Known for its industrial developments in various capacities, Detroit might be establishing itself at the forefront of sustainability and waterfront redevelopments with the construction of the Detroit RiverWalk.
In his book “Waterfront Porch: Reclaiming Detroit’s Industrial Waterfront as a Gathering Place for All,” John Hartig looks at Detroit’s history of innovation, the RiverWalk and what all of this could mean for Detroit’s future.
Hartig, a Great Lakes Now columnist, talked with Great Lakes Now Program Director Sandra Svoboda about the book. Here’s an edited version of that conversation:
Great Lakes Now: So many residents of Detroit and the rest of southeast Michigan still probably have not been to Detroit’s waterfront. What are they missing?
John Hartig: They are missing an exceptional, close-to-home, outdoor, recreational experience right in their backyard. They do not have to drive four to five hours up north to get this experience; it is on the Detroit RiverWalk.
If you love walking, running or bicycling, you will love what the RiverWalk has to offer. If you like kayaking, you can launch at Maheras-Gentry Park or Belle Isle. If you are a birder, you can visit the birding station at Gabriel Richard Park or visit Belle Isle for an urban birding experience at the intersection of two North American migratory bird flyways. If you like fishing, you can cast your line into the Detroit River that supports over 100 species of fish and is widely recognized as part of the “Walleye Capital of the World.”
Most people don’t know that we have continentally significant natural resources right in our backyard that support a wide variety of outdoor recreational experiences.
GLN: Your book is such a positive view of the developments downtown and the riverfront. What are the remaining challenges and issues to the area reaching its full potential that remain?
JH: One of the major challenges is to ensure that the Detroit RiverWalk remains welcoming to all and provides benefits to all. The Dequindre Cut was a great connection to Eastern Market, Midtown, Wayne State University and the New Center Area. Other connections to the neighborhoods are needed like what is being planned for the May Creek Greenway that will connect the Detroit RiverWalk with Michigan Central Station and Corktown. Another connection will be the Joseph Campau Greenway that will connect the Bunche neighborhood with the Detroit RiverWalk. Completing the 31.5-mile Joe Louis Greenway will also be critical to further connect neighborhoods to the Detroit RiverWalk and help ensure benefits to all.
Another major challenge has been the cleanup of brownfields and contaminated sediments. Prior to building the RiverWalk, former industrial sites called brownfields had to be cleaned up for safe public use. For example, brownfield cleanup of the former Uniroyal site cost $33.5 million, demolition of three sets of cement silos and brownfield cleanup on the east riverfront cost $2.3 million, brownfield cleanup to build the Dequindre Cut greenway cost $980,000 and brownfield cleanup at the Outdoor Adventure Center cost $1.5 million. Additional brownfield cleanup will be required on the west riverfront. More recently, legacy pollution in the Detroit River in the form of contaminated sediments became a major obstacle at the former Uniroyal site.
People don’t see this important environmental work that is an essential precursor to building the Detroit RiverWalk. The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy has had to and will have to continue to work with many key partners like the city of Detroit, state and federal governments and others to overcome these environmental challenges.
GLN: In your work, you had experienced firsthand many of the dynamics you write about in “Waterfront Porch.” What surprises were there when you were researching and writing? What did you learn?
JH: I was surprised at just how much Detroit had impacted our nation and the world through its leadership of paradigm shifts. Detroit was created in response to the first paradigm shift of the Fur Trade Era. During the 1700s and 1800s, Detroit helped meet
European demand for hats made from beaver pelts. Then during the 1800s, Detroit became a major ship building center to help meet the pressing demand for transportation of passengers and freight to help settle lands further west.
Then, as most people know, Detroit became the car capital of the world in the early 1900s and helped put the world on wheels. At the outset of World War II in 1941, Detroit became the Arsenal of Democracy, redeploying its vast industrial capacity to play a critical role in the ultimate Allied victory in 1945.
Detroit is a city of innovation, creativity, resilience, and leadership in responding to paradigm shifts. Detroit now has the ability to be a critical leader of sustainable redevelopment, pivoting, as it has done at each previous paradigm shift, to redefine itself and lead the nation and world down a more sustainable path.
GLN: Making Great Lakes waterfronts accessible is something many communities are realizing is a worthy goal for environmental, social, economic, equity and common sense reasons. What can other cities and towns learn from Detroit?
JH: In its first ten years, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy raised $110 million to build east riverfront portions of the Detroit RiverWalk and raised another nearly $40 million for an endowment to operate, maintain, steward and program it with quality and in perpetuity. This happened while Detroit became the largest city in the United States to ever go through bankruptcy. This was an amazing accomplishment that can be directly traced to the unique public-private partnership called the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and its approach of democratic design that ensured all stakeholders were involved and would benefit. There is much to be learned from how this was done with incredible support from so many.
GLN: This might be the hardest question for you. If people go to one place on Detroit’s riverfront, where should it be? What’s your favorite?
JH: I think it is the wetlands at Milliken State Park. Milliken State Park has constructed an innovative urban storm water treatment system that collects runoff from adjacent parking lots and roads and treats it naturally through wetlands before being discharged into the Detroit River. The Detroit RiverWalk meanders along and over these wetlands. Children and families can learn about wetlands and see turtles, muskrats and both migratory and resident birds.
Today, most urbanites are still disconnected from nature. The Milliken State Park wetlands provide a unique opportunity to get up close and personal with nature and maybe even help create a sense of wonder. Where will the next generation of conservationists and sustainability entrepreneurs come from? It will likely be from urban areas, and the Milliken State Park wetlands help reconnect people with nature as part of a strategy to foster a conservation ethic.
Editor’s Note: Great Lakes Now Contributor John Hartig is a board member at the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. Also, read his column on the changes along Detroit’s waterfront, “Detroit’s New Waterfront Porch.” Anyone interested can buy his book online.