By Kelly House, Bridge Michigan
The Great Lakes News Collaborative includes Bridge Michigan; Circle of Blue; Great Lakes Now at Detroit Public Television; and Michigan Radio, Michigan’s NPR News Leader; who work together to bring audiences news and information about the impact of climate change, pollution, and aging infrastructure on the Great Lakes and drinking water. This independent journalism is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. Find all the work HERE.
GRAND RAPIDS — In its quest to democratize the Great Outdoors, the Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department is ripping a page out of a well-worn book. A library book, to be exact.
In a gymnasium basement in the city’s Roosevelt Park neighborhood, the city has opened a gear library where residents can check out croquet sets and camping gear just as easily as the latest John Grisham novel.
Shelves are stacked high with hiking boots, sleeping bags, tents, marshmallow skewers, lawn games, raincoats, coolers, grills, sunscreen and bug spray — virtually everything one might need for a weekend outdoors or a day at the park.
“The only thing we don’t have is food,” said Sam Truby, the facility’s supervisor. “We kind of leave that up to them.”
Though anyone in Grand Rapids can use the library, it’s by-design that the facility is located in Roosevelt Park, a neighborhood that is 73 percent Hispanic and 14 percent African American, with nearly half of residents earning below the poverty level.
The library, one of two in Michigan with more on the way, reflects a shift in how parks departments operate, as public recreation habits evolve and land managers take aim at a longstanding dearth of low-income and minority representation on public lands that are meant to be shared by all.
Visitors to national parks and forests are white and wealthier than the average American, according to federal studies. Survey data from Michigan reveals similar racial disparities. And the outdoor recreation scene writ large — people who pursue activities such as fishing, hiking, biking and camping — is also disproportionately white and well-off.
While experts say those disparities exist for a variety of reasons — many of the country’s public lands are located in majority-white communities, for example — cost is a major barrier.
Outfitting a person with decent camping gear, from tents and sleeping bags to cooking tools, runs an average of $1,000 per person, said Seraph White, executive director of a national network of gear libraries known as the Outdoors Empowered Network.
“For some families, that’s an overwhelming cost,” she said.
Beyond that start-up cost, people new to pursuits like hiking, camping or snowshoeing may need instruction on how to use the equipment, or advice about the best adventure spots.
“We try to provide all three of those things,” said Truby. Before they can check out camping gear, library customers go through a short training to ensure they know how to use it. And library staff are also available to help with trip-planning.
Across the state in Detroit, the city parks department has partnered with the Sierra Club and YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit to create a library that supplies training and gear for youth groups, clubs and school groups. The library is part of a broader strategy to increase outdoor access in Detroit, which includes revitalizing the city’s only campground.
“What we didn’t want to say was, nature’s important and you’ve got to go someplace else to find it,” said Garrett Dempsey, the Sierra Club staffer who directs the Detroit program. “We wanted to say nature is important and there’s so much of this beautiful nature, right here in Detroit.”
Library organizers in both cities say they’ve received inquiries from parks and recreation officials in other Michigan communities looking to set up their own libraries. Among them is the Grand Rapids suburb of Kentwood, where parks department program coordinator Spencer McCellar told Bridge Michigan his team will open its own gear library this winter.
The gear-lending trend is gaining traction nationwide, too. Before the pandemic, Outdoors Empowered Network’s membership stood at about seven libraries nationwide. Now, White said, it’s nearing two dozen.
“There’s a lot of interest out there,” she said, something she credits to a booming outdoor recreation scene and a growing focus on shrinking racial and socioeconomic disparities.
Meanwhile, society’s outdoor recreation preferences are changing. A 2017 survey of Grand Rapids residents showed a shift in the kinds of services they wanted from parks, away from organized sports and toward opportunities to hike, kayak, or simply be in nature.
“The results were really quite startling,” Marquardt said, and the city’s gear library reflects an effort to cater to residents’ changing tastes.
Already, demand has been high: This month alone, Truby and his small staff have loaned out hundreds of pieces of equipment.
On a recent afternoon, a group of teenage girls stopped by to pick out shoes and rain gear for a series of upcoming outings. The girls, who were all on criminal probation and enrolled in a court program designed to help them succeed, joked and asked questions as they sifted through the racks of clothing.
Few of them would be able to afford those items on their own, said Frank Briones, a county surveillance officer who chaperoned the girls. And it would have been far harder to organize upcoming trips to Saugatuck Dunes and Mackinac Island that will give many of the teens a first glimpse at the world outside Grand Rapids.
“It’s huge,” Briones said. “To get that natural sunlight, to get to do things they’ve never done.”
Time spent outdoors is associated with a host of physical and mental health benefits, from lower blood pressure to better mood. Those benefits came into sharper focus during the pandemic, when health care officials helped fuel an outdoor recreation boom by pitching outdoor activities while gyms remained closed.
That growth in participation is encouraging, said Stephanie Maez, executive director of the Outdoor Foundation. But stats on who’s driving that boom, she said, show “there’s still not equity.”
Early statistics from Grand Rapids show the gear library may be helping to reverse those trends, at least locally. So far, 70 percent of users live in census tracts with some of the lowest incomes, home ownership rates, educational attainment and wealth accumulation, said Marquardt, the city parks director.
Paola Moorer discovered the library through her friend Raúl Velasco, a member of the staff. At the time, Moorer said, she was working as an au pair, and could never have afforded to outfit herself for a camping trip without the library.
“It gave me a chance to actually try it,” she said. Since then, she’s become hooked.
“I’m always looking, where am I going to go next? What am I going to do? I definitely wouldn’t be doing that if I didn’t know I could borrow all this stuff.”
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Featured image: Sam Truby, supervisor of the Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department’s new gear library, takes stock after a group checked out shoes and raincoats for a series of upcoming trips. (Bridge photo by Kelly House)