City survey shows Detroiters want safer parks, les...

City survey shows Detroiters want safer parks, less trash

Mariners Park. Photo by Zaire Talon Daniels

Detroiters want safer access to more green spaces, according to a community needs assessment survey unveiled by the Detroit Parks and Recreation Department during a virtual Town Hall last week. The survey, which includes responses from 629 adult participants from all over Detroit, is part of a larger strategic planning process to inform future parks & rec investments and priorities for the next five to ten years.

The department looks to update its plan every five years to enable it to receive funding from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund. The planning process for the current update has been underway since 2017, and proposes more ambitious projects than in the past, according to Juliana Fulton, interim chief park planner for the city. The last update happened in 2014.

“This is not just about parks,” said Fulton. “This city-wide plan looks to update rec centers, recreation programming, and greenways in Detroit.” The survey identified public safety, access to natural spaces, access to health care, and healthy foods as the top priorities residents want the department to address.

Safe environments and safe access to parks were a concern cited by 83% of survey respondents. A special youth survey specifically identified areas including the prevalence of drugs, gangs, bullying, and fighting as top safety concerns. Trash is also on Detroiters’ minds. Clean and inviting parks go hand and hand with safety, and park visitors who walk or ride their bikes to parks cited traffic, crime, and blight as issues needing remedy. 

“We were told [by survey participants] that making a safe and inviting space feel more welcoming means the absence of trash and litter,” Erin Casey, assistant director of the city parks department, said during the Town Hall.

“This is something that is of top priority. We want to ensure that our parks are clean and enjoyable for everyone who visits them.” Casey added that the city had made progress keeping the grass mowed by hiring more people for groundskeeping work. Staffing has been a big challenge due to the pandemic, she said. “We do have vacancies, so we were definitely doing everything we can including incentives to bring on more grounds staff,” she said, adding that the department recently purchased new trash barrels that have been deployed all across the city.

City-run parks aren’t alone in experiencing a trash problem, Casey pointed out, adding that  Belle Isle and the Riverfront Conservancy properties are having the same issues. 

“We’re consistently hiring and making sure that there are adequate places for people to put their trash,” said Jeremy Thomas, communications & marketing manager for the city’s general services department. “We also want to ask our park goers to be responsible if they have trash, to do their best to clean up after themselves, and at least put it in a trash bag and put it neatly next to the trash barrel.”

A lack of access to natural areas emerged as the second-highest priority in the survey, with 71% of respondents reporting that access to such places was vital to their households. Responders said that their access to natural spaces has been impaired due to trash, not knowing where natural spaces are located, safety concerns, and uncertainty of what to do in such spaces. Both adults and teens also responded that they wanted more amenities, such as go-kart tracks, teen clubhouses and event spaces for the arts. 

Residents also want the department to promote physical and mental health services, healthy food options, and increase education on healthy lifestyles — with 61% calling for healthy food options and 58% calling for better access to health care resources.  Access to year-round indoor fitness opportunities was also a point of interest, with survey participants expressing a lack of information, options, transportation, and affordability. 

“What we heard most from respondents was that they wanted us to consider indoor spaces for working out. We’ve already started investing in new fitness equipment inside the rec centers just before the pandemic, and we are still planning on continuing to make improvements in our fitness spaces and accessibility to those spaces,” said Casey. 

The survey revealed residents’ frustration with accessing information about programs, events, locations, and amenities.  A majority (72%) said they do not know who manages the programming at their local parks, and 67% of respondents said they learn about opportunities at parks primarily by word of mouth. 

Increasing awareness, collaborative marketing, and education are potential avenues city staff hope to explore to improve engagement. 

The next step in completing the plan into action comes with more community outreach and listening to needs raised by the focus group and survey participants. 

“It’s important to us in parks and recreation to make data-driven decisions that are based on community input,” said Casey. “We know that residents are the experts on what they would like to see in the parks and rec system. And we want to ensure that we are following their guidance and implementing strategies and plans that fit what the community needs.” 

City staff expects to conclude the planning process by the end of the summer and make it available for the public to review before the city council votes on it. A vote is set tentatively for January 2022.

Zaïré Talon Daniels is a Detroit-based freelance writer and photographer. Previously, he reported for The Devil Strip, a cooperative newsroom based in Akron, Ohio. He received his bachelor of arts in Multidisciplinary Studies with an emphasis in Anthropology, Photography, and Art History. He is passionate about exploring sustainable lifestyle, Brazilian Jujitsu, and arts and culture from around the world.Follow him on Instagram @theartofzaire