Residents, activists discuss race, parks, and public space in Detroit

On a brisk Saturday afternoon a group of dedicated public space advocates gathered to discuss racial equity in Detroit’s parks. The event was sponsored by New Detroit and was a preview of its upcoming Just Lead: Advancing Racial Equity conference October 13-14 at the Detroit Marriott. 

Saturday’s speakers included Pulitzer Prize Winning author Desiree Cooper, Ian Solomon of Amplify Outside, Alex Allen of the Chandler Park Conservancy, and David Cowan of the Downtown Detroit Partnership. 

The gathering was held at New Center Park—which touts itself as a “private park for public use,” and was facilitated by Marshalle Favors, New Detroit’s Director of Community Engagement—who briefed the crowd on some of her organization’s best practices for quality dialogue, including valuing every opinion.

The sentiment was shared by Cooper, who noted that it is important when discussing public spaces to be careful not to assume that everyone wants the same things. “Be careful with saying ‘everybody loves’ when it comes to these spaces,” she says, noting that Detroit has a varied community who desire different things. 

Solomon also talked about the fact that not all Detroiters have the same interests. His organization is working to change the narrative of outdoor culture and create more inclusive spaces. He noted, there is self esteem in exploring open spaces. “We cannot solve racism,” he says—adding that when he shares with family and friends that he plans to travel to outlying parts of Michigan that their biggest concern is “white people.” 

However, his organization’s motto is that “Recreation is Liberation,.” He said that Black Michiganders want to be outside and deserve to be outside. “We are human beings and deserve to stand on the land that we occupy,”  he said.

David Cowan of the Downtown Detroit Partnership also addressed race in public spaces—specifically the city center. 

“There’s a lot of healing to be done in downtowns across the country,” Cowan said. He referenced the “See Detroit the way we do,” campaign from Bedrock which rubbed many Detroiters the wrong way as the advertisement featured all-white models in a city that remains more than 80% Black. 

Later, Cowan noted that the ad was a major setback for the DDP even as it works closely with Bedrock. “It has been important for us to change the messaging. It’s not just Downtown Detroit. It’s Detroit’s Downtown.” 

The DDP has focused on diverse programming at its parks that caters to the space and the people who use it—they run more than 1600 events in their spaces annually, Cowan said. It has also established an advisory council that is inclusive and more diverse than the DDP’s 60-member board. The council’s feedback contributes to the mission—it even includes a youth member. 

The non-profit organization runs the Downtown Ambassador program—a group of proactive and friendly individuals who clean public areas and serve as information resources for Downtown’s businesses and residents. Cowan noted that it also recently hired a social worker. 

“When we think about ways that public space can be more equitable, we have to think about who is using that space. Everyone from those that are unhoused to mentally ill to young families to Detroit residents who are rediscovering downtown,” he said.

Alex Allen of Chandler Park Conservancy spoke about how park stewardship organizations like theirs can create more equitable experiences. He noted that there are some standards that all parks should have. 

“A park should be clean. It should be a place that is well-manicured and pleasant to be in,” Allen said. “The park should be user-friendly, it should be safe, there should be proper signage—including a welcome sign and other signage to get around the park.” 

He added that parks should also have both active and passive recreation. “When I think about an equitable experience, I think about a park feeling like a place of one’s own,” he said.

Allen notesd that another key for the success of parks in the city is the investment of and regular communication with the municipalities including both the City of Detroit and the State of Michigan. “It’s important to be transparent about what works and what doesn’t and to come to the table with solutions,” he said,

Allen noted that no conversation about equity is complete without a conversation about resources for capital development and programming. The Chandler Park Conservancy is part of the  Detroit Parks Coalition, a new nonorofit organ ization composed of representatives of ten of Detrokt’s largest Parks. The Coalition works together to have a a louder and more cogent voice for parks advocacy. 

“Creating equity in city parks means a combination of residents and stakeholders working with the municipality to define what that means, and importantly, recognizing that the conversation will be a continuum of discussion,” Allen noted. “Things change over time, spaces change over time, and how those spaces are used, and remain equitable, will need to also change over time.”

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