What is the new future of Southeast Michigan's parks, post-COVID?

It's widely known that COVID-19 has caused a huge surge in park usage and outdoor activity, but what does that renewed interest in the outdoors mean for the future of Southeast Michigan's parks?
This article is part of Inside Our Outdoors, a series about Southeast Michigan's connected parks, greenways, and trails and how they affect residents' quality of life. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance.

It's widely known that COVID-19 has caused a huge surge in park usage and outdoor activity, as people have sought safe ways to stay healthy and connect with each other. But what does that renewed interest in the outdoors mean for the future of Southeast Michigan's parks?

A new project from the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) set out to answer that question and identify ways for parks to address growing community needs, park systems' challenges, and broader social and environmental problems. SEMCOG recently released a report on "The New Future of Parks and Recreation" as part of a larger "New Future of Southeast Michigan" series examining how COVID-19 will reshape issues ranging from health care to transportation in the state. 
People walking and biking along the Dequindre Cut in Detroit in February.
The parks and recreation project revolved around a community conversation SEMCOG hosted for parks and recreation stakeholders in May. Stakeholders from across the region shared how they'd responded to the pandemic.

"I think what we saw was that people were using their parks and recreation systems in ways that they just haven't before," says Tyler Kilfman, a planner at SEMCOG. "They served as places for meal distribution, for physical activity, for any sort of outdoor gatherings that were a safe place to meet. So I think people were really starting to see these places in a new light."

SEMCOG also gathered feedback on parks professionals' challenges and priorities, and developed a set of five regional priorities for Southeast Michigan's parks. Here's a look at the priorities they identified, and how some local parks have already been starting to put them into action.

Investing in parks as a social determinant of health

COVID-19 clearly showed the importance of parks to residents' health, as more people exercised in parks in lieu of the gym, and as many sought to bolster their mental health by getting outdoors and seeing other humans. However, not all Southeast Michiganders had a park close by to take advantage of those benefits. That led SEMCOG to identify a priority of investing in parks as a social determinant of health. 

"Parks need to be considered part of this holistic set of characteristics that makes a person who lives in one person healthy and a person who lives in another place maybe not," Klifman says. 
Cyclists on the Border-to-Border Trail in Dexter.
Chip Amoe, director of sustainability at Henry Ford Health System (HFHS), notes that parks provide additional health benefits beyond just being a venue for residents to bolster their physical or mental health. Greenspaces also serve as a buffer to mitigate air pollution, flooding, and high heat, positively affecting the health of those who live nearby.

"You can say, 'Hey, Detroit's got some great parks,'" Amoe says. "But if they're all out on the perimeter and they're not where people can access them, you lose ... all the benefits that come with them."

So what does it mean to invest in parks as a social determinant of health? Klifman says it's important to start focusing park investments in areas that have few or no parks. Amoe says parks and health professionals can work together to examine health data to identify areas where rates of certain illnesses are higher.

"Then we can start putting in effort and investing in those parks and spaces to help mitigate those health conditions," he says.

Expanding the quality and quantity of recreation

Another priority in the SEMCOG report tackles that issue of health-related investments by expanding the quality and quantity of recreation in the places where people live.

"We're really trying to respond to what we're hearing about more people looking for more to do close to home," Klifman says. "Whether people were at home a lot early in the pandemic, or they're still continuing to work remotely or look at hybrid schedules, they're a lot more dependent on local assets than they were."

To expand quality recreation where it's needed most, SEMCOG has promoted use of a tool called ParkServe, developed by the nonprofit Trust for Public Land (TPL). ParkServe uses data including existing park locations, population density, density of communities of color, density of low-income households, pollution burden, respiratory pollution burden, and urban heat island effect to determine areas where new parks would reach the most people within a 10-minute walking distance. 

"Historically underserved and marginalized communities don't have as much access to parks and all those benefits," says Kristin Weil, manager of technical research and urban analytics at TPL.
ParkServe's map of optimal park locations in southern Michigan. Optimal park sites are highlighted in green.
In Southeast Michigan, the optimal park sites ParkServe identifies are heavily concentrated in and around Detroit. Weil says she hopes people in Southeast Michigan and across the country can use the tool to improve park access in their communities. She notes that while the tool targets parks planners as its main user base, she hopes ordinary community members can make use of it too.

"Maybe they drive by a vacant lot every day and they want to turn it into a park," she says. "They can open up ParkServe and print out a report that shows the impact on the 10-minute walk demographics around the park and provide it to a city council member. That would be great too."

Engaging diverse users in an inclusive environment

Klifman says parks got "really creative" during the pandemic to engage more diverse users than ever before, offering programming and signage in multiple languages, and creating programs geared to the needs of specific communities. Another priority for the New Future report is to continue that work by engaging more diverse users through inclusive programs, amenities, and a welcoming atmosphere. SEMCOG has developed an Equity Emphasis Areas tool to help communities analyze numbers of people of color, people with disabilities, residents in poverty, and other marginalized demographics in order to serve them better.

Amy McMillan, director of the Huron-Clinton Metroparks, has been heavily emphasizing diversity and inclusion work since she joined the system in 2018. Coming from previous leadership roles in Ypsilanti and Flint, she says an understanding of the importance of diversity was "part of [her] DNA as a parks and recreation professional." And she says the Metroparks had "not been really great" about being inclusive and equitable in the past. 

Since 2018, the Metroparks have hired a chief of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI); implemented a system to track park users' ZIP codes in order to better understand which geographic areas the system was serving; printed signage in multiple languages; engaged parents of children with disabilities in planning facilities that serve their kids better; increased programming in Detroit, where the system has no parks; and much more. 

"When we look at DEI, we look at the full spectrum of what DEI means," McMillan says.

The system has also sought to form new relationships with organizations representing groups it's traditionally underserved. One example is the Detroit Association of Black Organizations, with which the parks have partnered to host community feedback sessions on plans for new facilities, as well as a job fair.

"A lot of times organizations will invite people to come in and lend their voices and assess things, but it's not genuine," says the Rev. Horace Sheffield, DABO's executive director. "Nothing happens with what they share, or what they share is not necessarily what [organizers] want to hear, so they don't encourage it. I have found, with Amy and the work that [the Metroparks have] done, that they are really, really interested in hearing from the public."

Sheffield says he'd like to see other parks planners follow in the Metroparks' footsteps.

"I think there needs to be more activity that involves people in local communities, who can share with [parks professionals] the visions that they have for these parks, and include some of that in their master plan," he says.

Providing equitable access

Closely related to the report's diversity and inclusion goal is its priority of providing equitable access to regionally significant parks through transit, walking, and biking networks.

"We may say, 'Well, we have a lot of parks in our community,' and that may be true, but the reality is that they need to be connected to the actual neighborhoods where people live so they can access them in a safe and efficient manner," Amoe says. "To say that you have to drive to go to a park is not always feasible for some people. So we have to look at how the connections are made."

Transit is a major focus area for equitable park access. Klifman says transit access to Southeast Michigan's large parks "has been a challenge in our region for a long time." The Metroparks have recently made one small but significant step towards addressing that challenge through a new pilot program called Metropark Express, which offers on-demand transit service between Lake St. Clair Metropark and SMART's Gratiot and 15 Mile Road bus stop. That makes it the first Metropark to be accessible by transit.
The Metropark Express at Lake St. Clair Metropark.
McMillan says the pilot was possible through the work of many partners, including SEMCOG (which provided grant funding), Harrison Township, consultants, and the Metroparks. McMillan says the project likely won't be the final iteration of transit service to the park, "but we can't let the perfect stand in the way of the good."

She says more equitable access is still needed at the Metroparks and all public parks, particularly for transit users and users with disabilities.

"There are always impediments to access, and they look different in different places," she says.

Supporting climate resilience

The New Future report's final priority looks to how parks can support a major challenge that will affect everyone in Southeast Michigan in the years to come: climate change. The report recommends that parks support climate resilience through sustainable development and environmental conservation.

"All of these things we see intensified, with heat and hot weather and humidity, parks have an opportunity to help provide some benefits around that," Klifman says.

One such effort among local parks is Macomb County's North Branch Greenway Vision. The vision, also funded by SEMCOG, studied and created recommendations for communities along the North Branch of the Clinton River to reduce the impact of future flooding along the river, protect its riparian corridor, and create a multi-modal recreation corridor along it. The effort was prompted by major floods of the North Branch in 2004 and 2020.  
The North Branch of the Clinton River at Wolcott Mill Metropark.
"We understand that this issue is not going away," says Gerry Santoro, Macomb County's program director for parks and recreation. "It's a historic river for flooding, and as development occurs in this watershed ... propensity for flooding will only increase. The frequency of rain events ... has increased in the last 10 to 15 years, and more historically over the last 25 years."

Santoro describes the vision as a "proactive response" to flooding issues that would also have the dual benefit of creating new parkland and trails along the river. He compares the vision to Hines Park's effect along the Rouge River, which he describes as an "excellent example of how land acquisition around a marine area has resulted in decades, generations, of active greenspace right in the middle of densely populated areas."
Wolcott Mill at Wolcott Mill Metropark.
The next steps for the vision will depend on how the individual communities and other jurisdictions along the North Branch choose to implement its recommendations. Wolcott Mill Metropark staff, for example, have already begun looking into acquiring additional properties to allow for the creation of a new trail.

"Each government has a lot of ability to creatively respond to what their own specific needs are, and I think we're seeing that in this particular situation," Santoro says.

Patrick Dunn is the project editor of Inside Our Outdoors. He is also the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and editor.
All photos by Doug Coombe except Metropark Express photos courtesy of Huron-Clinton Metroparks.
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