Making parks and green spaces easier to access for Detroiters

"It’s important to publicly set priorities to what matters to residents when it comes to parks." -  Meagan Elliott

Detroit is constantly updating its local parks – working to improve existing ones and creating new green spaces within 10 minutes of walking distance of residents' homes.

Meagan Elliott, Chief Parks Planner for the City of Detroit, says the city is working toward creating equitable park accessibility opportunities. This includes updating 294 existing parks and looking for new ways to develop parks in neighborhoods that need them.

Much of that work is funded by the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (MNRTF), which protects natural resources and outdoor recreation. It was created in 1976 between state legislators, the Michigan Oil and Gas Association, and Michigan United Conservation Clubs.

Rouge Park

Detroit uses both the acquisition and development funds from the trust to bolster its local recreational amenities. The Proposition One ballot initiative that voters will decide on Nov. 3 would shift the balance on how those dollars are spent to include more development dollars potentially. That has alarmed some environmentalists concerned that will mean fewer dollars for the acquisition of land for public recreation and conservation.

Elliott sees the value in both.

"I've heard a lot of conversation about acquisition versus development, but the development grants also play a role in conservation," Elliott said. "Anytime you receive a trust fund grant, it encumbers the park property to be recreational property in perpetuity. People keep talking about acquisition and development as being oppositional. Both of those funds work really hard to protect our parkland for the public.”

According to the Trust for Public Land, 80 percent of Detroiters have ready access to a park within a 10-minute walk from their home. Still, the city wants to improve that metric by creating smaller, one to five-acre parks across the city, keeping in mind 25 percent of Detroiters do not have a car.

Elliott says Detroit needs development dollars from the fund to renovate its parks for the system.

"We have an aging park system," Elliott says. "If you have a park that doesn't look great and hasn't been renovated in many decades, for example, that can be the thing that drags down the entire feeling of the neighborhood."

Sally Petrella, president of the Friends of Rouge Park, said the Rouge Park is one of the largest in the city, but it has been neglected for over 50 years.

“The city is working to restore amenities but still has a long way to go," Petrella said. "This is the city's largest park, yet amenities are few, and maintenance has been minimal for many decades.”

Petrella leads Friends of Rouge Park, which was created in 2002 to bring attention to park preservation issues.

Petrella points out that in addition to natural areas, Rouge Park has "a swimming pool, archery range, youth campground, model airplane flying field, tree nursery, basketball courts, prairie, hiking and biking trails, organic farm, horses, a golf course and more,” — all of which require ongoing maintenance for parks users.

Palmer Park Log Cabin

Petrella said many people access the park to live nearby or use public transportation to access Rouge park, which is served by five bus lines.

Walkability and transit access are key features of park planning, Elliot said, noting the city works closely with the planning department, DDOT, and the Department of Public Works.

Two renovation projects at Rouge Park are being funded through the Michigan Natural ResourcesTrust Fund — a splash pad and the Sorenson recreation area's renovation.

“We're hoping that by creating splash pads, which are wildly popular, we'll introduce more kids into joining some swim programs and getting more exposed to the pool,” says Juliana Fulton, a park planner in the City of Detroit.

"We have really high incidences of kids not being able to swim, so that's a high priority for us on the programming end of what we do," adds Elliott. "And the splash pad is kind of just like a gateway into the kind of the joys of being around water, especially during the summer months.”

The Sorenson area renovation will see new picnic shelters, play structures, ball fields, and walking trails.

Rouge Park

"It’s one of our highest youth population areas in the city," said Fulton. "We probably would only have been able to afford 25% of what we were able to do. So maybe it would have only been the walking path.”

Elliott sees these improvements' impacts reaching far beyond the park property.

"Every single time we go into a neighborhood and do a full kind of capital renovation, we've seen time and again the way it changes folks' outlook and perspective on their neighborhood identity," said Elliott. "This is a really significant piece of the puzzle for us.”

Elliott says one example of accessible greenspace being created through the funds (and MDOT) is the Joe Louis Greenway, a 27.5-mile pathway that connects the Dequindre Cut, Riverwalk, and neighborhoods Detroit, Dearborn, Hamtramck, and Highland Park.

“Joe Louis Greenway is centered around a mission to impact BIPOC communities directly and uses acquisition and development funds,” said Elliott.

She says this will impact 46,000 Detroiters once built out. The route includes 7.5 miles of the abandoned Contrail railroad property, acquired by the City of Detroit, which will be a part of the greenway.

Getting Detroiters involved in the future of their parks systems is a key part of Elliott's work. While some people attend community meetings, she recognizes others do not. She hopes the city can fully represent the people’s needs and encourages people to reach out to her office if they don’t have a 10-min walk park nearby to find a solution.

“Cities often do have much older park systems than rural or affluent areas,” she said. “It’s important to publicly set priorities to what matters to residents when it comes to parks,” she says.

Al photos by Doug Coombe.



“Preserving Michigan” is an ongoing series exploring the history and impact of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund on the people and communities of Michigan. The series is underwritten by the Michigan Environmental Council. Issue Media Group maintains editorial independence for all of our underwritten content. Please review our editorial underwriting policy for more information.