The last several years have clearly seen a considerable shift in the global awareness of environmental issues facing our planet. Specifically, those highlighted by climate, the proliferation of plastics in oceans and waterways, and an ever-growing need for transitioning to low-impact, consciously-sustainable living. For myself, this has initiated an abundance of academic and self-directed study subsequently enhancing my efforts to both live and work sustainably. I’ll soon share in greater detail how my combined studies of climate and sustainable design practice has affected the ways in which I work, live, and do business. In the meantime, the flooding that has been affecting Detroit and surrounding areas of Michigan this spring and summer has me thinking about how Ford’s River Rouge plant—a sustainably-designed manufacturing facility on the banks of the River Rouge—is faring in the midst of these increasing climate extremes.
Water and the Plant: Ford’s River Rouge
A dilapidated, toxic industrial-age factory becomes an iconic, eco-effective partner with the now thriving wetlands upon which it was built nearly a century ago.
Henry Ford’s grand-scale employment of his famed assembly-line automotive manufacturing processes at Ford’s River Rouge Plant in the 1920s was bolstered by his desire to be a leader in both technology and sustainability. At the time, and for decades to follow, the plant was also a heralding application of industrial “brute force” which ultimately took its toll on man, nature, and machine—the factory itself. While the automobile gained traction as a perceived necessity to the infrastructure of a burgeoning industrial-age society, the sustainability aspect of Mr. Ford’s business model succumbed to the pressures of economic, political, and social demands.
In response to the Great Depression, a second world-war, and the ever-increasing need for the automobile itself, concessions were made, priorities were set, dollars were saved; nature was spent. The once-thriving wetland ecosystem upon which Ford’s Dearborn, Michigan plant was constructed became a hardy mix of chemical effluent and emotional defeat destined to become a renowned brownfield of toxic success and neglected aspiration. Three generations later, William Ford, Jr.—Henry Ford’s great-grandson—declared a bold desire to rehabilitate the noxious grounds in ways soon-to-be inspired by environmentalist Rachel Carson’s calls for us to “rekindle our sense of wonder with nature’s power and beauty and to tread lightly on the earth”. Thus, a Cradle to Cradle (C2C) review-and-replenish plan was under way.
Through a C2C lens, the Ford River Rouge Plant now acts as a demonstrative highlight of how industry’s collaboration with and application of sustainable, eco-effective systems can benefit both economy and ecology.
The Detroit River and the Site
Strategically, the location of Ford’s River Rouge Plant was, like most sizeable manufacturing facilities then and now, taking advantage of the land’s proximity to major shipping ways; primarily, the Detroit River with its access to the Great lakes. Water was literally a key component to the input-output of the plant as crude materials arrived by ship and completed vehicles later departed the factory by the same means. Yet, eighty years later, as the facility redesign and land remediation plans began to unfold, it would be the natural water systems which lie outside of the River bearing the greatest influence upon the eco-architecture and natural-systems integration of the sustainability-first complex. It was time to acknowledge that the monster factory was constructed, and continued to grow upon, a marsh that had become overwhelmed. Overwhelmed; yet, not overtaken.
Despite the eventual absence of most visual indications that there was, in fact, a marsh where hundreds of acres of factory now stood, nature merely submitted and had not been vanquished. This eco-resilience would be the saving grace upon which C2C principals would find their footing amidst the toxic, towering relic of steel and stench. Storm-water management became the gateway to not only remediation and renewal, but to fulfilling the desire of “restoring the living environment.” By prioritizing the cleansing and distribution of water—nature’s most valued, essential element—in and around the facility, the River Rouge Plant would no longer stand aside or atop nature. It would now be immersed in and collaboratively a part of the ecosystem it long burdened.
From within the factory, effluent water left over from production processes would go through intense filtration and natural, plant-based detoxifying systems while the greater water story revealed itself outside and up above with the installation of 200 million-square-feet of plant-covered green roofs dawning the skyward surfaces of facility structures. Along with naturally assisting interior temperature regulation, these roof-top gardens would collect and utilize storm-water while allowing controlled seepage down into groundwater systems. With various means of managing water flow upon and around the facility’s structures as well as through the porous surfaces of parking lots and along foliage-rife ditches, the River Rouge Plant became a naturally-cleansing sieve for the landscape rather than an obstacle around which water would have to navigate. The entire facility was not merely managing water; it was prioritizing it with purpose and guidance.
Clean water would provide little benefit to toxic soils; therefore, phytoremediation (the use of greenery) and mycoremediation (the use of fungi) was employed to cleanse the soil. In turn, allowing the water to effectively nourish renewed plant life. Ultimately, this combination of naturally detoxified soil and purified, nutrient-rich water powered the growth of indigenous plants and grasses which maintain and support even further deep-cleaning of the surrounding earth and water systems.
Measuring Success by Nature’s Rule
Being one of this planet’s largest corporations undergoing a ground-up facility redesign may, by default, leave some suspecting goals were set and subsequent successes measured by numbers—both scientific and economic. With cynicism, we might question if Ford merely sought to meet specific regulatory requirements and achieve a targeted return on investment. Yet, Ford’s objectives and measure of results were much more holistic, simple, and natural.
The main, stated objective, within which hundreds of acres of industrial sprawl would seek to commune and collaborate with nature, was to “create a factory site where Ford employees’ own children could safely play.” Rachel Carson, herself, would have delighted in such an aspiring declaration for a vast plot of land quickly edging its way toward abandonment. Carson saw children and their exposure to nature as a mandatory aspect of sustaining a clean earth as the title of her late-in-life essay, “Help Your Child to Wonder” and her appeal that “we encourage students to renew their sense of wonder”, would each suggest.
How does nature measure success? Possibly, as simply as a middle-aged balding man might measure the success of a hair-replenishment product: growth and spread! As naturally-purified water moderately flowed down from the rooftops and found its way into the detoxifying soils around and throughout Ford’s plot, the ecosystem not only returned, but flourished. Just like the muscles of an athlete no longer sidelined by an injury, nature remembers its role and arose from within the increasingly hospitable grounds. As soil became rich with insects and worms, various species of birds began to find nourishment in the grasses and foliage. The factory-side banks of the Rouge River saw the return of native fish feeding off water-born plants and insects.
Of course, with the overall scale of the eco-effective redesign, much of it pertaining to the alternative applications of air, light, and space inside the factory and offices, workers’ personal-health improvements and business-related monetary advantages were also realized. As airflow through the factory was designed to cool the workers and daylight was cast upon them through vast skylights above assembly line corridors, mood and moral benefitted. Therefore, we may wonder if while nature resonated above, around, and beneath the factory, improved productivity and quality was also a bi-product of the Plant redesign. In a well-functioning business model, which Ford had already been enjoying, this would surely lead to economic increase, and although Ford originally saw possible expenditures of up to $48 million to merely meet storm-water management regulations alone, the project’s alternative, eco-architectural solutions would save nearly three-quarters of that expense. Yes, this was a $2-billion project for Ford; however, the long-term eco-effective returns would be invaluable. So, too, would be the more immediate, short-term positive effects on those who worked at the facility. Still, the most evident and sustainability-based successes of the project were realized in the Ford River Rouge Plant’s achievement to “become native” to the land upon which it no longer stood, but now belonged to.
In conclusion, by adopting and prioritizing an eco-effective, C2C-based approach towards water-based systems management in and around the River Rouge Plant, the Ford Motor Company rehabilitated the marsh, upon which the facility was originally built, to a thriving ecosystem with which the corporation maintains a sincere and considerate balance between an abundant ecology and a flourishing economy. Tending to the most basic aspects of its footprint on the land with an overall focus on water, air, and light, the Plant has established a unity with nature that achieves true sustainability. The factory that once drew upon the land and water to operate, then threw back upon each a toxic soup of leftovers, now returns to that same land more vibrancy than it withdraws. The Plant is no longer surrounded by or set upon a struggling ecosystem—it is, in fact, an integral, valuable part of that now-prospering natural environment; partnering with it to produce as much beauty and wonder outside of its walls as it does shine and sound from within.
Braungart, Michael, and McDonough, William. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. New York: North Point Press, 2002
Stein, Karen F., Thomas, P.L.. “Speaking Truth to Power: The Legacies of Rachel Carson” The English Journal, Vol. 103, No. 6 July 2014, p. 81-84. National Council of Teachers of English www.jstor.org/stable/24484389
© Ken Dyment 2019