A Q&A with Joel Howrani Heeres, Director of Sustainability for the City of Detroit
Joel Howrani Heeres is the Director of Sustainability for the City of Detroit. He will deliver the keynote address at the Sustainable Detroit Forum on Nov.18. Register here.
Joel Howrani Heeres started 2020 with an ambitious plan. This was going to be a year for bringing the Detroit Sustainability Action Agenda to fruition. He was looking forward to creating a solar feasibility program, launching new recycling programs, and getting a citywide greenhouse gas assessment underway.
Then the pandemic hit, and the city furloughed Howrani Heeres and his department. Planet Detroit chatted with Howrani-Heeres to find out what he’s been able to achieve during 2020 on a 4-hour per week schedule, what’s next, and what the pandemic has taught him about the city and sustainability.
Planet Detroit: What has it been like to advance the city’s sustainability agenda during a pandemic?
Howrani Heeres: City government faced a pretty severe financial challenge with a $400 million shortfall, and everything’s kind of been pared down to essential services. My entire office was furloughed in April to help try to plug those holes. That meant our team was working only four hours per week. So moving sustainability forward amid a pandemic has been a challenge.
PD: What aspects of the Detroit Sustainability Action Agenda have you been able to advance despite the pandemic and the furlough?
HH: We tried to prioritize to keep vital projects still moving. We’re still pushing the Climate Action Plan forward, mainly because we had some contractors on board to help with EcoWorks, and Elevate Energy to continue to do a greenhouse gas assessment and beginning work on a climate vulnerability assessment.
We’ve also moved forward our work to help make it easier for Detroiters to start land-based businesses. That’s continued to move forward, and we will be launching a new web portal on that pretty soon.
Historically when people have tried to start a business using the city’s vacant lands, it’s been trying to kind of push a round peg through a square hole. The city treated them as if they were operating in a building in the permitting process. So this is an attempt to streamline and make it easier and recognizing the contributions that land-based businesses have made in the city.
PD: What are some things that have had to move to the back-burner?
HH: We’ve had to put our solar feasibility assessment on hold. And we have a sustainability dashboard that is meant to track progress across city departments, and that’s been held up because many of these departments are dealing with crises. We need to deal immediately with Detroiters’ health and protect them from this pandemic — that’s the highest priority. We were also moving forward on procuring electric vehicles for parking enforcement, but that’s been postponed as well.
PD: Looking forward past the pandemic, what items that may have been halted will be top priority for resuming?
HH: We had postponed progress on our recycling program, but one exciting thing is that we’re we’ve recently hired a full-time recycling coordinator. I don’t have a specific timeline on that, but I think by springtime, people will be able to sign up for the business and multi-family recycling.
Another initiative from the Sustainability Action Agenda was to plant more trees in vulnerable, low-canopy areas. The city canceled much of the tree planting because it wasn’t an allowable activity under the Governor’s orders. But our reforestation workgroup has continued to convene and is thinking about fundraising, which will be even more vital given our financial situation.
PD: What have you learned during the pandemic that might better inform your work going forward?
HH: I think the silver lining of the pandemic for me — which is a little more personal, but I think it applies to the work too — is that it has highlighted the need and importance of our social networks. I’ve never felt more locally rooted and codependent — not in a bad way — with neighbors.
Those strong, local social networks make us like a much more resilient city. And that’s something that we’re planning to incorporate into our Climate Action Plan to help people think through how they can we support each other. We can talk about all the fancy technical stuff, like solar battery backups and whatever else, but ultimately it’s how we best understand each other’s needs and help each other meet them.
This content is sponsored by the Sustainable Detroit Forum which will be held on Nov.18. Register here.