Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Green City Diaries: Fab Lab and the language of nature

Photo by Marvin Shaouni
(originally published 11/12/13 in Model D)

What can we learn from observing the self-sustaining ecosystems of the natural world? And with that knowledge, how can we design systems of our own, systems of all kinds, that mimic the intrinsic balance of ecosystems, with their capacity for diversity, renewal, and the transformation of waste into energy?

These are the kinds of big questions posed by practitioners of permaculture, an approach to systems design with deep roots in agriculture but implications for, well, just about everything.

Permaculture (the word is a portmanteau of "permanent" and "agriculture," as well as "permanent" and "culture") was developed in the 1970s by Tasmanians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Reacting against industrial agricultural practices they found both wasteful and harmful, Mollison and Holmgren articulated an agricultural philosophy and practice inspired by natural systems.

Based on three fundamental values -- care for the Earth, care for people, and return of surplus -- Mollison and Holmgren's ethic emphasizes mutually sustaining relationships between living things and the intentional design of agricultural space to encourage such relationships. In essence, it's farming that works with nature, rather than against it, seeking to eliminate both waste and external "inputs" like pesticides, herbicides, water, and fertilizers. (Similar agricultural systems, called by different names, were developed around the same time by Sepp Holzer in Austria and Masanobu Fukuoka in Japan.)

As its adherents have grown in number and diversity over the decades, permaculture has been applied to systems outside agriculture, as well, including landscape design, planning, and architecture. But as a way of understanding and living in the world, its potential applications are even broader. "Everyone," as Detroit permaculturalist Kate Devlin puts it, "can incorporate some permaculture into their lives."

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Green City Diaries: Honeybee buzz

Photo by Marvin Shaouni
(originally published 8/6/13 in Model D.)

The day before we get together to talk about her honeybees, Bette Huster calls to tell me she's lost one of two hives she keeps in the city. 'It's colony collapse,' she says. 'A few days ago, there were more than 10,000 bees. Now they're mostly gone. There are still a couple hanging around, but production has ceased, if you will.'

We visit the hive the next day and sure enough, the scene before us is entirely different than the one at her other hive a few miles away, which teems with the purposeful, collective labor of thousands of bees. Here, it's still and quiet. We can see five or six bees crawling on the outside, but also flies -- a bad sign.
I ask Bette what happened. Where did all the bees go? She shrugs. 'I have a theory.' An industrial operation nearby recently cleared a neighboring field of dandelions. If the bees ingested the chemicals used to kill the dandelions, their 
'GPS system,' as Bette puts it, might have been damaged. After that, 'maybe one set of bees went out foraging, and they couldn't find their way back. Then another went out, and they couldn't find their way back.' But that's just a guess.

Research into the causes of colony collapse disorder (CCD), which has been drastically reducing honeybee populations in North America and Europe since 2006, is ongoing. One likely cause seems to be an increase in the use of neonicotinoids, pesticides chemically related to nicotine. (So likely that just a few months ago, the European Union began enforcing a two-year ban on the chemicals.) There are other possible (and possibly interrelated) causes: mites, parasites, malnutrition, habitat loss. In large-scale commercial beekeeping, which has been hit especially hard by CCD, the cultivation of crop monocultures is a suspect.

But even before anyone had started talking about CCD in earnest, honeybees in North America were having a hard time. Roger Sutherland, the president of the Southeast Michigan Beekeepers Association (SEMBA), tells me that the problems started in the 1980s. That's when the varroa mite and nosema parasite began wreaking havoc on honeybee colonies; 30 years later, both remain a serious threat.

In Michigan, harsh winters have been another significant problem. Honeybees stick around when the cold weather settles, burrowing deep inside their hives to keep each other warm. There are ways that beekeepers can winterize hives, but some loss is almost inevitable. The feral bee population, meanwhile, is particularly susceptible to winter loss.

The long and short of it is that apis mellifera, the European honeybee that was brought to North America by English colonists in 1622 and has thrived here for centuries, is in trouble. And over the decades, as honeybees' health has become more and more threatened, the practice of small-scale beekeeping has declined, especially in cities -- until now.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Zaha Hadid tells it slant: the Broad Museum in pictures

A few weeks ago, I made an architecture pilgrimage to East Lansing, of all places, to see the much-ballyhooed Broad Art Museum, designed by Zaha Hadid.

I've been interested in Hadid's work since 2006, when I caught her difficult, dazzling retrospective at the Guggenheim in NYC (an eye-opening experience, to say the least).

The Broad, which opened in November, is only Hadid's second building in the US, after the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. Living in Detroit, where we are basically not allowed to have exciting new buildings (we have too many old ones to fix up first), I was pretty giddy about the whole thing.

My initial impression was that, from the street, it hardly looks like a building at all. It seems to lack the familiar markers: doors, signage and windows are all enveloped by the corrugated steel. It looks, at first, like a huge sculpture, sleek and lurking, not a functional building.

There are doors, of course, plenty of windows, and even signage, but it all takes a few minutes to register.

See? Doors & windows, just like your grandmother's art museum had.

I spent a couple hours exploring the building outside & in, and those initial impressions aside, I found it to be thoroughly functional. OK, of course the architecture steals the show, but it's actually a modestly-sized museum at 46,000 square feet spread over three stories, so once you get used to all the crazy diagonal lines and beautiful staircases, the art comes to the fore and you realize that the whole thing's perfectly navigable and there's plenty of space for the works on display to do their thing.

It takes you a minute to get there, though. First you have to deal with those diagonals.

There's barely a right angle in the place. The effect is disorienting, exhilarating, and ultimately mind-altering. (When I got home that evening and for a good day or two afterward, I kept looking around at all the straight lines in the world and thinking, "Why straight up & down? Who said so? How boring! How expected!") The even line that makes a square is a lie (or at least completely arbitrary), Zaha's queer new building shouts -- a bold challenge to the handsome, if business-as-usual buildings that surround it.

Anyway, it's a lot of fun. It's a contemporary art museum that's a piece of contemporary art itself, off-kilter, insistently other, aggressive, radical -- and, for better or worse, eminently brandable. It's a vivid & exciting piece of new architecture on such a stately, conservative, and otherwise coherent college campus. The president of Michigan State says that it's an important symbol of the university's "quality and reach...in this competitive global marketplace." Whatever its reason for being, I'm just glad it is. Here are my favorite shots:

Friday, July 5, 2013

Green City Diaries: Dig This

Photo by Marvin Shaouni.
(originally published 6/18/13 in Model D.)

People have been growing food in Detroit, off and on, for centuries. Today, it's clear that urban agriculture is an essential part of our post-industrial identity. Even city government has gotten behind the movement, finally passing an urban ag ordinance just a few months ago. As more and more people choose to live lives here that are at once urban and rooted to the earth, important questions emerge: how much do we really know about the soil in Detroit, for instance, and how has it changed over time?

Urban soils, it turns out, are a vastly understudied phenomenon. In Southeast Michigan, as in many parts of the country, regional soil surveys conducted by the USDA have historically stopped at the city limits. It's a problem of both scale and complexity: urban activity has rendered the soil conditions so variable that the undertaking would be enormous. Two samples collected just a few feet from one another are likely to have wildly different compositions. Multiply that by 139 square miles and you start to see the problem.

There are Detroiters, however, who spend much of their lives working in and thinking about the soil, and their insights can provide a fascinating glimpse of the complex and surprising world beneath our feet.

Read the rest at Model D.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Cat plus

Our family just grew a little in size and a lot in cuteness. Meet Queequeg, Fox's new little brother. It basically feels like we won the lottery around here.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Chicago photo diary

Here are some photos from our recent trip to Chicago. I was really gripped by the city this visit: by the light, the spaces, the buildings, the history, the bustle, the visual collisions and contradictions. It's a stirring, lively place to photograph.

I took the last ten shots while on a fantastic architecture boat tour offered by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. The city's a living building museum, and getting the chance to explore it by water was a treat.

I also geeked out over a few pieces of public art by Frank Stella, all part of his Moby-Dick series. I included one of the pieces here; for more, check out this post, where I collect & muse on the rest.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Pieces & parts of Frank Stella's 'Moby-Dick' series in Chicago

So I recently read Moby-Dick for the first time, and for a minute there, I couldn't stop talking about it. Reading Moby-Dick is an event; if you enjoy the experience (and maybe even if you don't), you feel compelled to go on about it, all the time, to anybody who will listen. At least that's what I wanted to do.

Borges called Moby-Dick an "infinite novel." As such, the book that's so famously about obsession easily becomes an obsession -- a satisfyingly communal one, too, since so many other people have been similarly gripped. The cultural record surrounding this book is massive, boundless. You could spend a lifetime just reading what other people have written about it, considering the art it's inspired.

"Moby Dick Transcendent" by Rockwell Kent, 1930

And if you become obsessed with Moby-Dick, you end up in fantastically good company. You suddenly belong to the same club as people who are far more brilliant and talented than you (and who are obsessed in a way that makes your own fascination look like disinterest): Laurie Anderson, say, who designed a multimedia performance inspired by the book (here's a lovely song from it), or Matt Kish, who imaginatively illustrated every page of it, one day at a time, for 552 days in a row.

Matt Kish, "At length as the craft was cast to one side, and ran ranging along with the White Whale's flank, he seemed strangely oblivious of its advance...," acrylic paint and ink on found paper, 2011

I was a little surprised to learn about Frank Stella's contribution to the history of Moby-Dick-inspired art. The one-time minimalist spent the better part of the 1980s and '90s creating more than 135 abstract works, each titled after a particular chapter of the novel. This staggering body of work includes huge metal reliefs, prints, sculptures, and murals.

After finishing Moby-Dick and learning about Stella's related work, I checked out a great book about his series (thanks, inter-library loan!) called Frank Stella's Moby-Dick: Words and Shapes by Robert K. Wallace.

Wallace is a Melville scholar, but also an attentive visual art critic and champion of Stella's series. I don't think I've ever seen a book quite like his, which dazzingly marries literary analysis to art criticism.

I didn't finish the book and I don't have it in front of me, so forgive my bungled and bastardized version of the thesis that Wallace advances early on, but it goes something like: the Moby-Dick series liberated Stella from pure abstraction, enriching and enlarging the scope of his work (and reflecting the expansiveness of Moby-Dick) by facilitating its evolution into something closer to figurative abstraction. Stella's series doesn't illustrate Moby-Dick (like Rockwell Kent did in 1930) and it certainly isn't beholden to the novel (you could easily see any of the pieces and never associate them with Melville or Ishmael, Ahab or the white whale); instead, the two sort of swim alongside each other. The series establishes a visual language that can both be applied to Moby-Dick and convincingly shown to have been drawn from the world of the novel (that's Robert Wallace's job, which he does with systematic gusto), but that language is, at the same time, all its own.

The pieces in Stella's series are scattered throughout the world. (Wallace's book is your best chance to get a comprehensive sense of them.) Having recently scheduled a trip to Chicago, I was delighted to learn from the book that (at least) four of the pieces currently live there: Loomings and Knights and Squires, which hang on opposite walls of a postmodern skyscraper's soaring, spartan lobby, and, just a few blocks away, Postscript and The Town-Ho's Story, which tower, monstrously and commandingly, in the lobby of the Miesian Metcalfe Federal Building.

I dragged my willing husband and a patient friend around to see all four while we were checking out other pieces of public art downtown. We found 181 W Madison first, the 1990 skyscraper that houses the late '80s reliefs Loomings and Knights and Squires. (According to Frommer's Memorable Walks in Chicago, "In planning this building, the developers specifically asked architect Cesar Pelli to design the five-story, 100-foot long marble lobby as a gallery to display Stella's two works.") Upon entering the lobby, I was struck by the scale of the things; they're huge! I guess I knew that when I read about them, but it surprised me nonetheless. Here they are:

"Knights and Squires," etched aluminum and magnesium, 15' x 14' x 6'
"Loomings," etched aluminum and magnesium, 13' x 14' x 3'
I found these two beautiful and beguiling. The explosive, tumbling buoyancy of Knights and Squires and the elegant balance and contrast of Loomings did not prepare me, however, for the industrial darkness, might, and confusion of the 23-foot-tall Town-Ho's Story and its small companion, Postscript

"The Town-Ho's Story"

"Postscript," mounted on the same base as "The Town-Ho's Story"

These chaotic and difficult pieces were installed in the clean, modernist lobby of the Metcalfe Federal Building in 1993. Robert Wallace explains that The Town-Ho's Story is comprised primarily of thirteen one-ton pieces, shipped to Chicago on two flatbed trucks and installed (by crane) only after an upper window panel was removed to accommodate them.

This piece is not exactly universally loved. Wallace reports that during the week of its installation, employees of the building circulated a petition to have it removed. This 2003 commentator referred to it as a "wholly abysmal...monstrosity," a "misshapen lump of metal" that "still tastes bad."

I said earlier that I don't have Wallace's book in front of me, but I do have a few photocopied pages about these particular pieces. He refers to The Town-Ho's Story's "vertical aspiration" in terms of the "whale shape becomingly increasingly ascendent over the human shape," both in the novel and the trajectory of Stella's series. "This sense of an impending, stupendous mass is what closely relates The Town-Ho's Story to Melville's novel...and to the most characteristic appearances of Moby Dick himself." He goes on:
From the human point of view, The Town-Ho's Story can be viewed as a wreck, as the residue of a not entirely pleasant story. From the whale's point of view, it can be seen as a survival story, even as the resurrection of a crucified or mutilated shape. The arrival of this monumental sculpture near the end of the series is comparable to that of Moby Dick himself near the end of the book, when the undulating two-dimensional surface of the sea that has served as the liquid, spatial ground of the entire story is suddenly disrupted in an entirely new way, in the form of a living creature whose presence changes the rules of the game, and the relative strength of the players.
I found The Town-Ho's Story wholly absorbing -- sublime, even. It soars at the same time it looms. It offers a startling and engaging variety of textures that echo (and expand upon) the large-scale industrial works of John Chamberlain while simultaneously conjuring the biological, the animal -- the cetacean. It's a near-infinite sculpture for an infinite novel. In it are ragged landscapes, a striking portrait, terror, violence, power, even peace. Here are my best detail shots:

Creative Commons License
This work by Matthew Piper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Say yes, Michigan: Marriage equality now

Photo by Marvin Shaouni
(originally published 5/21/13 in Model D)

My partner of seven years and I were married last September in a small ceremony on the Detroit River. The next day, we celebrated with a big picnic on Belle Isle. It was wonderful: simple, informal, and (almost entirely) stress-free. Family and friends streamed in and out steadily all day, bearing goodwill and great food, chatting, relaxing, and playing games until nightfall. In the end, our union was thoroughly witnessed and enthusiastically affirmed, and we understood, for the first time, really, the extent to which our community's love and support surrounds and strengthens our relationship.

Those two days felt perfect, while we were living them. But the truth is more complicated than that, because there were two important parties notably absent from the proceedings (and, more to the point, from the union): the federal and state governments. Her words rang true when our friend and officiant proudly pronounced us husbands that day on the river, because as far as we're concerned, and as far as the community we're a part of is concerned, that's what we are. According to the laws of the land, however, our marriage is no marriage at all.

Read the rest at Model D.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Green City Diaries: Conserving water, improving neighborhood life

Photo by Marvin Shaouni
(originally published 5/7/13 in Model D)

Last month, I reported on a community forum that brought Detroiters together to talk about water. The forum addressed issues of water conservation and stewardship by focusing on neighborhood landscape infrastructure projects (a stormwater infiltration forest, for instance) and everyday individual choices (like using a rain barrel instead of a hose to water your home garden).

This week, let's dive a little deeper. I'd like to introduce you to two passionate Detroiters who spend much of their free time thinking about our water problems and trying to help solve them. First we'll learn from Deborah Dorsey, a member of the West Grand Boulevard Collaborative (WGBC), about the remarkable "blue" infrastructure projects she and her neighbors are developing along the boulevard between the Lodge and I-96. Then we'll turn to Erma Leaphart-Gouch, a North Rosedale Park resident and everyday water activist, to get an up-close look at water conservation at home."

Read the rest at Model D.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Free City & Jason Mitcham

We went to a curious art festival called Free City last night in Flint. We'd caught a few minutes of a conversation about it that morning on the Craig Fahle show and liked what we heard: something something old Chevy plant, something something light art. Well, why not?  The last (& first) time I was in Flint I was 15 and watching that terrible Avengers movie with Uma Thurman & Sean Connery at the drive-in.

Free City (at least this first night -- it's a three day festival) was kind of a mess. Poorly lit, difficult to navigate, and attended (pretty sparsely) by as many rowdy, wasted teenagers as arty types. Not that we had a bad time, exactly. There was a certain sloppy, anarchic, '80s movie charm about the whole thing. It was like ... an art carnival, complete with hot dogs.

Some of the art was pretty exciting, including a big inflatable silver dome (remember Starlab?) with a party waiting to happen inside. One participant at a time pedaled a stationary bike that powered a stereo blasting "Move This" by Technotronic. There was a tiny disco ball hanging from the very top of the dome, and if you weren't dancing or making the music happen, you could make bubbles with tennis rackets, instead.

There was also a pretty spiral made from strings of different colored LED lights. It seemed to invite participation, so I walked through it, carefully & concentrically, for about five minutes until I got to the center, where jets were spraying cold mist. Later I talked to the artist and she seemed surprised that people were walking through it. And by "surprised," I mean "dismayed but resigned." I told her I was sorry, but that it seemed like it was made to be interacted with. I think mostly she was sad that drunk kids were stepping on her light bulbs & breaking them.

The highlight of the evening, though, was the work of Jason Mitcham, the whole reason I wanted to write this. His stop motion paintings stopped us in our tracks, and made the ~140 mile round trip excursion totally worth it.

Each short video piece is assembled out of still images of a single, painstakingly altered painting. These keenly observed depictions of American-style progress are rendered in a rapid, fluid visual language that shows the viewer years, even decades, in minutes. In constant forward motion, we see landscapes, development, construction, infrastructure and economic boom; we also see transformation, neglect, collapse, and decay. Mitcham's moving paintings provide lyrical & transcendent birds' eye views of triumph, folly, and the steady erosions of time. They pull us back from the historical moments and processes we unconsciously inhabit, thereby revealing them.

According to the artist, he is inspired by Robert Smithson's view of suburbs as "rising into ruin." "They exist without a past," he writes, "at least in any real sense, and thus have no hope for a lasting future.  As they are being built, their immanent decay can already be predicted."

Below are three examples of his work, all of which were featured at Free City. (The last one is a music video for "Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise" by the Avett Brothers.)

This Land is Your Land from Jason Mitcham on Vimeo.

Valley of Ashes: A Brief History of Flushing Meadows from Jason Mitcham on Vimeo.

Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise from Jason Mitcham on Vimeo.

For more examples of Jason Mitcham's work, check out his Vimeo page.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Yamasaki restored

We visited Minoru Yamasaki's recently restored 1958 reflecting pool & sculpture garden behind the McGregor Memorial Conference Center on Wayne State's campus this morning. It's a beautiful public space: simple, elemental, elegant, and tranquil. For its relatively small size, I nonetheless felt a powerful sense of both freedom & exploration while poking around. What a joy to see it restored, to have the opportunity to interact with/in it.

I'm looking forward to returning soon and getting more, better, & wider shots; these are just hints of the whole.

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This work by Matthew Piper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Green City Diaries: Paradise found

Photo by Marvin Shaouni
(originally published 4/2/13 in Model D)

Consider Detroit, before it was Detroit.

Before the Emergency Financial Manager, before Kwame, before the Renaissance Center. Before cars and highways, black flight and white.

Before Hastings Street and suburban sprawl, Boblo, Deco, and Pingree's potato patches. Before dirt roads, ribbon farms, and enterprising New Frenchmen in birchbark canoes.

We can begin to know this distant, verdant place secondhand, through a letter written by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac to Louis XIV in 1702, one year after French settlement.

Cadillac describes a river of "sweet water," linking "a lake which has been called St. Claire" and the Great Lakes, via the St. Lawrence River, to the Atlantic.

"This river or strait of the seas is scattered over," he writes, "...in its plains and on its banks, with large clusters of trees surrounded by charming meadows....On the banks and round about the clusters of timber there is an infinite number of fruit trees, chiefly plums and apples. They are so well laid out that they might be taken for orchards planted by the hand of a gardener."

Cadillac's letter contains a rich description of what sounds like another place entirely, an "earthly paradise of North America" abundant with things that grow (as well as crawl, hop, fly, swim, and slither). Looking back on what's happened here in the intervening 300 years, including the displacement of native peoples, the industrial revolution, and a turbulent period of post-industrial decline, it's hard not to think of Detroit as a kind of paradise lost.

But even today, after centuries of development and environmental degradation, traces of the original landscape remain. And some Detroiters find themselves drawn to these sites, where they can escape the pressures of daily life and commune with the natural world that once proliferated here without having to leave the city limits.

With Spring doing its thing all over the city, now is a good time to check in with some of these Detroiters and see what they have to teach us about the vital, nourishing relationships we can all build with the nature that's still here, hiding in plain sight.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Green City Diaries: Shear innovation, part 2

(originally published 3/5/13 in Model D)

When we started our conversation last week about sustainable stylists in Detroit, I mentioned that Sebastian Jackson of the Social Club Grooming Company is considering several interrelated areas for improvement over time. One is the toxicity of the products he uses and sells. "There are real health benefits to this industry," he says, "but also the potential to do real harm. I don't want to hurt my clients."

Jen Willemsen concurs. She owns Curl Up & Dye, a non-toxic salon in the Cass Corridor, about a mile down the street from The Social Club. When she opened the business four years ago, she used and sold standard, high quality beauty products, without giving much thought to the potentially harmful effects they could have on her customers, her employees, and the environment. "Providing non-toxic products and thinking about sustainability were never goals when I started this business," she says. "Honestly, it's the last thing I ever thought I would take on. But at this point, I can't go back."

Jen started thinking seriously about cosmetics ingredients after some of her vegan customers asked her to provide professional quality products that weren't tested on animals. For the first time, she started really paying attention to the labels on the products she used every day. She started investigating the ingredients she found listed there: ("chemicals," as she puts it, "with repercussions"), and her research led her to some disturbing insights into the beauty industry.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Green City Diaries: Shear innovation, part 1

Photo by Marvin Shaouni
(originally published 2/26/13 in Model D)

Here's something pretty remarkable about sustainability in action: when it comes to considering the social and environmental impacts of business practices, there is opportunity for innovation and continuous improvement in every kind of human endeavor. The sustainable ethic, in other words, is both global and adaptable. It has to be, or we're doomed. In the long term, only like-minded efforts by leaders from every industry at every scale, from building to baking, will truly change the world.

I mention this because the green leaders we're focusing on in this two-part story couldn't work in a more different environment than the folks at Detroit Diesel, the large-scale industrial operation we profiled in January. But, motivated by the same passions, they are engaged in a similar daily struggle: to remain profitable while finding ways to uplift the local community and help heal our beleaguered planet.

Sebastian Jackson and Jen Willemsen don't work in an industry that's usually thought of as a hotbed of eco-conscious innovation, but if the two of them are any indication, now is a good time to start rethinking that. Detroit, meet your sustainable stylists.

This week we'll get to know Sebastian, who owns The Social Club Grooming Company, an almost year-old barbershop, salon, and day spa on Wayne State's campus. Next week we'll talk to Jen Willemsen, the owner of Curl Up and Dye, a mile down the street.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Green City Diaries: investing in sustainability

Photo by Marvin Shaouni
(originally published 1/29/13 in Model D)

In 2005, the Detroit Diesel plant, a heavy duty diesel engine manufacturing facility near Rouge Park, was declared "functionally obsolete" by a visiting assessor. Daimler AG (then DaimlerChrysler), which had recently purchased the almost 70 year old facility, considered shuttering it.

A concerted effort on the part of the plant's employees, however, including workers, managers and engineers, convinced Daimler otherwise. "We stood up," environmental engineer Chris Templeton told me, "and said, 'We are not going to be another facility to close.' We came up with a gameplan, presented it to Daimler, and said, 'This is what we can do as an organization. Please don't make this another story about another Detroit plant closing.' And we're still here."

Not only is Detroit Diesel, which employees around 2,000 people, still here -- it's growing. When President Obama visited Detroit in December, he stopped by the plant to announce a new $100 million investment by Daimler, which will add two new production lines and 115 new jobs, transforming the facility into a complete power train manufacturing center.

Detroit Diesel's continuing journey from "functionally obsolete" to robust and growing provides a fascinating and illuminating look at industrial sustainability in Detroit. A culture of sustainable thinking and action on all levels of the organization, from managers and engineers to hourly UAW workers, has helped steer the company away from obsolescence and toward a more secure, promising, and environmentally conscious future.

This is a story not told often enough in Detroit, which is supposed to be "post-industrial" -- a story about how the industry that's still here is changing.

Detroit Diesel's sustainable efforts include an EPA award-winning brownfield cleanup project, a dramatic increase in reuse and recycling (compare the 5,482 tons of material, excluding metals and oils, recycled in 2012 with the 158 tons recycled in 2004), and the decision to send recyclable materials to Michigan facilities for processing. The company has transformed an executive parking lot into a greenspace for all employees to use, and a concern with continuously improving energy efficiency, both in the plant itself and in the engines it produces, is a top priority.

Employees use bikes to get around the 3 million square foot facility, and the glass showcases used to display the various green awards the company has received are repurposed cabinets. (Somebody in the organization was going to throw them away, but environmental engineer Karen Goryl saw them in the garbage and knew just what she could do with them.)

I could go on, because there's more to tell, but suffice it to say: sustainability touches virtually every aspect of work at Detroit Diesel, and workers at all levels are regularly looking for ways to reduce the company's environmental impact.

To get a better understanding of what this kind of holistic, industrial sustainable thinking looks like from the ground level, I visited the facility and talked to three employees about their work: Chris, the environmental engineer, Paul Tousignant, a controls engineer, and Vito Randazzo, a material truck driver who's responsible for collecting and sorting recyclables.