“Green space is an equity issue.”

By Allison Torres Burtka 

Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced earlier this year that a record $450 million is being invested in state and local parks as part of the Building Michigan Together Plan. This investment will help create and improve parks large and small, including creating a new state park in Flint on the site of an old GM plant and funding a 27-mile greenway in Detroit. Major investments in parks and green spaces in both Flint and Detroit are revitalizing former industrial sites and vacant lots, and helping both cities to recover from decades of economic decline.

Across the U.S., President Biden’s America the Beautiful initiative calls for restoring, connecting, and conserving 30% of lands and waters by 2030. Michigan’s investment moves toward that goal. It helps conserve and restore Michigan’s vast, wild spaces—as well as its urban parks and green spaces.

Research has shown that exposure to nature can improve physical and mental health and overall well-being. One report says: “People living near parks and green space have less mental distress, are more physically active, and have extended life spans.” But people of color and people with low incomes are more likely than white and higher-income people to live in areas that are “nature deprived.” The populations of Flint and Detroit are mostly Black, and both cities have more than 30 percent of people living in poverty. This “nature gap” is what makes this latest development so important.

According to the Trust for Public Land, 83% of Detroit and Flint residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park—which is higher than the national average. But the size and quality of these parks vary, with some maintained poorly or not at all.

“Everyone should have access to safe places to recreate in the outdoors,” said Christy McGillivray, political and legislative director of the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter. “Green space is an equity issue,” she continued. “Part of environmental justice is making sure that everyone has access to the outdoors. It’s important for physical health, it’s important for mental health, and it’s not a luxury—it’s a human right.”

The new parks in Flint and Detroit will make high-quality outdoor spaces more easily accessible to residents. These projects will also help revitalize neighborhoods, mitigate climate change, and boost economic recovery in these cities.

New State Park in Flint

Flint’s new park will be Michigan’s 104th state park, and the first in Genesee County. “In the state of Michigan, we have a state park in every county except for Genesee County, which is the fifth most populous county in the state,” Genesee County Commissioner Domonique Clemons said to me. “So we’re really excited to close that gap.”

The new park will span 230 acres, including existing trails and park units along the Flint River. One of the parks is Chevy Commons, which once was a GM plant nicknamed “Chevy in the Hole.” The plan for the state park includes enhancing the recreational value of Chevy Commons, which is a few blocks from Flint’s downtown.

“We have a storied history in Flint that is directly and intrinsically tied to the auto industry and to GM,” Clemons said. For years, the community has been addressing environmental concerns, cleaning up the site, and turning it into a park after it sat unused for a long time, and now, the state investment will help enhance and maintain it, he explained.

With these separate local parks becoming part of a larger state park, state resources will allow them to be maintained better, said Flint City Councilwoman Judy Priestley. “They have more resources that can be devoted to it for safety, for maintenance, for upkeep, for you name it.”

The state park investment will also help restore the river, add kayak and canoe launch points, and build new trails; as well as establish a connection to the Iron Belle Trail, which goes more than 2,000 miles from the western Upper Peninsula to Belle Isle in Detroit.

Flint’s currently underused Vietnam Veterans Park will also see improvements. A new boat ramp, pier, and ADA-accessible river access will be installed, along with a new trail and other improvements.

“There are access points throughout the county, but none right in the downtown, in this epicenter of our community, to actively engage with the river,” Clemons said. And the fact that these launch points will be ADA accessible sets them apart from others in the area, helping “to make sure that folks from all walks of life, no matter what disability you may or may not have, have access to be able to enjoy and participate in our natural resources,” he said.

For this city that’s still recovering from its water crisis, these improvements are something to look forward to. And they can boost economic development. “I can see people coming here and spending their money at restaurants,” Priestley said. “You know, ‘Let’s go biking, let’s go to Flint and do the bike trail.’”

The state park also gives residents “a place to play and explore that’s close to home, rather than having to drive 45 minutes on our way to enjoy the outdoors at a state park,” Clemons said. “We do have some county parks that are phenomenal here in the county, but we’re really excited to have this as a state park, which is going to help with those residents that are already here, but also help with placemaking, to encourage new folks to come here.”

Some Flint residents may think of the river  negatively. Since the Flint water crisis began, “there’s also still some community concern around the river itself,” Clemons said. Although the river has had pollution problems in the past, nothing was wrong with the river itself being used for drinking water—the problem was actually inadequate treatment when the water source was switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River. “The river played a part in the water crisis, not because the water in the river itself was bad—I think that’s a misconception that goes around,” Clemons said.

Priestley noted that part of the new park’s accessibility is that bus lines will go to it. So people who live beyond a 10-minute walk can still get to the park easily. “I think that’s a wonderful, wonderful thing to have that access, ready access—just a bus ride away. You can ride your bike to [the park], depending on where you’re living,” she said, adding that “In some areas, it’s just absolutely gorgeous along the river.”

Detroit’s Joe Louis Greenway

The Joe Louis Greenway, named after the legendary boxer, is a 27.5-mile loop that passes through various sites in Detroit, including formerly vacant lots, as well as through parts of Dearborn, Hamtramck, and Highland Park. It will traverse through 23 neighborhoods, some of which have been separated by freeways.

Currently, in some of the areas that the greenway will improve, the only options for walking, running, and biking from one point to another are along busy streets, where traffic can be dangerous. The Joe Louis Greenway will include both off-street pathways and on-street bike lanes and be equipped with bicycle parking and repair stations.

Transportation is an important element of the greenway, particularly in connecting neighborhoods to the riverfront parks, said Elayne Elliott, who is a community organizer with the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter. The greenway is “providing more options for folks to get around in a city where car insurance is really high, and it’s often not affordable for folks to get to places that might normally be considered beautiful or might normally be considered the outdoors,” she said.

Elliott pointed out that the Detroit bus system has changed and eliminated some routes, so the greenway offers an alternative—one that she would have used in her own experience living in Detroit if it had been available. The greenway “[opens] up modes of transportation for people, increasing and diversifying the kinds of infrastructure that we have for people to traverse from one area to another, whether it be—they’re going from one park to another, or trying to get to work, or taking a shortcut to visit a community space,” Elliott said.

The greenway will even allow cyclists and pedestrians to get to Canada—via the new Gordie Howe International Bridge, which will be built to accommodate bike and foot traffic. Like the new state park in Flint, the greenway will also connect to the Iron Belle Trail.

Much of the greenway will be newly built, and construction on parts of it has begun. The path will be wide, so as to accommodate pedestrians and bikers, and alongside it, playgrounds, fitness areas, picnic areas, and benches will be installed.

The Joe Louis Greenway mission statement says that it “provides connected, equitable and engaging spaces throughout our city and region, where we offer opportunities for empowerment, unification and healing for our neighborhoods and people.”

The greenway also includes Detroit’s well-used RiverWalk and Dequindre Cut, which opened in 2007 and 2009 and made previously unused or underused spaces vibrant and inviting.

Sheri Burton, president of the Midwest Civic Council of Block Clubs, lives close to the greenway, which runs along the western border of her neighborhood. The closest entrance will be about 400 feet from her home. “I’m really excited about that,” she said, explaining that there’s a small playground in her neighborhood, but that’s all—and that it’s not easy for everyone in the neighborhood to access.

Burton attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a segment of the greenway that was recently completed there. “I’m so glad that I can leave out my door and not burn gas and go up there and walk,” she said.

Burton’s neighborhood used to be home to “a really bustling retail district,” she said. “So I’m hoping that with that path coming through there, that would encourage some investment to build that area back.”

Community Input

With the new state park in Flint and Detroit’s Joe Louis Greenway, the processes have involved community engagement along the way, to address and incorporate residents’ concerns and suggestions about what they want to see in these spaces.

Burton has been involved in the greenway’s community engagement process for years. “I am so proud of the city, the way they actually engaged the community and listened to the community as it relates to the path and the things that we want to see on the path,” she said. But, she added, a remaining concern is how longtime residents might be protected from taxes that might make the area unaffordable.

Along with gentrification, other concerns that community members have raised are cleaning up blight and making sure the greenway will be safe. And the issue of safety is an important one in conversations about outdoor spaces, McGillivray said.

“Different communities have different feelings about how safe they are recreating outdoors,” McGillivray noted. “When we’re talking about policing, when we’re talking about public safety, making sure that it’s not seen as a sketchy activity for certain communities to be outside in the outdoors” needs to be considered, she said. “That’s something that I think Sierra Club is really grappling with—this legacy of encouraging people to go outdoors, while explicitly acknowledging the fact that it is safer for some people to recreate in the outdoors than others.”

Overall Benefits

Both Flint’s state park and the Joe Louis Greenway are intended to benefit people and communities in myriad ways. One of them is building community. These spaces will make it easier for people in different neighborhoods to connect with each other, and the spaces will be built to encourage social gatherings.

And these projects are coming along at a time when many residents have been turning to parks more often during the pandemic. “Over the last couple of years, attendance at state parks reached historic highs as people sought space to unwind and safely connect with their friends and loved ones. Our parks support so many jobs and local economies too, empowering tourism and recreation small businesses across the state,” said Gov. Whitmer in a statement. “All of our state parks are important pillars of their communities. They support local small businesses, create jobs, and give people beautiful, welcoming places to make memories.”

Access to the outdoors for exercise and recreation is important. Low-income communities of color have higher rates of asthma and other chronic diseases than their white and higher-income counterparts. And among Detroit adults, the prevalence of asthma was 46% higher than in Michigan as a whole.

Some of these communities “deal with burdensome amount of pollution,” McGillivray said. “They also don’t have access to get out and exercise, they don’t necessarily have access to healthy, fresh food, so it compounds health problems.”

The green spaces being restored and installed can help improve air and water quality and make cities and neighborhoods more resilient. For example, the Joe Louis Greenway includes planting shade trees and meadows of native plants, which help support native species and improve air and water quality. Rain gardens will help manage stormwater by absorbing it, which reduces the potential of flooding and reduces pollution from runoff.

“Dealing with extreme weather events and flooding, we know major flooding happens in our urban areas because we don’t have that natural green infrastructure like we see out in the suburbs, where there’s a lot of green space … to take that up,” said Tim Minotas, legislative and political coordinator at the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter.

“It is a way to buffer against the worst effects of climate change,” McGillivray said. “We need permeable land to deal with stormwater, we need tree cover to deal with extreme heat, and it is a really integral part of dealing with extreme weather events.” Green spaces will increase permeable surfaces that can absorb and help filter storm water, as well as tree cover that reduces the “heat island” effect that is common in urban areas. And high temperatures from the heat island effect can trigger asthma.

“The ability to have park space in your own backyard really opens up … what you’re exposed to, what you imagine for yourself in the future, and how you engage with the environment as a whole,” Elliott said. “And a lot of that starts with play when folks are children.”

Allison Torres Burtka is a freelance writer and editor in metro Detroit. Her writing has appeared in the Guardian, Outside, Sierra, Audubon, Runner’s World, Women’s Running, Insider, and Well+Good, as well as Detroit-area publications including Model D and Planet Detroit. She also writes for the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute for Sustainability in Business. You can see more of her writing at atburtka.journoportfolio.com.