Andrew McDowell says Ecorse Creek has been "the back door of the community" in the city of Ecorse for far too long, as it's been straightened, dredged, and fallen into disrepair over decades of industrial use. But the city, along with a sizable coalition of community partners, recently released a new vision plan for cleaning up the creek and making it a hotspot both for outdoor recreation and local wildlife.
The Ecorse Creek Committee Vision Plan outlines major goals for revitalizing the creek, including specific plans for cleanup and recreational development in four priority areas. McDowell, an associate at internationally renowned design firm Smithgroup, drew up the plan for the city. The plan represents the combined vision of the Ecorse Creek Committee, which came together in 2017 to raise public awareness of the creek "as an asset to be cared for and a source of recreation."
Ecorse Creek Trail Concept MapThe plan describes "healing communities, natural systems, and the relationship between people and nature" as the essential component of the committee's vision for the creek. McDowell says that involves embracing the creek's ecological value and planning recreational developments with an emphasis on environmental remediation.
"They're living organisms, our rivers and our creeks," says Richard Marsh, Ecorse's city administrator and a founding member of the Ecorse Creek Committee. "We need to nurture them much better than we have in the past. These are areas, in terms of human connection, where a lot of us go for peace, harmony, tranquility, and recreation activity. That's what waterfronts should be used for."
The plan presents Ecorse Creek in terms of massive unrealized potential. The city of Ecorse is only 2.4 square miles, but it has 4.6 miles of waterfront (2.1 miles along the creek and 2.5 miles along the Detroit River). Less than 1% of the city is used for park land – significantly less than the city's parks and recreation plan recommends.
The Ecorse Creek Committee Vision Plan identifies four priority projects to begin transforming the creek into a recreation destination: improving riparian habitat and adding recreational amenities at Pepper Park, creating a multi-use trail running along the creek, repurposing the former Rowing Club building along the Detroit Riverfront for recreational use, and improving Dingell Park along the Detroit River.
Ecorse boat launch. Photo courtesy Kelly Rose.
Some of those efforts are already underway. The city has obtained a $102,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation that will fund a riparian habitat restoration demonstration project, as well as the installation of the first public paddling launch on the creek, at Pepper Park. Construction on that project is set to be completed next year. McDowell says the initiative will open public paddling access to 3.7 miles of the creek.
The city is also currently seeking a grant from the Michigan Coastal Zone Management Program to conduct a study that would identify publicly owned lands along Ecorse Creek and design preliminary improvements along its banks, including a potential multi-use trail route identified in the vision plan. McDowell says the trail will be one area where thoughtful ecological restoration will be particularly important.
"When we put a trail system in, we're not going to just do it with the existing conditions," he says. "We're going to try to reintroduce some bends back into the creek, and to do it thoughtfully so we can maximize the habitat value and the functions for flood control."
Marsh also anticipates issuing a request for proposals for the purchase and restoration of the Rowing Club building within the next year. He envisions retail operations in the building catering to outdoor enthusiasts, including healthy beverage sales and canoe and kayak rentals. In the even longer term, he says he hopes to attract a boat cruise operator to offer tours out of Dingell Park. But he stresses that implementing the vision will be an iterative process of building upon progressively greater successes, drawing more grant funding along the way.
"We've got to have some winning projects and then we'll get there," Marsh says.
Marsh and McDowell both count many small victories in the effort to revitalize the creek over the past four years. One of them is the establishment and growth of the Ecorse Creek Committee itself, which started with just a handful of dedicated members. It has since expanded to include representatives of organizations including Friends of the Detroit River; Riverside Kayak Connection; the neighboring cities of Wyandotte and Lincoln Park; the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy; Downriver Delta Community Development Corporation; the Detroit International Wildlife Refuge; and the Michigan Sea Grant. Dedicated Ecorse residents have also been stalwart members of the committee.
"The partnership is really what is going to make this successful," McDowell says. "The fact that they've been showing up and really have been proving themselves has been great."
The committee has hosted two creek cleanups, each attracting 40-60 volunteers. One cleanup event, held in partnership with Lincoln Park and Wyandotte, was funded by a grant from the Great Lakes Commission.
"That's part of the goal: to generate interest and energy regarding this creek and the value of it," Marsh says. "So the soft stuff is done."
McDowell hopes that Ecorse, Lincoln Park, and Wyandotte can all continue to come together in valuing and improving the creek.
"This is the glue," he says. "This is like a zipper, and it's a domain where everybody can come together. It's supposed to be an intermixing of the communities and no longer treated as that complete, hard-line delineation."
In the long term, Marsh hopes the creek can connect even more of the many communities it runs through further upstream. He envisions it becoming a destination along the lines of the Clinton River Trail, promoting economic growth and environmental stewardship through outdoor recreation.
The city of Ecorse will host a public meeting to review proposed plans for improvements at Pepper Park on Feb. 16. McDowell encourages interested local residents to get engaged, either through that meeting or by following the Ecorse Creek Facebook page. He hopes city residents will continue to embrace the creek as their community's "front door."
"The opportunity is to really think about what they want in their community to really help them thrive – with their own personal health, but also economically," he says. "This is a place that I think can really attract people to live because it has such a vast amount of waterfront."