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The State of Blight in our Built Environment

Written by Madi Kraus & Leah Komos

Abandoned, blighted buildings and homes are scattered across the City of Detroit and have been a substantial problem for decades. These structures have emerged as a result of a broken system for building and removing structures. Property owners aren’t held accountable for the physical decay of their buildings and the burden of blight is forced onto local governments. While Detroiters wait for blight to be removed, they are experiencing the environmental harm these buildings cause.

Blighted structures are characterized by several problems, both social and physical. The Detroit Blight Removal Task Force Plan defines blight in Detroit in ten different ways:

Abandoned buildings are an attractive nuisance, meaning that their presence provokes dumping, squatting, trespassing, and crime, leaving neighborhoods dilapidated. They are left open to the natural elements making them more susceptible to physical decay leading to a reduction in the attractiveness of neighborhoods affecting overall neighborhood health and surrounding property value. Blight is also defined by buildings that are fire damaged and otherwise dangerous, are disconnected from utilities, and/or have been vacant for five consecutive years. Left unattended, these buildings can become brownfields or sources of asbestos or lead contamination.

Since 2014, The City of Detroit has worked tirelessly to demolish over 20,000 buildings and rehab over 8,000. On November 3rd, 2020, Detroit Residents approved Proposal N, a comprehensive plan to rehab or demolish 16,000 more vacant houses. While it is critical to address these blighted structures, construction and demolition waste consist of 14% of Michigan’s landfilled waste, and demolition can release lead and asbestos, contaminating the air. It’s our mission at the Detroit Green Task Force to lessen the negative externalities of the removal of blighted buildings.

Changing the way we remove structures at the end of their useful life has a positive impact on our environment, communities, and economy. Deconstructing buildings stimulates the local economy by allowing valuable materials to reenter markets. Deconstruction requires more jobs than demolition, creating workforce development opportunities for Detroiters. A pilot project completed in Detroit during 2013 investigated partial deconstruction of blighted structures; ultimately, this study illustrates the viability of partial deconstruction to improve economic efficiency and material reuse. In order to enact these practices, we need to have a more robust circular economy for construction and demolition materials.

Domicology is the study of the life cycle of the built environment, including policies, practices, and consequences of structural abandonment. The Green Task Force’s Recycling and Waste Diversion Committee recently created a Construction and Demolition Subcommittee to address structural abandonment in Detroit using Domicology principles as a guiding force:

  1. Understand the life cycle of our built environment

  2. Plan, design, construct, and deconstruct in order to maximize the reuse of materials and minimize the negative impacts of a structure's end of useful life

  3. Identify innovative tools, models, policies, practices, and programs that can sustainably address a structural life cycle

  4. Research the technical, economic, and policy challenges present in a structure's life cycle and seek to reduce the negative social, economic, and environmental impacts associated with structural abandonment

The Construction and Demolition Subcommittee hopes to approach this issue through interventions that address the supply, distribution, and demand of reused building materials by advancing rates of deconstruction, expanding the salvaged materials distribution infrastructure, and increasing the use of salvaged materials. The subcommittee works to present sustainable solutions to Detroit City Council and leaders within city government. Currently, the subcommittee is in an exploratory phase to understand the current landscape and where they can create the biggest impact.

How You Can Be Involved:

Join the Construction and Demolition Subcommittee at their monthly meetings on the first Tuesday of every month to learn more about how the Detroit Green Task Force is battling blight. Made up of individuals from environmental advocacy groups, non-profit organizations, environmental businesses, city government, and Detroit residents, this group provides opportunities to network with professionals in sustainable industries and connect with others in the community. Contact subcommittee chair, Madi Kraus at for meeting details and more information. Stay in the know and follow the Detroit Green Task Force on Facebook.

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