Detroit’s new parks plan focuses on neighborhood access

The city’s plan aims to bring greenspace to within a 10-minute walk of more Detroiters over the next decade.

City parks are an essential part of life for Cornerstone Village resident Chrysantha Norwood and her family. She often visits parks with her 7-year-old niece, Skylar, who she describes as “a park fan.”

Their closest neighborhood city park is Balduck Park, where they enjoy the habitat. But Norwood doesn’t always feel safe there, especially on the walking trail which is fenced in and has “lots of blind spots/hiding spots because they don’t trim the bushes.”

Instead, Norwood, who founded GirlTrek Detroit, a local chapter of a national organization that encourages physical fitness for Black women and girls, often uses a park in neighboring Harper Woods for her walking exercise. She feels more comfortable there because it’s more open. She’d like to see more walking trails in Detroit parks, with improved lighting and regular maintenance to remove anything that could be a barrier or that could obstruct the view.

Serving the needs of residents like Norwood is the aim of the city’s recent park planning effort. A new Parks and Recreation Strategic Plan, set to be voted on by City Council in the coming weeks, establishes goals for parks, greenways and recreation centers in Detroit for the next decade. Once approved, it will serve as a roadmap for city staff and officials to guide future operations and investment. Municipalities must update park plans every five years to remain eligible for state funding from the Michigan Natural Resource Trust Fund.

A need for better park maintenance and upgraded facilities were among the top issues cited by residents. Alex J Allen III, president and CEO of the Chandler Park Conservancy, noted that despite recent investments there, Chandler Park is often in worse condition than what he’d like to see. 

“The staff could do a better job of making sure the park is clean, picking up trash, grass getting cut on a timely basis,” he said. “They do a pretty good job, but there’s always room for improvement,” Allen added that the 200-acre park on Detroit’s east side could use some help upgrading its facilities and putting in picnic shelters and other amenities for weekends when many people visit.

Aerial view of the 200-acre Chandler Park on Detroit’s east side. Courtesy Detroit Parks Coalition

An immediate priority in Detroit’s plan is to increase maintenance capacity in the next year, with up to $1 million allocated to do so, and the launch of an anti-littering campaign complete with billboards and public service announcements. The draft also includes goals to reach 25% tree canopy in all parks, increase parkland so more Detroiters are within a 10-minute walk of a park, create three new city recreation centers, improve accessibility through establishing multimodal hubs at parks and recreation centers, and more. 

Some park advocates in Detroit applauded the city’s community outreach and engagement process, while others said the plan doesn’t go far enough with climate change mitigation and maximizing the use of vacant land. A draft of the park plan was released in July. 

“It’s the first time they (the city) really undertook a comprehensive effort to come up with a master plan,” said Rochelle Lento, board president of People for Palmer Park. “They really went through a very deliberative process.”

Lento is part of the Detroit Parks Coalition, a group of leaders from several of the city’s largest parks that formed to advocate for those spaces. The city held special meetings with the coalition between April and June for members to give input. She said that Detroit officials also invited the coalition to focus groups and community meetings. 

The year-and-a-half-long process of drafting the plan, led by the city’s parks planning team, included two surveys and multiple stakeholder meetings and focus groups. Overall, the city engaged with more than 4000 residents through surveys and focus groups. 

Allen expressed support for the plan’s focus on creating neighborhood open spaces, part of an effort to increase the number of residents within a 10-minute walk of a park, in line with the Trust for Public Land’s national standards. And several experts praised the emphasis on investing in recreation centers and swimming pools. The city plans to add three new recreational facilities in the Chandler Park, Jefferson Chalmers, and Dexter-Linwood neighborhoods. The areas were chosen as a part of the city’s goal to ensure that every Detroiter is within a 20-minute bus ride of a recreation center. The additions, city officials said, will increase that level of access for Detroiters from 60% to 66%. 

Source: Detroit Parks and Recreation Strategic Plan

But the biggest issue Detroiters have with parks and recreational centers is a lack of information, residents indicated in a city survey. When asked why they don’t visit parks or what barriers there are to them visiting, 35% of 714 respondents cited “Lack of info” followed by 28% indicating “Safety issues” and a quarter said “Lack of interest.”

“I do want more information. I don’t feel like I have a good grasp of all the recreation centers around me,” said Christina Jackson, a Detroit resident living on the border of Detroit by Oak Park. “I don’t remember seeing anything in the mail, but I think that helps you find things like that. It helps you get involved.” 

An athlete, Jackson enjoys using tennis courts at various city parks, and is looking to start using a pool as well. She sometimes visits the Northwest Activities Center and has even been there for job fairs. “Having tennis courts that are kept up well, that is huge to me,” she said. 

 Room to grow

Sarah Hayosh, director of Land Use and Sustainability for Detroit Future City, said the plan was a “missed opportunity” to set a goal for using the city’s massive inventory of 19 square miles of city-owned vacant land –  much of it already owned by the quasi-public Detroit Land Bank Authority, to create larger parks and increase recreational amenities for Detroiters.

The total amount of land used in Detroit for parks stands at 6%, while the median for U.S. cities is 15%, according to the Trust for Public Land’s ParkServe database. In addition to providing leisure space for Detroiters, more open space with trees or green infrastructure could decrease the pressure on the city’s sewer system and help address the ongoing public health crisis of basement flooding. And trees could have a cooling effect in the city, as the number of extreme heat days has increased in recent decades. Adding or preserving trees could also mitigate ongoing issues with air quality. 

“There’s a huge opportunity to look at potentially aggregating vacant land in highly vacant neighborhoods, especially in areas where there is a gap in access to parks and open space,” Hayosh said. 

Acquiring additional land and maintaining parks could be expensive, but the city’s General Services Department is already spending approximately $13.44 per lot on maintenance for 62,500 vacant DLBA lots, according to Antonisha Smith, a spokeswoman for the Detroit Land Bank Authority. Per year, that’s more than $806,000. 

But Detroit’s ability to move more aggressively to expand open space is likely constrained by budget concerns. According to Jeremy Thomas, communications manager for the city’s General Services Department, the Parks and Recreation division will need to raise a little less than half of its annual parks capital improvement budget from outside sources like grants and philanthropic investors. The exact amount will vary each year. 

“We estimate that each phase of the Parks Plan will take longer than a year, and will require $16.8 million in funding, with around $7 million of that to be raised through grants or philanthropic funds,” Thomas wrote in an email. 

The first of three planned phases will be completed in the next year and focus on things like creating an events calendar and expanding and diversifying staff. Subsequent phases will look to improve programming, provide more amenities and increase the number of neighborhood parks. 

Ricky King, a Detroiter in the Palmer Park area, said neighborhoods most impacted by the demolition of blighted homes should be targeted to repurpose that land for the public good. 

“We have all of these vacant lots out here. People walk their dogs. People need to get out,” said King, 46. “The kids really do need options. When the kids ain’t got nothing to do they sit around and scheme and do other stuff they shouldn’t be.”

King, who has lived in the area for 35 years, feels the newer amenities at Palmer Park have benefited the neighborhood, like the dog park. As for improvements, he agrees that Detroit should have more recreation opportunities closer to residents and their families. 

Detroit’s strategic plan addresses access to open space primarily by creating new neighborhood parks or “partnership sites,” which could utilize school playgrounds or other spaces to increase access in underserved areas. As a long-range planning document, the plan doesn’t provide a specific list of new parks, but areas like Morningside, Warrendale and Martin Park are targeted for new open space. 

While access to some form of open space may increase for the average Detroiter under the plan, the document doesn’t spell out exactly how much total parkland acreage the city will add or where it might be added. 

“Rather these sites will be determined as part of a planning and community engagement process once funding has been identified,” Thomas wrote in an email. 

Private and resident investment in some of Detroit’s larger parks like Rouge Park or Palmer Park may offer at least a partial model for solving the budget problem. Thomas said one of the first recommendations to be implemented in January would be to relaunch a program that provides community groups with city support to activate some of the sites through Adopt-A-Park. This will allow block clubs, park friends’ and other community groups to sign up and connect with grant opportunities, sponsorships, and workshops, in exchange for hosting two clean-ups and two park events per year.

“Through this program, community groups can get additional city support and recognition for stewardship activities and hosting public events,” Thomas said. 

But Erin Kelly, a landscape architect who previously worked for Detroit’s planning department, said the philanthropic groups that have invested in other public parks might now be focused on the Joe Louis Greenway, which is expected to cost as much as $240 million. The city recently set up a nonprofit foundation to attract private investment for the 27.5-mile long greenway, and that could make it difficult to attract funding for less visible, neighborhood-oriented open spaces in the city right now. 

It’s also not clear that the city has done the kind of research necessary to determine what Detroiters would want to see if larger parks were added in the future. Questions during the planning process focused on what residents liked about existing parks and recreation centers, what needed to be improved, and what the barriers were to access these spaces. Kelly said a larger conversation would need to happen about what residents want to see happen with land use if the city were to acquire larger tracts of land.

“Perhaps Detroiters prefer a bunch of solar development over more recreational access, or there is an interest in balancing urban ag(riculture), recreation and habitat,” Kelly said.

But an emphasis on small parks could still be important for increasing residents’ quality of life. Small parks are especially useful for children and families who want a playground within a short walk.

“It’s good to have those. It helps to build a sense of community for people who live in those neighborhoods,” Allen said. Research backs this up, showing that even small amounts of green space can foster better social relationships and improve mental health.

The city’s goal is to increase the number of people within a ten-minute walk of a park from 80% to 95% over the next ten years. 

Of the city’s more than 300 parks, Thomas said, 26 are not included in the capital improvement list for the next 10 years. 

“These are non-active parks that do not serve the same recreation function, but are an important contribution to the City’s greenspace, and the goal to increase natural areas and tree plantings across the parks system,” Allen said. 

During a visit to Palmer Park, Joel Ortiz said he would like to see the City of Detroit use more of its vacant land for housing and parks with active uses, like baseball fields. Credit: Angela Lugo Thomas

Detroiter Joel Ortiz feels the city should use its large vacant land holdings for housing and more parks with active uses, like baseball fields. The city should have more public pools too, he added. 

Ortiz enjoys going to Palmer Park for the exercise machines and just enjoying being outside. “I like to listen to the birds, the trees, even come for meditation… because you’re in contact with nature,” he said. 

Angela Lugo-Thomas and Christine Ferretti contributed to this report. Published in partnership with BridgeDetroit.


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