Placemaking projects on Huron and Clinton rivers yield positive changes

Two local watershed councils, Huron River Watershed Council and Clinton River Watershed Council, are finding ways to reclaim southeastern Michigan rivers for the communities along their banks. The Huron and Clinton rivers, through the RiverUp! and WaterTowns projects respectively, are being transformed from places where sewage and industrial waste were once dumped into economic and development generators.

Though the two programs differ at points, they share the idea that using various placemaking tactics will turn the rivers into assets rather than afterthoughts. Cleaning up the water, creating miles of trails, and building boat launches, landings, and docks have driven development along the rivers in towns that sit on their banks, but there's an added bonus: by re-introducing communities to their rivers, the communities begin to take ownership of them and become more interested in maintaining the ecological health of the waterways.

Another common thread between the two rivers is the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation, which has contributed grants to both RiverUp! and WaterTowns. John Erb, president of the foundation, says that part of the organization's mission is to nurture a healthy southeastern Michigan with an emphasis on water quality.

"Every one of us lives in a watershed, yet there are lots of us that aren't aware of that. So, let's make them aware," says Erb. "Every thing we do affects the watershed, even something as simple as brushing our teeth."

Laura Rubin, Executive Director of the Huron River Watershed Council, says that like most Midwestern towns, the cities built on the Huron and Clinton rivers were built with their backs turned to the river, meaning that the river banks were loaded with factories, utilities, and industry.

Programs like RiverUp! and WaterTowns have helped change that. People in towns along the Huron like Dexter and Ypsilanti, in towns along the Clinton like Rochester Hills and Utica, may not have realized that they even live in a town with a river running through it. Now, as the rivers are cleaned up, made more easily accessible, and peppered with recreation opportunities, residents can see their neighbors paddle by and decide to sit down and have lunch along the banks. As more people make use of the rivers, the watershed councils believe that development will follow.

One interesting plan includes kayak lockers. RiverUp! is currently in the process of designing lockers that could debut this summer in towns like Ann Arbor and Flat Rock. Paddle up to a town, keep your boat secure at the dock, and walk to a restaurant, bar, or hotel.

"Rivers are our most dominant feature, yet we let other things define our communities," says Rubin. "People can choose to live anywhere they want. With placemaking, rivers can become the central focus of our towns."

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