Environmental History in Detroit

Environmental history is the study of how people have both affected and been affected by their physical surroundings over time. In urban spaces, those physical surroundings take the form of both the built environment and the geological and biological aspects of the landscape. In cities, environmental history encompasses the study not only of pollution and parks but also of housing and living conditions; urban development and public safety; how people use, access, and think about physical space; how food is cultivated or obtained; and how land use physically changes over time.

This website was created by University of Michigan students in the winter of 2014 to provide new perspectives on the familiar landscapes and stories of the city of Detroit. We have conducted oral history interviews; searched through archives in Ann Arbor, Detroit, and online; perused newspaper archives from the nineteenth century; pored over photographs and maps from Detroit’s long history; and visited locations around the city to get a sense of the way the urban environment has affected peoples’ lives.

Our research concentrated on five major topics, though there is significant thematic overlap between them: Urban Agriculture, the historic Black Bottom neighborhood, Belle Isle Park, and the neighborhoods of Nortown and Delray. In the menu to the left, you will find links to short summaries of each topic’s general history and to annotated lists of further reading. Please browse through the many narratives describing specific places and events in the city’s history.

We hope these resources provide new perspectives on the past, present, and future of Detroit. Please use the comments to contribute your own memories and ideas about the city.