New Leadership to Focus on Sustainability, Connectivity, Infrastructure 

Meagan Elliott began her tenure as president and CEO of the Belle Isle Conservancy on July 1, following a decade with the city of Detroit, culminating in serving as chief parks planner and deputy CFO overseeing development and grants.  Elliott spearheaded the Joe Louis Greenway Framework Plan and played a pivotal role as the city lead in a $350 million campaign for a unified greenway encompassing the Joe Louis Greenway and the Detroit Riverfront.   The Belle Isle Conservancy is dedicated to safeguarding the natural environment, preserving historic structures, and enhancing Belle Isle as a public park for the enjoyment of all, now and in the future. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, 5.6 million people visited the park last year.  SBN Detroit interviewed Elliott about the conservancy’s approach to sustainability and what impacts her work will have on Southeast Michigan businesses and residents.   Q: What part will sustainability play in your new role?  A: Sustainability is fundamental to everything we do, and I want to lift and advance it in new ways. The Belle Isle Conservancy has done and continues to do a lot of work toward this. One example is the Keep Belle Isle Beautiful campaign focused on reducing plastic waste on the island and in waterways. That initiative has taken off and now goes far beyond the cleanups themselves, focusing on environmental stewardship and informing educational programming that helps to drive our future leaders.   Caring for our planet forms the foundation of all our endeavors and is a filter for how we approach all our work, whether it be in support of habitat restoration, capital projects on the island, or new types of programming moving forward. I’m eager to collaborate with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in this ​​effort.  Q: How does your background position you for this role?   A: It’s in a couple of important ways. My tenure as chief parks planner was particularly formative, involving comprehensive work across all city green spaces, from neighborhood parks to a 30-mile greenway.  When we consider Detroit’s park infrastructure, connectivity emerges as a fundamental concept. Historically, Belle Isle has been perceived as a separate entity and not easily accessible. Moreover, with one in four people in Detroit lacking access to a vehicle, they face challenges moving around the city, ​being able to access our amazing ​metro parks​ system, ​ or getting Up North. Belle Isle is a treasure that rivals all of these spaces, and here it is right in our front yard. Connecting to a system of green space via the riverfront and the Joe Louis Greenway is essential. ​     ​  Connectedness extends beyond physical spaces to encompass the desires of residents and businesses surrounding Belle Isle as well. The Belle Isle Conservancy plays a crucial role as a steward and advocate, driving initiatives that reflect community wants and needs.  Also, my background in sociology has prepared me to spend time listening ​to residents and how they want to utilize their island ​and to make sense of the patterns that emerge in engagement with a diversity of constituents. ​     ​  Finally, I’ve spent the last three years as deputy CFO brokering partnerships between private fund​ers​, philanthropi​c entities​, and public ​partners​ and making initiatives happen by creating coalitions of folks. I want to put that same energy ​and investment ​behind Belle Isle.  Q: You led the Joe Louis Greenway Framework Plan, and were the city lead in the $350 million campaign for a unified greenway for the Joe Louis Greenway and the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. How will this impact your work going forward?  A: I have an example. On my first day as president and CEO of the Belle Isle Conservancy, I was speaking at a press conference during which $20.7 million was received from the federal government ​for the continuing construction of ​the Joe Louis Greenway. This was a grant that the team worked on while I was still working for the City of Detroit. But I was there as the co-chair of the Joe Louis Greenway Partnership and was able to highlight the connection from the Joe Louis Greenway to the Iron Belle Trail, which ultimately will connect Belle Isle to Ironwood at the tip of the Upper Peninsula through a network of greenways.  Many individuals have dedicated themselves to this work for a long time, and I’m committed to utilizing my platform and voice to continue to advance this work.  Belle Isle is the epicenter of both this amazing network of green spaces and the Great Lakes. I can’t imagine a better geography for foregrounding environmental stewardship than on this island.   Q: What impact do you think the Belle Isle Conservancy has on businesses in Southeast Michigan?  A: I see the economic impact of public space as vast. It directly relates to employee decisions on where they choose to live and work.   Belle Isle ranks as the second most visited park in the country after Niagara Falls. I believe our efforts here are directly linked to attracting new talent to businesses in Southeast Michigan and bolstering our economy.   Q: In what way will you work with area businesses?  A: The conservancy already does a lot of work with businesses on many fronts.  One of the most immediately valuable impacts businesses have on Belle Isle is our corporate stewardship days. Businesses bring their teams to help clean up the park and connect with each other.   We also have a significant number of partners in the corporate community who see the value of Belle Isle for the community and invest in projects to help support the park. ​     ​  We also have the opportunity to look at the vendors utilized on the island and how to create more inroads for Detroit-based businesses to play a role in the construction, management, concessionaire, and other vendor partnerships.   There are endless opportunities to work together.    Q: What challenges do you expect to encounter from a sustainability aspect?  A: The challenge is always prioritization and how to choose projects and

Tony Reames Returns to U-M to Lead SEAS Detroit Sustainability Clinic


For two-plus years, Dr. Tony G. Reames was a Biden-Harris Administration presidential appointee, working in energy justice. Most recently he served as the Principal Deputy Director for the Office of State and Community Energy Programs at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Now, he returns to the University of Michigan – where had worked as a research fellow – becoming the Tishman Professor of Environmental Justice and serving as the new Director of the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) Detroit Sustainability Clinic. Through support from the Kresge Foundation, the clinic was founded in 2021 to build long-term capacity and partnership in Detroit, and to connect residents, nonprofit organizations, businesses, and city government to its resources. Reames sat down with SBN Detroit to discuss this new role, the work of the clinic, and how it involves and impacts businesses in Southeast Michigan. Q: What is the impetus behind the clinic? A: The Detroit Sustainability Clinic came into existence based on the recognition that the several faculty in the School for Environment and Sustainability had projects with community-based organizations, government, and business partners in the city that we were approaching in silos. Operating together as a clinic allows us to more cohesively engage with community partners and approach these projects in a more efficient and effective way. Our mission is to be a hub for advancing sustainability and climate action in an equitable and just way. We want to foster long-term relationships with community-based organizations, local governments, and businesses in Detroit to support their sustainability and climate efforts from ideation to implementation. Q: What differentiates the work the clinic does from that of other national or local initiatives in the space? A: We want to be both additive and complementary. Also, what is unique about what we provide is that we can bring the full resources of the university to support sustainability and climate action in communities, centered on equity and justice. We have the opportunity to not only use our research and data but to also boost capacity for community-driven efforts through our students and faculty. Q: How does sustainability feature in the work the clinic does? A: Sustainability for me is recognizing the social, environmental, and economic impacts of the current climate crisis and how we use the research, teaching, and other resources of the University in deep collaboration with our community partners to support a community’s long-term existence. It’s the triple bottom line. We bring these aspects together to help communities with solutions-driven planning and implementation Q: Given the focus on Detroit communities, how does the Detroit Sustainability Action Agenda feature in the work the clinic is doing? A: I participated in planning efforts to develop the city’s Sustainability Action Agenda and Climate Strategy and the Detroit Climate Action Plan. These plans are the foundation for the areas of focus for the clinic. The Detroit Office of Sustainability is a clinic partner, and we have funding to work with the city to implement its climate strategy and Blight to Beauty Initiative. Supporting local sustainability and climate action is the core of what we do. As the clinic expands, I look forward to working with other local governments in Southeast Michigan to create and implement their sustainability and climate action plans. Q: How do you plan to involve and work with businesses in Detroit? A: I’ve been working with folks in Detroit for about ten years and the ingenuity in this city stands out. I’ve spent a good amount of time with entrepreneurs and start-ups that are working on new technology and other ways to help households operate more sustainably. I see the clinic acting as a conduit between businesses that have these technical solutions and communities that need these solutions. As a university, we also have this amazing opportunity to develop the next generation of the sustainability and climate workforce. Q: How do you think that impacts businesses in Southeast Michigan? A: I believe that exposing students to real-world challenges makes them better employees for the business and organizations they’ll go to work for. And I think that students who get involved with businesses and projects in Detroit are more likely to remain in Detroit and continue working here post-graduation. I’ve seen it happen. Once a student is exposed to the issues and opportunities here and has made a professional connection, they are more likely to join the workforce locally versus moving out of state. Q: What is the role of businesses in the community work you do? A: Both residents and businesses make up a community so it’s all interconnected. Businesses support residential neighborhoods and vice-versa, so our approach is place-based, taking into account how the community operates and interacts as a whole. Also, when we think about the growth in different sectors in Southeast Michigan such as landscape architects focused on natural solutions to flooding, engineers working on the next iteration of mobility that eliminates pollution, or those developing a future where all housing is affordable and net zero energy, there is an ecosystem that must connect our greatest challenges to resources and solutions. And that is happening here. Businesses that can tap into this ecosystem and be a part of it will be the most successful businesses going forward. Q: How do you think you can help develop and support this ecosystem in your new role? A: I recently spent 2.5 years at the U.S. Department of Energy focused on designing federal programs with equity and justice at the core, and that’s one of the reasons I’m excited to move forward in this role. We have an unprecedented opportunity to move the needle on this. Businesses now have to focus on equity in order to access much of the current federal and state funding, and they have to meaningfully engage with the community as well. This is an exciting time! We are all starting to speak the same language. I’m optimistic, because I believe the way businesses, communities, and government are now addressing sustainability and