In search of greenspace equity: A short history of Detroit’s parks

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“It is one great purpose of the Park to supply to the hundreds of thousands of tired workers, who have no opportunity to spend their summers in the country, a specimen of God’s handiwork that shall be to them, inexpensively, what a month or two in the White Mountains or the Adirondacks is, at great cost, to those in easier circumstances.”

Frederick Law Olmsted, April 28, 1858

In his 1858 report on the design of New York’s Central Park, soon-to-be renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted laid out his theories on the role of public parks in American life. Increasing industrialization in the mid-nineteenth century led civic leaders to wonder where all the green space was going. 

Wealthy landowners in cities across the young country had long endowed green spaces for well-heeled residents, but Olmsted’s view of a city park built for the enjoyment of all classes was remarkably progressive. Presaging Detroit figures like Hazen Pingree, Olmsted predicted the need to carve out places of tranquility with equity and access in mind.

The history of Detroit’s public parks is, in many ways, a story of the search for equity and community. The city’s earliest parks were reserved for wealthy elites whose mansions bordered elaborately manicured gardens. 

Over the next century and beyond, Detroit’s parklands have become more than simple gardens for strolling; with input from residents and community organizations, parks throughout the city now reflect the diversity of experience, purpose, and recreational interest of Detroiters.

‘Point of Origin’: Woodward’s plan 

Arguably Detroit’s first planned public green space is Campus Martius. Before Woodward’s civic plan for Detroit after the Great Fire of 1805, the French and British settlers of Detroit set up common orchards, royal gardens, and a common grazing area near Detroit’s fort, located near the present-day intersection of Fort and Shelby streets. The fire of 1805 hit just after the Territory of Michigan was established with Detroit as its capital, which changed everything. 

Augustus Woodward’s plan for the city imagined grand boulevards, spacious and elegant common parks, and an orderly, hub-and-spoke city layout. At its core was Campus Martius, where the Point of Origin of the planned city streets lay, with radiating, broad tree-lined streets and regular public spaces for relaxation and enjoyment.

Detroiters, however, had other plans. Woodward’s city design didn’t consider the predominant uses of land in Detroit — for farming and irrigation, access to the river was essential to each property owner. Detroiters ignored Woodward’s utopian plan and continued to use, subdivide and sell their land as best suited their individual needs.

By 1850, about all that remained of Woodward’s elegant city plan was the central Campus Martius and half of the originally designed circular Grand Circus Park.

Campus Martius, or “Field of Mars,” was designed as a public square for the assembly and parading of the territory’s soldiers mustering for battle. Until the 1840s, the space was a swampy marshland.

Campus Martius, Detroit, Mich. Postcard 1915. Detroit Historical Society

After city leaders filled the area with sand, it became a mustering ground for soldiers departing for the Civil War and, after their return, a space for public monuments like the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial as well as the location of City Hall. It also served as a central bazaar area for many years, with peddlers selling produce, meat, general goods, and other trinkets.

Like Campus Martius, Grand Circus Park was designed to hold monuments to powerful Detroit and national figures. But unlike Campus Martius, city leaders intended Grand Circus as a pleasure garden for the elite, similar to places like London’s Vauxhall Gardens. 

In reality, though, it remained a marshy, boggy mess, used alternatively as a skating area in winter and a dumping ground in summer. Finally, in 1846, the city drained the marshy land and installed trees and a walking path on the west side of Woodward Avenue. In 1847, Grand Circus became Detroit’s first official municipal park.

Land donations create early parks — and burdens

During the 1830s and 1840s, several Detroit parklands emerged for the enjoyment of well-heeled citizens. Unlike Grand Circus, though, many of them were privately owned. Elmwood Cemetery and Belle Isle were landscaped and developed in the mid-nineteenth century with land donations from wealthy landowners. 

These donations were not without self-interest, though, or without controversy. Much of the donated land was in woeful shape: by donating bogs, sloughs, dumping grounds and otherwise unwanted properties, landowners could ensure a tax break while improving the value of their own nearby property. 

Patrick Cooper-McCann, now a professor of urban studies and planning at Wayne State, wrote a comprehensive history of Detroit’s city parks in 2019. These private deeds, he argues, placed the burden of park development onto people living in areas with fewer public and park amenities. 

“In effect,” Cooper-McCann writes, “such deeds required the Common Council to subsidize new growth at the expense of older neighborhoods. To retain donated land, the council had to prioritize parks in areas where no one yet resided, on the outskirts of town, while most residents continued to live in tightly packed neighborhoods closer to the river without open space.” 

The development of Belle Isle exemplifies these early struggles for equity. Before European settlement, the land was commonly used by local Anishinaabeg nations — including the Ojibwe and Odawa — as a hunting and fishing ground, commonly held by all neighboring nations. Under French rule, the island was known as Ile Au Cochon, or Hog Island, for its primary use as pasturing for hogs and pigs owned by the residents of Detroit. 

In 1769, British general George McDougall signed a treaty with the Odawa and Ojibwe ceding ownership; the island passed through several families before ending up owned by Barnabas Campau in 1845. Campau promptly renamed it “Belle Isle” and began marketing it as a picnic and pleasure ground for the elite of Detroit, with private ferries and manicured lawns. 

Before long, though, the City of Detroit had its eye on Belle Isle. The 1870s marked a nationwide shift in municipal views of park spaces. As cities expanded and populations grew, wide open spaces became harder to acquire, and inner-city residents, many recent immigrants, began clamoring for access to leisure grounds as well. 

Public furor whipped up around where these facilities should be housed, who would have access to them, and whose money would pay for them. City planners were also beginning to contend with the need for improved infrastructure and transportation in the increasingly-crowded cities. 

Belle Isle, McCann states, “represented a three-for-one deal. Not only could Belle Isle host a waterworks, but it could also serve as a beautiful public park—after all, it was already a popular venue for picnics, sporting events, and soirees—and it was also large enough to accommodate a rail bridge or tunnel to Canada. Buying Belle Isle could therefore solve three of the most contentious issues in 1870s Detroit politics: siting a landscaped park, distributing clean water, and beating rival cities in the race to link the railways of Michigan to the railways of Ontario and New York.”

Source: The Promise of Parkland: Planning Detroit’s Public Spaces, 1805-2018

In doing so, the city attempted to designate the island for utilitarian and aesthetic use. The growing city desperately needed a central location for water and sanitation treatment. Shipping demands also pressured Detroit to designate a space for an international railroad crossing to Canada. When the Campau family agreed to sell Belle Isle to the city for $200,000 in 1879, the 982-acre island looked like a bargain. 

After a few years’ scramble, though, only the landscaped pleasure grounds of the initial Belle Isle plan remained. Both the waterworks and the railway proved logistically impractical on an island when there was still space for the taking along the shoreline of the mainland. 

Still, McCann writes, “At that price, some argued, it didn’t matter whether a railroad tunnel was ever built. A park alone was sufficient justification.”

The twentieth century: Disparity and segregation

By the early twentieth century, much of Detroit within the boundaries of Grand Boulevard was densely packed and privately held. Industrial American cities, including Detroit, were crowded with immigrant settlers, many of whom were packed into unsanitary tenements, allowing little access to outdoor spaces. 

The Playground Movement sprang up in response to this overcrowding. Well-intentioned philanthropists, many of them wealthy women, sought to carve out a space for children to engage in physical activity, blow off steam, and develop physical skills.

Source: The Promise of Parkland: Planning Detroit’s Public Spaces, 1805-2018

Unlike the vast, manicured lawns and preserves of the earlier-established parks in Detroit, many of these early twentieth-century parks were more compact. They emphasized the efficiency of playground equipment for exercise and the efficiency of park footprints, allowing them to be squeezed into small lots in crowded neighborhoods.

These neighborhood parks can still be found all over the city, although some have suffered from a lack of funding and changes in neighborhood needs over the decades. Examples include Memorial Park (now Erma Henderson Park), Nardin Park, and Connors Creek Parkway (now Conner Playfield).

Some others, like Zussman Playground on Davison Avenue at Dexter, have been extensively restored in recent years. 

Equitable access remained an issue for these smaller playgrounds. Wealthier — and whiter — neighborhoods consistently provided better funding for parks. The playground equipment was of higher quality and better maintained than that in lower-income areas. Many parks were segregated by race from the early twentieth century through the 1960s and beyond. In the city’s wealthier areas, swimming pools were barred to Black Detroiters for many years, and parks in the inner city were neglected. 

Source: The Promise of Parkland: Planning Detroit’s Public Spaces, 1805-2018

After World War II, Detroiters suffered income inequality; between 1940 and 1950, the poverty rate of Detroit doubled. Between 1947 and 1963, the city lost nearly 150,000 manufacturing jobs. Job scarcity often led to racial conflict. The 1940s saw two race riots in the city, including the 1943 riots centered around Belle Isle, where a white crowd attached random Black citizens after spurious rumors swirled of a white child being thrown from the Belle Isle bridge by a Black youth.

Lower tax revenue followed. One of the first amenities to be cut was funding for public parks. Compounded by the inequities created by redlining, funding distribution for park maintenance essentially guaranteed that many neglected playgrounds and parks in hard-hit neighborhoods would be slated for urban renewal. Predominantly Black neighborhoods like Black Bottom and the near east side were bulldozed in favor of privately-owned, planned communities like Lafayette Park. 

Despite these hardships, or perhaps spurred on by them, concerned Detroiters began to form coalitions to protect and preserve their neighborhood parks. In the wake of the 1967 unrest, New Detroit’s coalition established the Deprived Areas Recreation Team — DART for short — to address the need for safe play spaces. 

In a movement that author Andrew McGregor calls “urban environmentalism,” proponents touted recreational spaces as a solution for class conflict, racial unrest, and urban blight prevalent in the aftermath of depopulation. DART created a series of pocket parks in abandoned land. 

With a budget of just $340,000, the program paid local teens to clean up vacant lots, install playground equipment, and maintain the grounds. The program proved popular, but funding from the city remained a challenge. Still, the concept of pocket parks as community hubs continues to inspire urban activists; its efforts can be seen in new focuses on pocket parks sprinkled throughout the city, like Southwest Detroit’s Dingeman Park and Bieniek Park, nonprofit Brilliant Detroit’s planning Morningside pocket park, and Ella Fitzgerald Park.

A new century — and new collaboration

City planners now acknowledge — if not always perfectly execute — the idea that parks need the support and the wisdom of community members to serve the needs of the neighborhood residents best. This shift in policy, begun by movements like DART, became dramatically important after the Detroit bankruptcy declaration of 2013. As the largest U.S. city to declare bankruptcy, Detroit faced unprecedented challenges to funding. One of the first casualties, many feared, looked to be its parks.

Rochelle Lento wasn’t about to let that happen. When news reached Lento, a founding People For Palmer Park member, she and others were prepared to act. The City of Detroit announced in 2009 that it was about to close the 286-acre park due to budget cuts. 

The park, a legacy donation from Senator Thomas Palmer in 1893 on the condition that its virgin forests be preserved, had become famed for its tennis courts and the scenic log cabin on the grounds. However, like other city parks, Palmer Park fell into disrepair over the years. Lento and others organized to petition the City and devise a plan to repair and maintain essential parts of the park.

Palmer Park advocates weren’t alone in their efforts to protect their beloved Detroit parks. Elsewhere, in Southwest at Clark Park, at Chandler Park on the east side, and at Rouge Park, concerned residents banded together and formed coalitions. 

In 1991, Anthony Benavides and his neighbors took over the arduous task of converting Clark Park back into its previous role as a center for recreation and play. In 2002, Sally Petrella and others formed Friends of Rouge Park to keep the city’s largest park, Rouge park, from demolition and abandonment. Fiercely protective Detroiters convened and argued for preserving parklands all over the city. 

Petrella, president of Friends of the Rouge, says, “Parks groups are critical to the quality of life for Detroiters because they enable people and organizations who care about parks to communicate their vision and form the partnerships necessary to save and improve them. They give residents a voice and a say in what happens to their parks.”

Groups like Friends of Rouge Park, Clark Park, and others now partner with the City of Detroit to inform city officials and planners about issues most important to the residents surrounding the parks. Although the City maintains some aspects of partner parks, such as lawn and playground equipment maintenance, partner groups are often in charge of programming. 

People for Palmer Park’s Rochelle Lento says parks groups “are the city’s eyes and ears in the park. We’re there all the time, so we let them know what’s needed in the park on a regular basis.” 

One example of this beneficial collaboration is the planned move of the Michigan State Fairground’s bandshell from its current location to Palmer Park. Originally scheduled for demolition to make room for an Amazon fulfillment center, the bandshell will now move to Palmer Park, thanks to the partnership between the city and the Friends.

The Detroit Parks Coalition was established in 2010 with the mission to ensure that Detroit’s parks remain vibrant and accessible to all. Unfortunately, by 2017, the group had become inactive due to a lack of resources from the city. But in 2018, the DPC was revived and has since grown to include representatives from 10 park stewardship organizations responsible for over 20 parks in the city. 

Together, this coalition works to find creative and efficient solutions to make progress in Detroit’s parks and public spaces. Through their collective efforts, they are committed to ensuring that these spaces remain open and accessible to everyone.

Forming the Detroit Parks Coalition in 2010 brought together shared resources, says Lento. 

“By starting to meet collectively, we realized that we had a lot more in common than we did against each other,” she says. “So by having a collective voice, we’ve been able to impart to the city that we’re all in this together,” and cooperate for city funding and grant money, appealing to funders that can help the parks collectively.

Sigal Hemy, executive director of the Detroit Parks Coalition, said that “city parks are a really critical part of the quality of life in Detroit. At the parks coalition, we say that the parks are common ground. There are places where we recreate, or we exercise, relax, experience nature, and enjoy family. They’re just a keystone to the city.”

Anthony Benavides knows this firsthand. Growing up in the neighborhood around Southwest’s Clark Park, he played hockey and goofed in the park after school. He’s continued to live in the neighborhood and was one of the founding members of the Clark Park Coalition in 1991— when the park suffered the ignominious nickname “Crack Park.” 

Lake and pavilion, Clark Park, Detroit, Mich. Library of Congress

Says Benavides, “There were a lot of negative things happening in the 80s and 90s, but we picked up the pieces with the Clark Park Coalition and other nonprofits in the area. The city has been a good partner. They allowed us to operate with their help, and they see the vision of having a nice, safe, clean park.” 

The power of a collective voice for Detroit’s park users continues to benefit Detroiters. Whether in smaller pocket parks, neighborhood recreation areas or sprawling riverfront complexes, the parks of Detroit show the character and beauty of the city and its residents. 

And for Benavides and the other parks advocates, it’s also about providing a benefit to future park-goers. Kids and adults of all different backgrounds come together and enjoy Detroit’s parks, says Benavides. 

“They’re all creating a park. And we’re hoping that one day those same kids will take our positions and be stewards of the park and continue the tradition — and make it that much better.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Detroit Parks Coalition.


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