By Brian Allnutt
Earlier this week it seemed that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer might shut down Belle Isle in order to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus among park users. The island — which is run by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources although still officially owned by the city of Detroit — had to be closed several times during this past weekend’s warm weather after it reached its 3,000-vehicle limit. Whitmer expressed concern about a lack of social distancing on Belle Isle. Other state parks like Tippy Dam Recreation Area and Grand Haven State Park have been closed for this reason.
Ultimately, the governor and Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) decided not to fully close the park for the short-term, but it’s possible that this position could be reversed.
During the pandemic, Detroiters need parks more than ever. Increasingly, green space is being recognized as a key asset for wellness. Recent studies have backed this up, finding a correlation between mental health and proximity to parks.
Detroiter Angela Lugo-Thomas, an open space advocate who works with park groups like GirlTrek and Black Girls Run, says that park access is a necessary corrective to the mental strain created by the coronavirus.
“Just being able to have those spaces is very critical,” she says, “especially during a time like this.”
Unequal access to green space
For folks like Lugo-Thomas, a park closure would just be the latest roadblock to accessing open space in the city. Residents have long dealt with issues that restrict access to outdoor recreation, including a lack of neighborhood parks, poor maintenance, aggressive policing, inadequate public transportation, and segregation.
Open spaces are often lacking in low-income areas and communities of color. A paper by City University of New York School of Public Health researchers Ewelina M Swierad and Terry T.K. Huang shows that park access reflects environmental racism and classism. They found that Black and Hispanic neighborhoods are “significantly less likely to have access to recreational facilities, and low-income neighborhoods… (are) 4.5 times more likely to lack access to parks than high-income areas.”
Local action to address the disparity includes grassroots park organizations and public-private partnerships that are helping maintain existing parkland as well as bringing greenways and other amenities to Detroit. Yet it’s clear that a lot of work still needs to be done to bring a measure of equity to Detroiters looking to reclaim their right to the pleasures of being outside.
A short history of Detroit’s parks
The lack of large parks within the city is the result of centuries of planning that failed to provide open space, as well as racist policies that developed green space in outlying areas catering to whites at the expense of the predominantly black and immigrant inner city, according to Patrick Cooper McCann, a professor of urban studies and planning at Wayne State.
A lack of early park planning stemmed from nineteenth-century policies that didn’t look to invest in government “except to facilitate real estate and business transactions,” says Cooper McCann. The result was that by the twentieth-century when African Americans and immigrant communities came to occupy more central areas of the city, there wasn’t much green space to be had.
While this was common in many cities, Cooper-McCann says, “Detroit was fairly extreme in its unwillingness to spend any money on creating parks.”
It wasn’t until the twentieth century that Detroit began developing parkland in earnest, and much of this was in predominantly white areas at the edges of the city. The exception was Belle Isle, which was one of the few places for outdoor recreation that welcomed African Americans beginning in the 1910s.
That legacy of under-developing open space and segregation continues. The Trust for Public Land’s (TPL) ParkScore Index — which evaluates cities on criteria like access, investment, acreage, and amenities — has Detroit ranked at # 82 of 97 cities with only 7% of its land used for parks and recreation and 29% of residents living within a 10-minute walk of a park. For comparison, Chicago ranked #10 with 10% of its land used for parks and 39% of its residents living in 10-minute walking proximity.
But proximity may not be the right indicator to think about park access in Detroit, where the legacy of racism persists. Other factors are also at play. Residents complain about aggressive policing, especially on Belle Isle where Michigan State Police and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) both operate. Antonio Cosme, an education coordinator with the National Wildlife Federation and a person of mixed Indigenous and Puerto Rican ancestry was stopped by the CBP in the park last year and asked for proof of his citizenship. Lugo Thomas, who is African American and Boricua, had a similar experience on the island where she says state police officers “pulled up on us and put the light on us.” At the time, she was walking with a friend around sunset — before the park had closed — and was asked, “What are you doing?”
The region’s Metro Parks have also been less-than-welcoming for many Detroiters, although city residents made a substantial financial contribution to getting the system started. Cooper-McCann says that when the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority first established the park system, which is funded through a millage, 80% of the regional tax base was in the city. Wayne County continued to have more than half of the region’s tax base for the next 20 to 30 years.
“The Metro Parks and the state park system, those were all located in essentially rural white communities, where very few African Americans felt comfortable going,” Cooper-McCann says, “and many couldn’t get to (them) because of the lack of public transportation.” He says that research from the 1980s shows that by that point white Detroiters were much more likely to use regional and state parks and Black Detroiters mostly just used Belle Isle or other parks in the city.
Cosme and Lugo-Thomas also cite a perceived lack of safety as a factor keeping people from going outside or visiting parks.
“The safety issue is huge,” Lugo-Thomas says. But she doesn’t feel that more policing is the answer “because the history of policing with our community hasn’t been good.”
Instead, Lugo-Thomas says that walking groups like GirlTrek — which encourages African American women to reclaim public spaces through walking groups — are able to bring people out into parks and other public spaces in groups where they can feel safe. This approach could also help create safety in the city more generally, she adds.
“When people are out walking you are able to see things and you may be able to deter things because you’re visible.”
Alternatives to Belle Isle?
Lugo-Thomas says state control of Belle Isle has driven people to other spaces in the city and created some opportunities as a result.
“The other neighborhood parks started to be utilized a little bit more,” she says. Spaces that seem to be succeeding in Detroit, like Palmer Park and Rouge Park, have grassroots nonprofits like People for Palmer Park or Friends of Rouge Park advocating for them, following the example of the Central Park Conservancy, which is credited with the dramatic turnaround of the New York City park in the 1980s.
Detroiters are getting other options for outdoor recreation as well, with the Detroit RiverWalk connecting much of the riverfront from west of downtown to Belle Isle. The proposed 32-mile Joe Louis Greenway would offer still more options for both transportation and recreation.
But it may be hard to beat Belle Isle, which has held a central role in Detroit’s African American community for so many years, something that McCann says has made it perhaps the most important Black public space in the country.
Although projects on the island like the Lake Okonoka Habitat Restoration have led to flooding and other disruptions, there’s little doubt that the state has made improvements to the island by opening restrooms and staying on top of basic maintenance. Even Cosme — a critic of much of what has happened on Belle Isle — says he appreciates “money going into the place.”
If warm weather brings more crowds to the island, there may be renewed pressure to close the park. But this could just push people to places like the RiverWalk, where the narrow space might create more challenges for social distancing.
A film made in the early 1990s by the landscape architect Austin Allen called “Claiming Open Spaces” explored the role that parks play in African American social life. The film confronted these issues on Belle Isle, namely the cruising scene that defined much of the island experience for decades. Speaking of efforts by police to clear the park on Friday and Saturday nights, a young man says, “You got all of us here now and if the police clear the place, everybody goes out on the street.” Although these words are from 25 years ago, they sound like something that might be said about the island today.
Main Image: Belle Isle, August 9, 2014 by Amy Sacka.