Amid COVID, Detroit imagines a master plan for its public parks

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The City of Detroit and its planners are working on a master park plan and ways to funnel more investment in city parks. (Photos by Cybelle Codish)

In the late afternoon at Viola Liuzzo Park in northwest Detroit, two teenagers and two 9-year- I olds hold court in the park they visit “pretty much every day.” When asked to pose for a photo, they run to the bronze statue of Viola Liuzzo herself.

“She fought the Ku Klux Klan,” explained Tyler Goodens, 13, of the Detroit civil rights activist and mother of five who was killed by Klan members in Alabama in 1965. 

Smile. Click. Then dash across the park to the next thing.

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Gooden and his neighbors — Darius McMillian, 17; Tavion Coleman, 9, and Payton Stanley, 9— attend different schools (all virtual these days). But they see each other all the time at this familiar gathering place. They know its rhythms intimately, from the line-dancing ladies to the Sunday crowding. They ride bikes and scooters along the paved path. They scramble across red monkey bars, point out the tennis courts where they sometimes play, and boast of the blooming violets. (“It looks real good up there.”) They’re eager to describe what it was like to watch the park’s multiyear refurbishment, and grand re-opening last summer—and, naturally, they have ideas on what could be better. 

Viola Liuzzo Park, along with Scripps, Riverside and Jayne, have been refurbished by the city and reopened over the summer. (Photo by Cybelle Codish)

Tavion prefers the seesaw in a park down the street because it goes up higher. Payton wants a treadmill in the outdoor exercise area. Darius thinks the wood chips under the playground should be replaced by a cushioned surface, or even just green grass. “That’s gonna look right,” he said. “That’s gonna look gorgeous.”

Everybody agreed on the wood chips. They get in your socks and shoes. “I get home and I get splinters!” Tavion exclaimed. 

Historically, public parks in Detroit developed fitfully, from pleasure grounds and scenic landscape for the wealthy to the reform-minded mission to ensure that every neighborhood had a place to play, exercise and rest. Inequities in access and quality have always been part of the story too, and in recent decades, the park faced neglect, cuts and closure. (Patrick D. Cooper McCann’s 2019 dissertation, “The Promise of Parkland: Planning Detroit’s Public Spaces, 1805-2018” is a comprehensive history.)

But the last five years have seen significant changes. Viola Liuzzo Park is one of several revivals, alongside parks as various as Scripps, Riverside and Jayne. Not only was there a clean-up and rededication, but green infrastructure in the form of stormwater gardens were  integrated into the landscape, mixing play with purpose on public land. 

After a day online in virtual school or on Zoom meetings, Detroiters are looking for outdoor space. (Photo by Cybelle Codish)

The COVID-19 era, however, has injected new precariousness to the park and recreation system, both in terms of financing and public health. The four-month closure of Detroit’s casinos cost the city $600,000 a day. “That all basically goes to recreation,” said Brad Dick, group executive for services and infrastructure.

Parks are relatively in full operation now, after a delayed seasonal start, but rec centers remain closed. “The only thing we’re holding off on is the centers. It’s a fiscal thing, but also a safety thing,” Dick said, referring to concerns about spreading the coronavirus in crowded indoor spaces.

At the same time, with most schools, sports, and camps disrupted by the pandemic, parks have perhaps never been more important.

Payton Stanley knows this implicitly. After a day online in virtual school, she’s swinging herself to the top of a playground toy. “I’m a gymnast!” she said, before flipping herself over, landing neatly on the wood chips below. At least one of her audience members applauds.

A test of resilience

There’s no other way to say it. As city finances spiraled, parks got bad.

“There was just never the funds or the bond money available,” said Dick, who has been involved with the department since 2006. “Our funding was consistently cut every year.” 

Detroit’s group executive for services and infrastructure Brad Dick helps maintain the city’s extensive park system. (Photo by Cybelle Codish)

In a bad year, the department had only enough money to hire 80 seasonal workers. “We used to get 300 seasonals.” Nearly half of them (36) were dispatched to Belle Isle.

“That left us only 54 [seasonal workers] for the rest of the parks,” Dick said. “You can imagine.”  

The city has 308 parks total, as small as .07 acres and as large as 1,181 acres. Roughly 250 parks are actively used, according to Dick. Per a recent zoning report, the city maintains 5,633 acres of land, nearly all of which — 4,899 acres — is park space. 

The low point for Detroit’s recreation budget was $43 million in 1993, according to Cooper-McCann’s dissertation. 

At best, there was only enough capacity to maintain about 50 parks, said Dick, or about one-fifth of the parks in regular use. Many parks “were increasingly difficult to distinguish from vacant lots as the city largely ceased to mow them,” Cooper-McCann wrote. 

City parks are a gathering place for city residents. (Photo by Cybelle Codish)

The Belle Isle Children’s Zoo was shuttered in 2002. Eight years later, 77 parks were slated for closure, including Scripps, Rouge, and Palmer, but a wave of neighborhood-based “Friends of the Park” groups formed to defend them. Most advocated in a grassroots way; some registered with the city’s Adopt-a-Park program, which leans on community stakeholders for upkeep. 

Meagan Elliott, chief parks planner, said the adoption program is a great way for people to feel ownership for public parks. But Dick said that the results were patchy.

“Most adoptees have the best of intentions, ‘we’re going to mow, we’re going to cut, we’re going to pick up the trash,’” he said. Trash detail is particularly difficult. “And before you know it, it’s just too hard to keep up with.”

Corporations have been the most effective Adopt-a-Park partners, he said, because they often hire a company to do the work. Some friends groups, according to Cooper-McCann, developed other kinds of effective partnerships. Friends of Rouge Park connected with Lawrence Technological University to make their own master plan. The People for Palmer Park also commissioned a master plan, and began programming its expansive space with a tennis academy, youth baseball, and festivals. They planted an apple orchard.

Nowadays, there is more room for friends groups and other advocates to focus on programming over basic maintenance because Detroit’s parks and recreation department is better financed. It is the second largest department in the city, after police, with a budget of $140 million. 

Basic cleanliness has been perhaps the most noticeable improvement. There are nearly 300 seasonal workers again, all devoted to parks that aren’t Belle Isle, which has been managed as a state park by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources since 2014. The city also invested in new equipment: trucks, mowers, trailers, gloves, trash cans. 

When Elliott joined the department in 2014, she worked on the first master plan for city parks in 40 years. It mapped out a future for recreation in post-bankruptcy Detroit, and it’s still in use today as a living document.

“What we’ve really focused on for a long time now is closing the gap in park access,” Elliott said. About 80 percent of residents are a 10-minute walk or less from a park that is “officially open to the public and welcoming.” 

But, she noted, it “is not 100 percent.” 

The focus, then, is on reinvesting in parks that haven’t been renovated in decades. “We’re structuring those investments so we’re always touching all corners of the city,” she said.

As chief parks planner, Elliott is involved in projects large and small, from the Joe Louis Greenway and Historic Fort Wayne to the recent opening of the new Village Park in the Georgia Street and Van Dyke neighborhood. (Last year, Lodge Playfield, which hadn’t been maintained since 1972, was sold for an expanded industrial development. The new park is about three-quarters of a mile away.) 

For all the momentum, COVID-19 has tested their resilience. 

The pandemic hit the Detroit area early and hard. At one point in April, 33 staff members tested positive for the virus (Dick didn’t remember the total number of people tested in that round). Many had a difficult time figuring out child care and how to care for older parents who were sick.

“May was awful, trying to get back up and running,” Dick said.

At the same time, young people like those who live near Viola Liuzzo park needed their parks more than ever. But how to operate them safely?

“What we’ve really focused on for a long time now is closing the gap in park access,” said Meagan Elliott. (Photo by Cybelle Codish)

Early on, basketball hoops were removed and placed in storage because of concern about spreading the virus through close contact. This unleashed a litany of complaints, however. They were replaced about a month later.

With foundation funding, the department sponsored programming that followed COVID safety guidelines in five parks — Clark, Pingree, Palmer, Adams-Butzel, and Jayne —  including basketball clinics and outdoor concerts. 

Despite the delayed start and less formal programming overall, the pace of trash collection indicates that the parks have been exceptionally popular this year. 

Elliott hopes that it will continue through the fall, as schools remember that the parks are available for teaching in a safer outside setting, and those at home rely on them “to break up your virtual day.”

Meanwhile, the parks team is trying to integrate mental and emotional health care into the parks. They brought in Erika Bockneck from Wayne State University as a partner in their working group, meeting with her weekly. Bockneck’s background is in response to trauma for families and young children. 

Many children have experienced trauma prior to COVID, and the virus era “has been a very traumatic time for a lot of people,” Elliott said. With Bockneck’s guidance, the team is looking at “how do you build resilience through joy, and very minimal changes in your daily life, and interaction with your child for parents?”

That will be a throughline in making parks welcoming in the coming cold weather, too. The team is thinking about prompts to guide residents on getting outside even for something as simple as a four-minute walk, to “clear your head, step away from your Zoom … It’s helpful for everyone, children especially.”

Detroit manages almost 5,000 acres of park space and 308 city parks. (Photo by Cybelle Codish)

This picks up on longtime conversations the department has had on making parks more winter-friendly. “We talked about outdoor fire pits, some areas where you could do cross-country skiing,” Elliott said. Baldwin Park has a huge sledding hill, and a couple more are coming. Dirt recently arrived to build one at Riverside Park.

But on the whole, ensuring that cold weather doesn’t close off a crucial source of community relief in a time of social distancing means “getting people used to the idea of being outside in the winter, and doing a bunch of clothing drives for jackets that work for everyone, to that everyone has access to those types of things,” Elliott said.

There is one public park with an outdoor ice rink: Clark Park. The Adams-Butzel rec center has an indoor rink, but it’s closed indefinitely.

“I don’t see us going back into the centers by spring,” Dick said. That’s because “we’re in the hole right now. We have to get out of the hole.” And at the same time, “any large-scale building, it’s hard to get that kind of filtration.”

“But,” he added, “I think we could have the soccer leagues back up.”

Sustaining city parkland

Despite fiscal uncertainty, 59 parks are getting new construction right now, and a couple new ones are opening up. Over winter and spring, seven or eight recreation centers will be renovated. Phase 1 of the Joe Louis Greenway — building the first three miles of the 27.5-mile greenway, beginning with a connection between Fullerton and Warren avenues — will start in spring.

This is possible because the department has capital funding it is obliged to spend, and because, Elliott said, some dollars dedicated to planning efforts were given over to construction.

And a new re-imagining is coming. This fall, the team is taking the first steps in creating its next master plan. It’s started with a citywide survey designed to be a statistically significant representation of how residents feel about recreational programming — what they use, what they don’t use, and what barriers they have in access, along with some late-addition questions about COVID. 

During the pandemic, city officials have been focused on enhancing Detroit public space. (Photo by Cybelle Codish)

It’s also issuing a survey to inform future decisions on everything from park renovations to nature programming. Mindful of equity gaps, Elliott said, they are trying to reach people in several ways, including meetings held in the parks and emphasizing the call-in and translator access for public meetings over Zoom. The team is also issuing yard signs around town with a QR code that goes to the website. It’s also talking with its own maintenance crews about what they see every day.

“I think we’re going to be able to be a lot more comprehensive this time,” Elliott said. 

This work in the municipal park system co-exists with what is essentially a separate system for managing parkland: the public-private one that, for example, spurred the development of Campus Martius and the Detroit RiverWalk, using the nonprofit conservancy model. Beacon Park, Capital Park, Paradise Valley Park, New Center Park, and others in the core city are also in this public-private realm. 

All are lively spaces open to the public, and, as Cooper-McCann points out, both governance systems rely on public and private funding. But far more dollars are funneled into the public-private parks, which are clustered in the center of the city, than the municipal parks and recreation centers, as those with deep pockets have shown less interest in investing in them. This creates a fragmented network of parkland in Detroit, and puts a greater burden on community members to maintain and program outlying parks.

While the Viola Liuzzo park glowed in the September sun on a weekday evening, well-tended and clean, young people pointed out a few stray items strewn in the grass in the back: a cigarette pack, a small plastic bottle. 

“They be littering, I hate that,” McMillian said. He was also bothered by a pile of dead trees and brush that, it seemed, no one was ever going to clean up.

One option to generate more investment in the municipal parks — and therefore, investment in young people like McMillian who rely on them — would be to create a citywide parks conservancy, writes Cooper-McCann. This could serve “as a financial intermediary for smaller ‘Friends of’ groups throughout the city.” 

Meagan Elliott, at Scripps Park, is Detroit’s chief parks planner. (Photo by Cybelle Codish)

A citywide conservancy could also advocate before foundations and other grantmakers to repurpose vacant parkland. 

Cooper-McCann also suggests a dedicated municipal tax for parks and recreation, and a greater push by the city to seek more “grants, revenue sharing, or direct provision of parkland” from county, regional, state, and federal agencies. And he points out that comprehensive planning — rather than separate plans for the public-private parks and the municipal parks  — could “force a conversation about priorities” and potentially create more equitable outcomes.

One way or another, investing in parks and recreation has consequences that go beyond the borders of the land portioned off green space.

“When you have a great park, it can make your neighborhood feel amazing, and a bad park makes your neighborhood feel really bad,” said Elliott.

Learn more about how Detroit and the city’s youth are navigating the coronavirus pandemic.

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