As the only state to touch four out of the five Great Lakes, many people take pride in Michigan’s landscape and lake culture.
Yet many people don’t know that there are 14 Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOCs) across Michigan—places where human activity and legacy pollution have severely damaged the environment.
These sites were identified in the 1970s under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which aims to restore and protect the Great Lakes. With 27 remaining AOCs across the entire Great Lakes region, Michigan has more problematic sites than any other state.
With help from U-M’s Michigan Engaging Community through the Classroom (MECC) — an initiative that combines multidisciplinary and civic engagement work — students studying law, creative writing, the environment, and urban and regional planning learned about the efforts of the community to restore the areas. A group of University of Michigan students made their first trip to an AOC in Muskegon, Michigan two years ago, where fish and wildlife have been contaminated by water pollution.
“Most of the students hadn’t ever seen Lake Michigan, let alone frozen,” said Paul Fontaine, program manager for MECC and lecturer in urban and regional planning, U-M Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. “They were floored by the efforts of the people in these small towns.”
The students worked with local leaders to raise awareness of the problems in each community. They took different approaches to create solutions, ranging from spreading awareness through poetry and pamphlets to digging deeper into research.
“We wanted our students to see how people in other disciplines worked, thought and asked questions,” said Richard Norton, professor of urban and regional planning in the U-M Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. “When students collaborate, they develop stronger skill sets to understand problems and communicate with others in the real world.”
Since then, graduate students have been working with local, state and federal governments as well as with members of Public Advisory Committees (PACs) in each AOC to increase understanding and assist in the restoration process.
A team of three students in U-M’s School for Environment and Sustainability, Collin Knauss, Juliana Lisuk and Ben Pollins, traveled to all 14 Michigan AOCs last summer. The team’s work was made possible after Paul Seelbach, professor of aquatic practice in U-M SEAS, established a partnership with the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes.
The team interviewed PAC members to understand the progress each AOC was making toward delisting, which means an AOC has been restored. After visiting each location, the group began to understand the similarities and differences that emerged from one to the next as an AOC approached delisting.
“There’s a lot of diversity between the AOCs,” Lisuk said. “Some are in very rural areas, as opposed to those in Southeast Michigan that are urban. Yet across all of them, we saw how the people felt tied to their communities.
‘That’s why they volunteered to be PAC members. They have a deep sense of pride for the place where they’ve lived, and they have dedicated years of their lives to make their communities better places and address the legacy pollution.”
The team also found that many community members were dedicated to restoration, in order to reestablish their identities as coastal communities.
“One of the most powerful sentiments I heard across the AOCs was the feeling and awareness of facing the water again,” Knauss said. “People have hope that the environment can be cleaned up and their communities can face the water again.”
While Knauss, Lisuk and Pollins traveled across the state, another U-M SEAS graduate student, Allison Voglesong Zejnati, interviewed PAC members to understand their working relationship with the local, state and federal government. Voglesong Zejnati not only learned how trust, commitment and leadership factors into the community-government relationship, but she saw how volunteer work was related to other areas of life.
“After talking individually to so many PAC members, it struck me how certain universal experiences played a part in our conversations,” Voglesong Zejnati said.
“Things I wasn’t ready for came up in these meetings, like stories about the death of a child or how they met their spouse. I wasn’t just interviewing PAC members about their communities, I was spending time learning about people’s lives and their relationships to institutions on a more personal level.”
Master of urban and regional planning students Emily Korman, Neetu Rajkumar Nair and Rebecca Yae have been collaborating this term with the SEAS students to analyze the connection between the PACs and local government representatives. From there, the three mapped out boundaries of the AOCs and the jurisdictions represented by governmental members to better understand their relationships.
The efforts of these graduate students will tie into U-M’s theme about the Great Lakes next winter. Seelbach and Norton will jointly teach a class on coastal cities in Michigan, discussing the ways in which communities have revitalized their hometowns.
“Many students have used the word ‘hero’ to describe the local people restoring their areas,” Seelbach said. “We’re glad we’ve helped our students find inspiration and understand how they can help the government and local actors create change in these communities.”
“Through this project, I’ve had the chance to meet some of the most devoted and kind people I’ve ever come across in my life,” Pollins said.