used trucking route adjacent to the site, the vegetation will serve to collect dust being blown from nearby unpaved industrial yards.

Site # 47 – Pleasant St/Beatrice St.

Current Conditions:

The property is 4.9 acres and currently is owned by the Detroit Public School Board. While the site has the potential to be a community park, it was recently fenced due to the discovery of arsenic. As such, any earth-moving activities will need to be conducted with care. It should be noted that the possibility of contamination does not prohibit a tree planting strategy from being successful; indeed, trees often can be used for phytoremediation, which refers to trees’ ability to clean soil through nutrient uptake. Even in the case of arsenic, depending on the level of contamination, robust trees should not suffer damage and will be able to survive. The adjacent property to the northeast (leeward side) of this demonstration site is currently undergoing construction and there is heavy industrial activity to the north, creating large amounts of truck traffic on Pleasant Street. This property also is surrounded by a dense single-family residential area and thus is in the transition zone from residential to industrial land uses.

Proposed Strategy:

This site allows ample room to demonstrate the proper use of multi-row wind breaks while still allowing public access to open space pending issues of contamination. The wind breaks would be planted perpendicular to the prevailing wind direction to reduce ground-level wind speeds. Windbreaks reduce wind speed most effectively when spaced within four to five times the height of the trees used. For example, if the tree species planted will be 30 feet tall, the wind rows should be spaced 120 to 150 feet apart. Effective trees for windbreaks include Austrian and Scotch pines. In addition, there will be a thick row of trees around the edges of the property, while leaving one edge more open in order to facilitate park use by the surrounding community members. We recommend using a mix of deciduous trees, such as the Hackberry or Hawthorne, around the edges of the site for visual appeal.

Site # 49 – Marion Ave.

Current Conditions:

This site is situated among one of the most industrial portions of the study area. It consists of a narrow strip of land approximately thirty feet wide along Marion Avenue. This site is strategically important because of its proximity to nearby neighborhoods. The site borders heavy industry to the southeast along the Detroit River and can therefore serve as a buffer between these sources of particulate pollution and residential areas. The land currently is owned by ITC Holdings Corporation and serves as a utility corridor; therefore, it is important to allow access to the utility towers on the site for service and maintenance.

Proposed Strategy:

In order to effectively create a year-round buffer, we propose planting two rows of small to medium conifers, such as White Fir or Colorado Spruce. Trees should be offset from one another to allow maximum surface area exposure and achieve the desired moderate porosity. The rough surface of these trees will serve to capture and absorb particles kicked up by passing traffic along the alley (between the utility strip and residences) and Marion Avenue.


Due to the intermingling of residential and industrial land uses in Southwest Detroit and Southeastern Dearborn, area residents are constantly in contact with industrial activity and are exposed to its negative side effects. One of the most overlooked side effects is the harm caused by fugitive dust created by high levels of activity on unpaved and heavily used land. Fugitive dust creates a number of adverse health impacts including increased blood pressure, arrhythmia, decreased heart response, and asthma. Given these effects and the increasing levels of particulate pollution in the area, a creative plan to address fugitive dust mitigation is necessary.

In an effort to improve the overall health and welfare of local communities, this report highlights the fugitive dust problem that exists in Southeast Michigan. This report demonstrates the effectiveness of using vegetation as a long-term, cost-effective strategy to manage fugitive dust. Vegetation may be used to supplement shorter-term mechanical solutions that primarily block or suppress particulate matter in the form of fugitive dust. Specifically, vegetation reduces fugitive dust by absorbing and filtering airborne particu­lates, reducing local temperature variability, and blocking wind and airborne particles. In order to demonstrate these strategies in practice, this report identifies a number of specific bioengineering techniques that can be used on a variety of sites with differing characteristics.

  1. Plant vegetation as close to a fugitive dust source as possible.
  2. Plant larger rather than smaller vegetation where possible (i.e., trees and shrubs rather than grasses or herba­ceous groundcover).
  3. Maximize exposed surface area by arranging plants to create edges rather than clusters.
  4. Construct windbreaks using multiple rows of plants of varied height and moderate porosity.
  5. Plant a mixture of coniferous and deciduous vegetation.

Each of these techniques can maximize the effectiveness of vegetation in dust mitigation. They are appropriate not only for the highlighted sites within the study area, but also can serve as templates for sites in areas where fugi­tive dust poses health risks outside of Southeastern Michigan.

Implementing these recommendations will require efforts from a variety of community partners. Mitigating fugitive dust using the strategies outlined in this report requires the collaboration and cooperation of local stakeholders, business leaders, and residents. These organizations and individuals play a vital role in achieving project goals because they bring the resources and skills required to implement the planting of vegetation to reduce fugitive dust generation, as well as placing vegetation in strategic locations to decrease residents’ exposure to particulate matter. Southwest Detroit and Southeastern Dearborn have a number of stakeholders that work to increase the quality of life for local residents. We have identified many organizations that are potentially interested in helping reduce particulate matter exposure in the area.

Given its demonstrated success, bioengineering can play a greater role in enhancing long-term pollution mitigation. Using this report as a guide, industry leaders, community organizations, residents, and other stakeholders throughout southeastern Michigan can take advantage of the aesthetic and functional benefits of vegetation as a cost-effective land use practice in suppressing airborne particulates and improving the local environment for all.


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Progress and Final Reports:

Original Abstract