Equity initiatives seek to make Southeast Michigan parks better, safer, and more welcoming for all

Southeast Michigan parks' equity initiatives vary depending on the communities they serve, but they have similar positive results for all residents.
This story is the first installment in Equity in Our Parks, a new series highlighting the people and organizations advancing equity through Southeast Michigan’s parks and related programming. It is supported by Oakland County Parks and Recreation, Wayne County Parks and Recreation, Huron-Clinton Metroparks, City of Detroit, and Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. 

Ryan Myers-Johnson recalls being "enchanted" by Detroit's green spaces as she was growing up in the city. Now, as an adult, it's her mission to make that same enchantment accessible to as many others as possible.

Myers-Johnson is the executive director and founder of the nonprofit Sidewalk Detroit, which seeks to improve public life and social infrastructure, including serving as a stewardship organization for what she describes as the "jewel" of Detroit's Eliza Howell Park. In her work with the park, and with Sidewalk Detroit in general, Myers-Johnson is heavily focused on the concept of equity. 
Ryan Myers-Johnson.
"There is a lot to unpack with that word," she says. "It's not easy to just define it in one space. But what we would look at is: What are the barriers for having a powerful, creative, and safe experience in the space, and how can we dismantle those barriers?"

Myers-Johnson is just one of many in Southeast Michigan who are seeking to advance equity in the region's parks and other green spaces. In Eliza Howell Park, that work takes a variety of forms, including celebrating the space's many assets while also seeking to ensure visitors' safety, improving park infrastructure, and making the space accessible to visitors with disabilities. 
Ryan Myers-Johnson.
"By centering the needs of the most vulnerable, you will capture the needs of the majority as well," she says. "So if we're thinking about universal design, for example, you will capture able-bodied people by addressing the needs of disabled people. If we think about focusing on children who are in poverty, serving their needs, we will also serve children who are not experiencing poverty. So equity is about thinking about the most vulnerable, knowing that in doing that, we will capture the needs of the greater population as a whole."

Why equity?

Artina Carter.Equity work looks different for every park, based on the needs, challenges, and barriers experienced by the residents it serves. Artina Carter, chief of diversity, equity, and inclusion for the Huron-Clinton Metroparks, says equity means getting park services to "the broadest number of people, particularly those people who have the greatest barriers for getting to us." 

While some people may think of parks as places of comfort and rejuvenation that belong to them, many others lack that sense of belonging, whether due to their race, socioeconomic status, disability, or other factors. Parks systems are seeking to help those individuals feel a sense of ownership, comfort, and safety through equity work. For some parks, that may mean forging better connections with residents of color. For example, Carter says there's "a lot of trauma that goes along with natural spaces" for Black people.

"The woods have never been the place of safety for us," says Carter, who is Black. "We used to get lynched in the woods. We used to get hunted down through the woods. We used to get abused and raped and all this other kind of stuff in the woods. So it's not always good. ... And so what we try to do is try to welcome people back, introduce them to the space in the way that they can respect and receive and accept it."

In other cases, equity may mean ensuring that all residents can access parks, regardless of disability or their transportation options. 
Visitors at the Huron-Clinton Metroparks.
"When we're looking through our equity lens at programming, we're also looking at things like: Can they get to the park? Can they get to this program?" says Danielle Mauter, chief of marketing and communications for the Huron-Clinton Metroparks. "None of the Metroparks, except one through a pilot program, is connected by public transportation. So that's a big piece of equity struggle for us."
Marc Pasco.
Overall, equity means "providing a public space where everyone feels safe," according to Marc Pasco, director of communications for the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy.

"I think that's reflected in providing the public space that people can use and feel welcome at," he says. "But it's also providing programming that appeals to different people, people of different colors and people of different ages, people who have different abilities, and things like that."

In addition to the human case for equity in parks, Carter says there's a clear business case. More people feeling welcome in parks means more people buying park passes, attending programs, and otherwise spending money in the parks. 

"There's just no reason not to do equity," she says.

Recent momentum, but a longer history

Some Southeast Michigan parks systems have recently made formalized commitments to equity work. For instance, the Metroparks hired Carter as their first chief of diversity, equity, and inclusion in 2019. Wayne County Parks' draft five-year plan lists "developing diversity, equity, and inclusion standards" as a goal to be completed in the next one to two years. Oakland County Parks and Recreation first named diversity, equity, and inclusion as a core value in its 2023-2027 master plan
Skiers at the Huron-Clinton Metroparks.
Zach Zuchowicz, DEI and community engagement coordinator for Oakland County Parks, says the department's commitment to equity was prompted in part by the COVID-19 pandemic, which drove many newcomers to parks.

"We saw a very high increase [in visitation] and a very definitive need to have spaces of refuge and restoration in the outdoors and to offer programming that was addressing folks' needs for that health and wellness knowing that, with so many facilities closed, getting outdoors was really the only way that folks could be active," he says.

However, equity efforts in many area parks go back decades, even if they went by a different name at that time. For instance, Oakland County Parks' Recreation Assistance Partnership Program (RAPP) has been offering mobile recreation and nature programming – and grant funds to cover the costs of that programming – since 1982. 

"At that time in the 1980s, we acknowledged that we have resources and that, as a county parks provider, it was on us to go out and reach all of our county," Zuchowicz says.

Similarly, when the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy was founded in 2003, Pasco says staff attended hundreds of meetings, seeking insight from thousands of Detroiters to structure the organization's vision for the riverfront. At the time, he says staff thought of that work as "inclusion," rather than equity, but it's resulted in an equitable vision that has succeeded in attracting diverse crowds to the Detroit riverfront.
People participate in a Detroit Riverfront Conservancy yoga class.
"If you're going to have a world-class vision, ... you have to go into that vision with your eyes wide, and with the goal of creating a base that people of all walks of life are going to want to use," he says. "So if we would have been kind of short-sighted and tried to build something for just one audience, or for a couple of different ones, I think we would have failed and I don't think we'd have the riverfront that we have now."

Defining successful equity work

Sometimes progress or success in equity work is easy to quantify. For example, Carter notes that the Metroparks' staff was 98% white when she joined the system; now, it's 94%. She's also proud to note that many Metroparks staffers now come to her requesting training on how to better understand and serve people of cultures they're unfamiliar with. 
Huron-Clinton Metroparks staff lead a field trip.
But many other outcomes of equity work – like sense of safety, comfort, and ownership – are less measurable. Carter recalls being asked in her job interview how she'd know if her efforts were working.

"I said, 'Because people talk about it,'" she says. "Good, bad, or indifferent, they'll be talking about it."
Danielle Mauter.
Mauter says equity work is a long-term pursuit with no fixed endpoint.

"I would say we never meet our equity goals," she says. "There's always more that we can be doing to increase the access and increase that equity piece."

Pasco says the results of that work are beneficial to everyone who enjoys using parks.

"I think people like to go places and see people who don't look like them," he says. "I think that's the fun of living in a city or working in a city or going to visit a city, because you get to see different people and hear different languages and maybe taste different foods and things like that. I think that's what makes it special. It would be boring if we all went places and saw people who looked and talked just like us."
Cyclists at Stony Creek Metropark.
If you enjoyed this story, keep an eye out for additional stories in the Equity in Our Parks series over the year to come, as we'll be taking a closer look at some of the many equity-related initiatives in Southeast Michigan parks.

Patrick Dunn is the lead writer for the Equity in our Parks series. He's also the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer and editor.

Ryan Myers-Johnson photos by Steve Koss. Other photos courtesy of Huron-Clinton Metroparks and Detroit Riverfront Conservancy.
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Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere