Ferndale Mayor Melanie Piana has her city leading the way toward carbon neutrality in Michigan. “We’re just trying to do our part at the local level to impact the global level.”

FERNDALE, Mich.—Melanie Piana was on her way to one of the Ferndale City Council meetings—going on foot, as she is wont to do. 

Taking her normal route to the City Hall building, Piana waited to cross Woodward Avenue at 9 Mile. It was early December 2021, and the weather had yet to turn from occasionally chilly to frightfully freezing. She looked ahead and saw another woman, dressed head to heel in winter gear and on an electric bike. 

“I said, ‘Hey, do you live in Ferndale?’” Piana reflected in an interview with The ‘Gander. “She was all, ‘I’ve had [my electric bike]  for a while, and I got rid of my car and just commute on my e-bike.’”

The light turned green, and the woman sped off. But the interaction was enlightening for Piana, someone who chooses to walk instead of drive when possible. She said she’d seen a handful of people riding around Ferndale on electric bikes, but this person was different.

“It was the first time someone said that they actually had given up another mode of transportation and to make the e-bike their standard mode of transportation,” Piana said. “It was just interesting to me to hear other people’s life choices about how they want to get around … People want car-free lifestyles, and they want to lower their costs, and they want to live healthier.”

The moment was exhilarating for Piana, who has long been an advocate for sustainability and progress not only in her city of Ferndale, but in its surrounding communities, such as Royal Oak and other Woodward corridor communities. 

“We’re just trying to do our part at the local level to impact the global level,” she said. “And people are making those daily decisions in their lives. And I think that’s great.”

‘A Lake Kid’ Turned Ferndale Mayor

Piana’s love for the environment and eventual desire to ensure its protection is rooted in her childhood. She grew up as a rural kid, growing up in Livingston County’s rural Genoa Township that’s squeezed right between Howell and Brighton. 

As she puts it, Piana “grew up on a dirt road” and was “a lake kid who grew up fishing and waterskiing and not just hanging around the neighborhood.” 

And when you’re around water, as you are when you live in Michigan? Sometimes you naturally have an affinity for protecting the things you love, Piana said. 

“We all love the outdoors in Michigan, no matter where you live, and I think that’s where it started,” she said. “But really, after college, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I went backpacking in Australia [and] New Zealand.”

Piana learned the German language when she was in college and spent many of her younger years traveling abroad. She said she got to see Europe, learning how other places in the world were designed and how the people there lived. 

“That really impacted me, particularly when I lived in Germany,” she recalled. “I didn’t have a car, and I had a bike and had to haul my laundry to the laundromat on my bike and do all of my grocery shopping and getting to school. That really changed my perception about what I was capable of doing in my own community to get around.”

Piana’s experiences both living in Michigan and abroad have guided her in her professional life. She is currently a consultant and recently started her own business, Meltropolis, but she wasn’t always on the leadership side of things: She worked in the automotive marketing industry before jumping ship and getting an urban planning degree from Wayne State University. She then  worked with various nonprofit organizations, advocating for regionalism and transportation.

“I have definitely parlayed my professional background into serving as a local leader,” she said. “But I think every elected official leverages their talents and brings it into their role when they’re elected. That just happens to be mine.”

‘We’re Doing Our Part’ 

Ferndale and its residents and businesses have always been sustainability-minded, according to Piana. She said Ferndale was one of the first cities to start a sustainability commission—about 15 years and three mayors ago. So, when Piana took over the reins as the city’s mayor in January 2020, she said it was time for “the city to level up.”

“I heard it through campaigning when I was mayor that our community wanted the city to do more,” she said. “It just seemed that the city had the capacity, the talents to take a bigger leap into the direction of carbon neutrality.”

The city hired a sustainability planner a few years ago, someone whose sole purpose was to lead the city’s carbon neutrality efforts. In 2020, shortly after she became mayor, Piana and the city joined Race to Zero, a global program aiming to help cities take on carbon neutral goals. 

This was crucial, Piana said, for many reasons. 

“Because cities are the drivers of helping to really reduce greenhouse gases and communities,” she said. “And while we’re only 4 square miles in a very big region, we’re doing our part to have an impact.”

Interest in promoting a healthy environment is rich in Ferndale. Piana said the city is on track for having conversations with the City Council about how to reduce energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions at the municipal level. 

The city also was given a grant for 250 residents and five businesses to start composting. The interest was so steady, Piana said, they bumped it to 500 residents. 

“The demand is there,” Piana said. “The residents want to try new things.”

Now, Piana is looking for ways to expand the city’s ambitions for carbon neutrality. She said she is looking to partner with Royal Oak and other communities in order to share the framework for making the necessary changes while also sharing some of the much-needed financial resources.

“You really need to broaden your perspective as a community and as a leader, to say, ‘How are we going to accomplish these things?’ and really think outside of the box and innovate in new ways about how we’re going to tackle some things,” she said. 

“We can’t do it alone.”