Most Detroiters live within a 10-minute walk of a park, but the size of parks and the city’s investment in them continues to lag, placing Detroit behind dozens of other cities for best park system in the country.
Detroit’s park system dropped three spots – ranking 60th out of 100 cities – in the annual ParkScore analysis from the Trust for Public Land.
In the report released last week, Detroit’s highest score is for park access, but the city’s overall ranking dropped due to below-average investment and park acreage compared to other cities. Approximately $77 per person is invested in Detroit parks by public and private entities, compared to the national average of $108, and the City of Detroit spends less than half of what other city agencies spend on their parks.
Meanwhile less than 6% of Detroit is parkland, compared to an average of 18% among the 100 cities in the analysis.
The nonprofit Trust for Public Land ranks the park systems of the 100 most populated cities in the country, including Detroit. Parks are ranked on five factors: The percentage of residents living within a 10-minute walk, acreage and investment, amenities, and the equity of park space and access for low-income and neighborhoods of color, compared to higher income and white neighborhoods. For the third consecutive year, Washington D.C. ranked first in the analysis, followed by St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The City of Detroit provides information to the Trust for Public Land every year for the analysis. The city’s General Services Department said that ParkScore’s metrics are aligned with the Parks and Recreation Strategic Plan created in 2022. The top priorities laid out in the plan are to increase the number of Detroiters within a 10-minute walk of a park, increase maintenance capacity, and invest in the areas with the highest need.
“We believe our ParkScore will steadily increase, particularly related to Access, Amenities, and Equity [ParkScore metrics],” a statement from GSD reads, noting investments in new parks and 50 other park improvements underway.
“The City just made a historic annual financial commitment, with unanimous support from Detroit City Council, to the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and to the annual maintenance and operation of the Joe Louis Greenway, which will ensure that the Investment score also increases next year,” the statement adds
“We believe the future looks bright for the City of Detroit’s Parks and Recreation system and we are committed to providing an excellent park system for all Detroiters.”
But Detroiter Christina Debose argues the city’s ranking should be even lower.
“Our parks suck,” she told BridgeDetroit. “Parks aren’t very accessible unless they are ‘big parks’ – Palmer Park, Beacon Park and Campus Martius.”
In April, Debose began documenting Detroit’s parks and amenities on social media and giving them her own rankings, to better inform residents.
In a recent study conducted by the city, Detroiters said a lack of information was the biggest reason they didn’t visit Detroit parks, followed by “safety issues” and “lack of interest.”
Debose said she likes parks with amenities that are well maintained, like Mollicone Park in Indian Village, the newest phase on the river, and Scripps Park in Woodbridge.
Among its other findings, the Trust for Public Land analysis found that Detroit parks have more playgrounds than bathrooms. The city has just 0.5 bathrooms per 10,000 residents, approximately three times less than the national median.
The score measures the abundance of the amenities, not the quality. BridgeDetroit recently visited Belle Isle, operated by the state under a long-term lease, and found more than half the bathrooms on the island park were inaccessible, despite state officials saying they were open.
Amy McMillan, director of the Huron-Clinton Metroparks, said when she became Metroparks director five years ago her top priority was to have a genuine presence in Detroit.
“The city is paying taxes to support the Metroparks year after year after year,” she said, noting failed conversations in the 1980s and ‘90s about having the Metroparks operate Belle Isle and historic Fort Wayne, or own the now former Michigan State Fairgrounds.
Despite the failed conversations, she said that over the years the Metroparks have done a lot of nature programming, field trips and community-based work in Detroit. The Metroparks will soon have its first physical location in Detroit at the Ralph C. Wilson park later next year.
One of the barriers to improving park equity, she said, is transportation options to parks in some counties. McMillian partly disagrees with claims that the City of Detroit doesn’t provide enough information to residents about its parks.
“Connecting people to the resources that exist is always a challenge,” she said. “Nobody, in my opinion, does better community engagement than the City of Detroit and the Riverfront Conservancy.
Since 2003 the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy has invested more than $200 million in the Detroit riverfront.
Mark Wallace, president and chief executive officer of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, said it’s helpful to track park data over time.
“A lot of times people think about parks as the icing on the cake. The city is cake and the parks are the icing. When we saw communities struggling during the pandemic and we saw use of parks just skyrocket I think that was a reminder that parks are a place of community resilience,” he said.
“The city’s park leadership is the best it’s been in my lifetime,” he added, “but I think there’s always opportunities for us to help each other. For us, it’s not just about catering to the runners, to the bikers and the people who are hardcore outdoors people, it’s catering to normal Detroiters who want to have a slightly different experience in life and a significantly better quality of life.”
New this year, the Trust for Public Land also published research showing that cities with higher ParkScores are healthier places to live, with residents in the 25 highest-ranking cities 9% likely to report poor mental health and 21% less likely to be physically inactive.
The 2021 ParkScore Index was the first time equity was used as a ranking factor. Across the board, low-income and neighborhoods of color are less likely to have access to parks and outdoor spaces, but this year’s analysis found that in Detroit the inverse is true, with low-income residents more likely to have access to parks compared to higher income people.
But the racial disparity persists – Detroit’s neighborhoods of color have access to 38% less park space per person compared to white neighborhoods.
Christine Ferretti contributed to this story.