Blog: Tom Woiwode

Conservationist Thomas M. Woiwode gets things done. Green things, especially.

A champion for conservation, he has raised over $125 million in private funds for conservation purposes. Plus he's completed more than 300 conservation real estate acquisitions. He's worked for decades to preserve natural spaces, create greenways and otherwise make this a greener state, region and planet.

He was the founding director of The Nature Conservancy of Michigan. For two decades, he served as an officer of the international Nature Conservancy organization.

Then, he developed the GreenWays Initiative for the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan, and has served as the director of that initiative since it launched in 2001.

Tom is our guest blogger this week, and he'll share his experiences and ideas to keep this ball rolling.


Photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.

Tom Woiwode - Most Recent Posts:

Post No 6: The Ditch

I started this week of stories on the river. Now I’m in the ditch.  Well, it’s not really a ditch; it’s a mile long, 25 foot deep, 60 foot wide trench. And there’s nothing like it.

Conversation about the idea of converting the Dequindre Cut to into a pedestrian pathway began six years ago. The idea for what the riverfront could become was just beginning to take shape; redevelopment concepts for the Eastern Market were being discussed; and the Dequindre Cut was right there, waiting to connect the two.

The conversations weren’t always easy. When the discussion first began, the Cut was severely overgrown, it was littered with trash, cisterns eight to ten feet deep had had their covers removed, making them dangerous openings, several bridges were deteriorating so badly that cement would fall from above, the side walls were caving in. And that doesn’t even touch on the public perception that it was a scary, unsafe place.

But the project kept moving forward. The sewer system was rebuilt; the walls were reinforced; vegetation was removed, thus opening the corridor up; a couple of bridges in various stages of collapse were taken down. And suddenly, people who questioned whether investing in a subterranean railroad corridor was a good idea could see its potential.

As nifty an idea as the Dequindre Cut is, it’s important to know that its benefits, and contributions to the city, go well beyond the mile-long pathway. A greenway has been planned for the Midtown area, an area populated with educational, cultural and medical institutions. That greenway, when complete, will connect to the Eastern Market from the northwest. With the Dequindre Cut connecting the Eastern Market with the riverfront, when all is done you’ll be able to go from Wayne State to Belle Isle along without need of a car.

Of course, this is only one part of the greenways network being developed in the city, as they are or soon will be touching neighborhoods in all corners of the city. But it’s an important part because of what it does. In addition to the city resources the Dequindre Cut connects, it also links neighborhoods to those resources, and creates an interesting and unusual experience for those living in or near the Cut.

Perhaps more than what it does is what it says, about creative ways of utilizing our resources, of converting a liability to an asset, of addressing community challenges in new ways, of finding different ways of responding to community needs. And, perhaps, about what we can become as a city.

The Dequindre Cut was paved about a month ago. It will officially open when the lighting is connected. But I’ve been down there almost every day since it’s been paved; and every time I’ve been in the Cut, numerous other folks are there, enjoying what is a truly unique experience. I’ve talked to quite a number of them, and to a person, they talk about how excited they are to experience the city in such an unusual way.

So, now it’s done.

And so am I.

Let’s go for a walk.

Post 5: Community Involvement

A good friend of mine is a national expert in creating recreational experiences for children of all abilities, including those with some limitations. She’s been working in this field for most of her professional career, and tells an interesting story about what got her started. It all began with a young girl in a wheelchair who sat next to a park watching her friends play on the swing set; but, of course, she couldn’t join them because the swings weren’t designed to accommodate her special needs. My friend, a mother with a child of her own, would see this girl at the park regularly, and there was nothing she could do to help that little girl join her friends on the playground. Needless to say, there’s a great deal more to this story. I’ve heard her tell it a half-dozen times, and every time she tells it, she brings tears to the audience’s eyes. It’s a powerful and emotional story.

But this story isn’t about that little girl. Her story tells us a great deal about how we think about community assets, and about showing everyone—young and old, male and female, healthy and weak—the same level of respect when designing public spaces and community resources.

I’m writing this on a swing set at Soroptimist Park. Soroptimist Park is a small park, about a short city block in each direction, located in a residential area of the city of Wayne. In June, the Wayne Parks and Recreation Department held a “community build”, a community engagement process where up to a hundred volunteers came together to build the slide and swing and jungle jim and walking trail that is now located at Soroptimist Park. It’s a great project, and Wayne should be applauded for engaging so many different partners in the project. The local golf leagues, the Rotary Club, a holiday women’s club, the local schools, all raised money to support the project. CVS contributed financially, raised money locally and provided help for the community build. It was quite a project.

But this story isn’t just about Soroptimist Park; and it isn’t just about the community build activities. You see, this wasn’t any ordinary project. This involved designing and constructing playground features that could be used by children of all abilities, facilities that are referred to as providing universal recreation. Translated, that means the facilities are designed in such a way that their use can accommodate anyone, no matter what their physical abilities…or limitations. No special swings or slides or scramble bars for children who may have mobility challenges, or limited use of their arms or legs. The facilities are designed so the use is seamless for all of the children, all of the time. It shows respect for all people, no matter what their circumstances.

Wayne is using its investment in Soroptimist Park to help establish policy regarding future park and public space investments. But not every community thinks about this issue as comprehensively as they should. Oh, sure, communities comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act; accommodations are made to create access to buildings, or curb cuts offer people easier ways to cross the street; but the Americans with Disabilities Act establishes a minimum standard of accommodation; and far too often, meet only that minimum standard without giving any thought to how to create a universal experience, so that people aren’t singled out because they’re “special”.

What’s going on in Wayne is quite telling about us as a society, how we can, with a little extra effort, make sure that everyone has equal opportunity to share in the resources of a community. And too often, we don’t do that; we choose to make the minimum investment, enough to meet the basic requirements of the law and nothing more. We can do better.

I started this story by saying this wasn’t about that little girl. Maybe it about her. Because maybe that little girl is your mother, or your sister, or your daughter…or you. And you deserve respect, too.

Post 4: Regionalism

Let’s go to the park today. Specifically, let’s go visit Richmond. If you’re not familiar with Richmond, it’s on the eastern edge of Macomb County, about 45 miles from downtown Detroit. It’s a nice little town of about 5,500 people, with a vibrant commercial district made up of all of the things we think of when we think of thriving little communities—restaurants, shops, professional office buildings. Richmond has a great deal to offer.

But we’re here to visit a park. I suppose you could say that the park we’re visiting is not much of a park. When I talked to a representative of Richmond’s recreation department, she described it as "basically a trailhead, with a gazebo, some park benches, restroom facilities." In fact, it doesn’t really have a name; the friendly folks of Richmond refer to it as the trailhead park.

This story, though, is not really about the park; it’s about what the park symbolizes. Richmond, you see, is at the end of the Macomb Orchard Trail, a 24-mile abandoned rail corridor that has been converted to a walking and biking path. The Macomb Orchard Trail covers the entirety of Macomb County, from Rochester to Richmond, traveling through such communities as Shelby Township, Romeo, Armada…and Richmond. The County took the lead on the trail’s development, and over the past decade has been acquiring land and building the trail, piece by piece.

It’s not easy to present to the public a concept plan, then implement it in pieces. Some communities get served first; others have to wait. But, when funds for acquisition and construction come from a variety of sources over a number of years, as was the case with the Macomb Orchard Trail—federal, state and county dollars matched by private contributions, including grants from the Community Foundation—it takes time.

To help with the development, construction and management of the trail, the communities formed an intergovernmental agreement, characteristic for a project but quite uncharacteristic for southeast Michigan. Through that agreement, the communities served by the Macomb Orchard Trail paid into a fund that helped with the development plans and, as segments of the trail came on line, assisted with its management.

Richmond was one of those communities. They were also at the end of the line. As the trail was developed from the west to east, Richmond dutifully paid into the fund; representatives participated in the meetings; they contributed to the trail’s management, even though they hadn’t gotten their segment of the trail. They invested in the common good because they knew their community would benefit and their day would come.

And come it did. Construction began on the eastern segment of the Macomb Orchard Trail, bringing it into Richmond. And to welcome the trail, and the visitors who used the trail, Richmond built a park, a trailhead park.

We often talk about how difficult it is here in southeast Michigan to get communities to work together, to look outside their boundaries, to share resources for the betterment of the region.  In Macomb County, though, a handful of communities, working with the county, developed a shared vision for what they wanted to be—what they could become—as communities, and as partners, and went about implementing that vision, working together on this simple project in ways that we don’t see often enough.

One could say it’s not much of a park. But it represents so much more. As a park, it represents how each of the communities along the Macomb Orchard Trail will benefit from the trail—how we’ll become healthier, and learn more about our environment, and learn more about our communities, and each other. And as an investment, it illustrates how communities can come together, can collaborate to make our region stronger, to make us better, as a region, as a community, and as people.

So if you go to Richmond, look for the park. It’s at the end of the trail.

Or maybe it’s the beginning.

Post No 3: The Olympics

I love the Olympics. I’m a great fan of competitive athletics, and have always appreciated significant accomplishments in sports. But there’s something different about the Olympics. The world stage; the world’s greatest athletes realizing new levels of achievement; unknown athletes accomplishing things that even they never dreamed were possible; the human interest stories associated with how the athletes managed to reach center stage, or overcome tremendous obstacles to compete for their country; the human drama of each and every competition. And the Olympics opens the door for many of us who have very little international travel experience, to countries and cultures and worlds and environments that we are not likely to ever see. It helps us to understand the remarkable diversity that is Mother Earth. There is simply nothing like the Olympics.

But, as the build-up to the Olympics grew, as reporters told us about the host country, China—the people, the culture, the lifestyles, the economy—I was struck by one thing that had nothing to do with athletic competition or the athletes, but certainly said a lot about us as a people.


As the deadline for Olympic competition approached, story after story reported on the terrible air pollution in Beijing. There were constant references to the possible need to wear masks when competing in outside venues, such as the bike road race and the marathon. Some athletes threatened to stay home. In an attempt to clear the air, the Chinese government shut down factories and took 1.5 million cars off the road a month before competition began, just to ensure that the athletes could breathe. 

What are we doing to ourselves? Please understand—this isn’t a diatribe against cars. It is, though, a comment about the way we design the communities in which we live. So often we think about ways to accommodate cars and their uses, and don’t think about using that same space to create opportunities for people to interact with each other. 

Increasingly, cities around the country are recognizing that cities, and neighborhoods within cities, are places for exchange—social, cultural, economic exchange. And, increasingly, cities are redesigning their landscapes to encourage that exchange. The design feature we often read about is creating bicycle-friendly cities. But that’s not the only thing. The concept of complete streets encourages looking at the many different ways we use streets, and designing the streets to complement and encourage those uses. Narrow streets provide more walkable communities, which brings neighbors and visitors into closer contact with each other; businesses capitalize on the pedestrian traffic in those commercial districts; angle parking doubles the amount of parking available, and, combined with the narrower streets, slows traffic down and creates a safer environment; bike lanes offer bicyclists with equal access to the pavement; amenities along the way, such as benches, bike racks, trees and properly designed lighting, create public spaces that encourage visitation.

And the bottom line is, we get healthier, the local economy improves, we get to know our neighborhood, and our neighbors, better, and the community becomes that much more attractive a place to live.

How do we get there? A non-motorized plan has been developed for the City of Detroit, and the City Council is preparing to discuss its support. But this should be about more than endorsing a plan.  We should look for ways to integrate opportunities for pedestrian and non-motorized experiences in every development and construction plan, including every road reconstruction project. Finding ways to encourage getting closer to nature, to our environment and to our communities should be public policy, both in the city and throughout the region; and should be a requirement for all projects.

No, wait…it shouldn’t be a requirement. It should be done as a matter of course. It should be done because it’s the right thing to do. Then maybe we won’t be talking about removing cars so people can breathe. We’ll be talking about creating one of the most livable cities—and regions—in the country.

Post No 2: The Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan

It just dawned on me that I didn’t properly introduce myself yesterday. I work for the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. If you’re not familiar with community foundations, they are quite literally the philanthropic arm of the community. We support activities, programs and institutions to improve the quality of life throughout the region’s seven counties. We manage over 900 charitable funds, and last year awarded more than $45 million in grants to organizations throughout the region. In addition to grants, we offer education and training on issues important to the health and well-being of the region. In the past, these events have included seminars on safe communities, addressing the obesity epidemic, the implications of changes in the tax laws to nonprofit organizations, and many others. 

We develop special programs around particular issues important to the region. Some of those programs include initiatives that support arts and culture, environmental education, senior citizens, or creating endowments for nonprofit organizations. And, included in that category, is the GreenWays Initiative. 

The GreenWays Initiative, though, is an unusual one for us.  When the idea was first proposed eight years ago, it prompted a number of questions. It involved grants supporting capital improvements, and we typically didn’t make capital grants. It was our first direct involvement with municipal governments. It required a more direct engagement with potential grantees, both public and private, than had been our custom. It included an educational component that was much more active than any other educational series’ we had hosted in the past. At $25 million, it was by a significant margin the largest initiative we had ever attempted (at that time). And, the structure—a community foundation serving as a leading voice in support of the development of greenways—had never been tried, anywhere in the country. 

Greenways had been discovered and embraced elsewhere in the country. But this was a new issue, and an untested new model, for southeast Michigan. Not surprisingly, there were some serious questions. How will this function? How do we make sure our money is being spent properly? How can we get communities to work together?  How do we make sure the requisite knowledge and skills are out there? And perhaps most important, why should we do this and will it work?

That last question—the “why” in particular—caused some real soul-searching about what this would mean to the city and the region. Should we get involved in greenways because of experiences in other cities? Like Pittsburgh, where the mayor in the late 90’s characterized greenways as the single most important economic development program in the city? Or in Indianapolis, where an entire greenway is dedicated to art? Or in Minneapolis, where twenty percent of the entire campus population of the University of Minnesota—students, faculty, staff—bike or walk to the campus every day…year round? Or in Little Rock, where the Medical Mile, a mile-long downtown trail along the Arkansas River celebrates the health benefits of greenways? Or Denver, where, through intergovernmental cooperation, the region has used cooperation with the water management district to build an interconnecting network of 600 miles of trails that extend well into the suburbs? Or Indianapolis again, where a study by the local board of realtors showed that property adjacent to or near the main trails in the city was as much as 15-25 percent more valuable? Or Portland, Oregon, where the popularity of bike lanes has turned Portland into a biking tourism destination? Or Chicago, where, because of the availability of bike lockers at Millenium Park, bicycle commuting has skyrocketed? (Notice that most of the examples cited share the same weather we have.)

Well, maybe.

Or maybe we should be investing in greenways because of the doctor in Flat Rock who moved his clinic so it was adjacent to the greenway being built in that city, thus enabling him to use it as part of his health prescriptions for his patients. Or because of the greenway that was built connecting Henry Ford Community College and the University of Michigan-Dearborn to the commercial/residential district of West Dearborn, thus giving those two campuses pedestrian access for the first time in their 40+ year history. Or because of the hotel in downtown Rochester that markets its location along a greenway as one of its offerings. Or because of the 750,000 people who came down to the riverfront to enjoy General Motors Detroit River Days? Or because of the six communities along the Clinton River Trail in Oakland County, or the 10 communities along the Macomb Orchard Trail in Macomb County, or the 21 Downriver communities, that are collaborating—working together—to connect to each other, and to build better shared communities. Or because the $25 million GreenWays Initiative has generated an additional $90+ million in public investment, funds that came to southeast Michigan because of the development of greenways. 

Or maybe it’s all of those things, and so many more.

Post No 1: Going For A Walk

I went for a walk today. It's a walk I take often, several times a week if possible.  Today's walk, though, was much longer than usual. Typically, when I have the chance, I walk along the Detroit River from the Renaissance Center to the Rivard Plaza and back. Today I walked to Gabriel Richard Park and back, a distance of about 3 1/2 miles each way, the entire length of the east riverfront when it will be done.

RiverWalk is incredible. Have you seen it yet? If not, you should get down there soon, and visit often. Who knows what you might find? Fountains (always full of children on hot days); a one-of-a-kind carousel; air races; rock concerts; weddings (I walked into one a couple of weeks ago); a labyrinth; outdoor meetings; bike riders; or, perhaps most important, a place to walk, or sit, or watch the boats and the river--a place of respite, to enjoy what is special about this city.

For those of us who've lived and worked in Detroit for decades, access to the riverfront, the change in the city is truly inspirational. And it has transformed the way we think about the city, and the city thinks about itself.

Oh, sure, there's more to be done. The state park isn't finished; the section between Mt. Elliott Park and Gabriel Richard Park needs to be completed; access at the eastern end needs to be improved; the area east of the Renaissance Center needs to be cleaned up to make for a more inviting environment.

The city must work with the
Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, the organization vested with the responsibility of managing the public spaces and hosting the events along the RiverWalk, to complete this pedestrian corridor. It needs to happen soon, so the momentum for development is not lost, and so the Riverfront Conservancy can move on to the stretch heading west to the Ambassador Bridge (yes, there is a next phase in the riverfront's development, another 2 1/2 miles west of Cobo Center).

But the work yet to be done does not make the transformation any less significant. Something happens when you go for a walk along the riverfront. You interact and engage people in entirely different ways. You meet people from very different backgrounds, people of all colors, of all ages, of all philosophies. You smile and say hello. You share with everyone that same sense of wonder, of excitement, of enthusiasm for this place we call home, and that commitment to what it could be. The transformation of the riverfront has created a share sense of interest in where we live, and how we live, and how we live with each other.    

And that's the point.