Detroit Parks Coalition aims to uplift and enhance city parks, build ‘place-based equity’

While Detroit is home to more than 300 parks that offer all manner of green spaces and recreational opportunities, they’ve often struggled to get the funding they need to serve the community. 

One bright spot over the years has been grassroots parks groups, in which residents band together and marshal resources toward park stewardship. Now, these scrappy resident-led groups are organizing themselves into the Detroit Parks Coalition – hoping that by joining forces, they can increase their impact.

Alex Allen, president and CEO of the Chandler Park Conservancy, chairs the coalition. He said that by sharing information and resources, parks supporters can more effectively advocate – and attract funding. They aim to improve park users’ experiences, better connect people to parks, and restore and preserve nature in the city.

“The coalition gives philanthropic organizations the opportunity to fund several parks with a single grant – this helps parks that might lack capacity,” Allen said.

The coalition has secured nearly $1 million in funding for capital improvements, expanded programming, and more. 

The coalition’s founding members include the Belle Isle Conservancy, Chandler Park Conservancy, Clark Park Coalition, Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, Downtown Detroit Partnership, Friends of Patton Park, Friends of Rouge Park, Midtown Detroit, Inc., People for Palmer Park, and Sidewalk Detroit (which stewards Eliza Howell Park). 

Prairie pathway at Rouge Park. Photo by Nick Hagen.

These organizations support parks of various sizes, locations, and types, from smaller neighborhood parks to better-known destinations like Belle Isle. They hope their collective power will enable individual parks to access funding and resources they may struggle to get on their own. 

“The great thing about the coalition is it’s this unified voice of people, of Detroiters, of people who are from the community that are speaking up for parks and saying, ‘You know, we want more resources, we value these parks, we want to see them taken care of,’” said Sally Petrella, president of the Friends of Rouge Park.

The coalition’s startup grants include $500,000 from the State of Michigan for capital improvements such as benches, playscapes, and bathrooms. That’s complemented by grants of $180,000 from the Kresge Foundation and $175,000 from Hudson-Webber Foundation to support staffing and infrastructure. A $90,000 Knight Foundation grant will fund the Freedom Arts Festival in seven parks in August and September, and $65,000 from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan will support shared programming and communications. 

Sigal Hemy, a People for Palmer Park board member, was recently named as the coalition’s executive director. She noted that having an intermediary organization to aggregate funding and distribute it among smaller organizations is not a novel concept.

Sigal Hemy, executive director of the Detroit Parks Coalition. Photo by Trista Dymond.

“But what is unique about Detroit is that this coalition was formed in a really bottom-up way,” Hemy told Planet Detroit. “So instead of someone creating a Detroit parks foundation, and then that foundation going out and raising money and then figuring out who to give the money to, it’s the parks organizations themselves who came together and said that they wanted to do this. And they are really driving it themselves.” 

The coalition expects to award its first grants soon, totaling $470,250, to its member organizations for capital improvements, including benches, lighting, and signage. 

The coalition hopes to amplify the voices of regular park users who know the parks best.

Although the city owns these parks, the coalition member organizations aim to support them by working closely with the city. “I always use the analogy of a school and a PTO,” Hemy said. “These community organizations are there to connect the community with the parks. They know the needs of the people using the parks, and they’re there to make their experiences better.”

And they’ll use that knowledge to better guide investment, Hemy said. “These parks organizations are really community organizations. They’re rooted in their individual neighborhoods, and they’re really close to the people using the parks. They are making the decisions about how to use the dollars, as opposed to lawmakers or any other decision-makers.” 

A new approach

Petrella was part of an earlier iteration of a Detroit parks coalition that was formed in 2010, “in response to Mayor Bing saying he was going to shut down parks because they didn’t have the resources,” she said. Back then, “we were simply trying to demand that the city keep our parks open. It’s been a long history of Detroit parks just being underfunded and neglected.”

Sally Petrella, president of the Friends of Rouge Park. Courtesy photo.

But now the coalition is working beyond just survival mode. “I’m really excited about what can be accomplished with a new organization,” Petrella said. “I think they’re going to really help to uplift Detroit parks.” 

The coalition was launched as an 18-month pilot, designed to experiment and learn as it goes. “Right now, we’re trying to do things on a small scale, just to make sure they work,” Hemy said. “For example, we think that there might be economies of scale to aggregating contracts for programmers across all the parks.”

The plan is for the coalition to expand to include additional parks in the future, Allen said.

One benefit to forming the coalition may be to leverage the expertise of its more well-resourced parks organizations, like the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. “So the conservancy can share some of the skills it has gained and resources it’s aware of with smaller parks in the coalition,” said Rachel Frierson, director of programming at the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. “We know about events and programs that really can work well in their spaces, and we can use our voice to get more resources out that way.” 

Rachel Frierson, director of programming at the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. Courtesy photo.

The coalition is sponsoring outdoor yoga this summer at seven of the member parks, in partnership with Yoganic Flow. If these classes are well attended, they may be expanded to more parks in the future, Hemy said. The coalition has also partnered with the Detroit Pistons to provide outdoor activities, including sports clinics, live music, dance classes, and arts and crafts, at three of the member parks, as part of the Pistons Neighbors program. 

‘Place-based equity

Rouge Park, on the far west side of the city, is a 1,200-acre natural park – the city’s largest. But Friends of Rouge Park has struggled to raise money, Petrella said. 

“It just doesn’t seem to be a priority…. It’s not servicing downtown, where all the young white people are moving to. It’s servicing some neighborhoods that were devastated by the Great Recession and still haven’t come back.” 

Place-based equity is one of the Detroit Parks Coalition’s values. Its website states: “Systemic disinvestment in Detroit and its residents has contributed to racial inequities in park access and quality. We are focused on increasing funding to Detroit’s parks and ensuring a more equitable distribution of resources.”

One of the capital improvements Petrella said her organization hopes to fund through the coalition is to improve some of the park’s overgrown nature trails.

Trail at Rouge Park. Photo by Nick Hagen.

“Our kids in Detroit need quality parks,” Petrella said. In some wealthier suburban communities, families “can pay to send their kids to recreation centers, health clubs, and things like that,” while many Detroit families can’t, she said. “We really need places for our youth to go to recreate . . . we need good quality parks now more than ever. The pandemic really highlighted that need.” 

For Petrella, parks are important in the bigger picture of living in Detroit. 

“People choose where they want to live in part because of the green space and the parks,” Petrella said. “Those places are more desirable, and they’re also healthier overall for the people who live there. So improving our parks will improve overall quality of life and bring more people back to the city.”

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