Great Lakes Moment: Detroit’s benefits of a national urban park in Windsor

Great Lakes Moment: Detroit’s benefits of a national urban park in Windsor
December 5, 2022 John Hartig

Great Lakes Moment is a monthly column written by Great Lakes Now Contributor John Hartig. Publishing the author’s views and assertions does not represent endorsement by Great Lakes Now or Detroit Public Television.

National parks serve as pilgrimage sites because they provide spaces that provide a degree of solitude and access to unique natural resources. Research has shown that these national parks also promote ecotourism, are an economic engine for local communities, protect biodiversity through conservation, and improve mental health and quality of life. Windsor’s proposed Ojibway National Urban Park, projected to open in 2024, will not only reap such benefits in its metropolitan area but in the Detroit metropolitan area.

Ojibway National Urban Park

The Ojibway National Urban Park will be stitched together much like a quilt and made up of several closely situated land holdings. Five of the land holdings have been managed by Windsor’s Department of Parks and Recreation, including Ojibway Park, Tallgrass Prairie Heritage Park, Black Oak Heritage Park, Spring Garden Natural Area, and Oakwood Natural Area. The majority of these sites are designated as the Ojibway Prairie Remnants Area of Natural and Scientific Interest (ANSI) – meaning that the Province of Ontario has designated this area as having geological and ecological features that are important for natural heritage, protection, appreciation, scientific study, or education. The nearby Ojibway Prairie Provincial Nature Reserve, owned by Ontario Parks, will also be added, as well as Ojibway Shores, an undeveloped tract that provides an ecological connection to the Detroit River. There is strong interest in adding additional land holdings in the future.

The most striking aspect of this national urban park will be its tremendous biodiversity in an urban landscape. It will be located a short 10-minute drive south of downtown Windsor and right across from Detroit at the foot of the Gordie Howe International Bridge. Approximately 4,000 species have been recorded in the area to date, with many more undoubtedly waiting to be discovered. Wetlands, old-growth forest, meadows, oak savanna, and tallgrass prairie provide habitat for approximately 200 provincially rare plants, and animals.

A 2014 BioBlitz attracted 30 experts and approximately 100 others to document all the flora and fauna they encountered in one day. In total, they found approximately 1,200 species, including 12 species never-before recorded in Canada.

The Ojibway Prairie Complex hosts the most endangered ecosystem in Canada – Tallgrass Prairie – in the city with the most endangered species. Tallgrass prairies and savannas are some of the most endangered ecological communities in Canada, with approximately one percent of their original extent remaining. Tallgrass communities once covered a significant part of southern Ontario’s landscape.

The goals of the national urban parks are to bring conservation to cities and protect biodiversity, improve access to nature in major urban areas, and contribute to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. In 2021, the Government of Canada announced that it would invest $130 million CAD to work with partners to create a network of national urban parks. Canada’s first was the highly successful Rouge National Urban Park in Toronto.

“Ojibway National Urban Park will be the culmination of years if not decades of work by many residents of this region fighting to protect their unique ecosystem in one of the most heavily developed areas in the country,” said Canadian Member of Parliament Brian Masse. “It has been a real privilege to be the leader in the House of Commons on this effort, but this victory belongs to so many, including Caldwell First Nation, local residents, environmental groups like Friends of Ojibway Prairie, Detroit River Canadian Cleanup, and Citizens Environment Alliance, and so many more.”

The benefits of this national urban park will not only be reaped in Windsor metropolitan area, but in the Detroit metropolitan area.

Enhance Cross-Border Trail Tourism and Become a Destination of Choice

Trail tourism enhances local economies and the well-being of residents and enriches the lives of visitors. Unique destinations that provide compelling experiences along such trails are a critical component to ensure repeat visits.

For Metro Detroiters, that is what Ojibway National Urban Park will become – a cross-border destination of choice for bicyclists. In 2024, both Ojibway National Urban Park and the Gordie Howe International Bridge will open, providing a unique day trip cycling experience. “Having a biking and hiking trail on the Gordie Howe International Bridge creates many exciting tourism destinations for both U.S. and Canadian residents,” said Todd Scott, executive director of Detroit Greenways Coalition. “A highlight for Detroiters will certainly be Windsor’s Ojibway National Urban Park, a large greenspace with striking ecological and cultural significance that’s just a brief pedal from the bridge plaza.”

In September of this year, the Trans Canada Trail – the world’s longest trail, Canada’s Great Lakes Waterfront Trail that stretches from the St. Lawrence River to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Michigan’s Iron Belle Trail that stretches from Ironwood in the Upper Peninsula to Belle Isle in Detroit, and The Great Lakes Way that stretches from Port Huron, Michigan to Toledo, Ohio signed a memorandum of understanding to collaborate on such cross-border trail tourism.

Reap Economic Benefits

According to a 2017-2018 report, visitor spending in Parks Canada places contributed $2.8 billion CAD to Canada’s Gross Domestic Product, supported 36,453 full-time jobs across the country, and generated $486 million CAD in tax revenues across multiple levels of government. Most of the economic benefits of the proposed Ojibway National Urban Park will be realized in Windsor and Essex County, however, because this national park is located in the shadow of Detroit and will be connected to the Motor City by a bicycle and pedestrian lane on the new Gordie Howe International Bridge there will clearly be visitors who come to Ojibway National Urban Park and, as part of their visit, come over to Detroit for pleasure.

Visitors can spend the first half of the day at Ojibway National Urban Park and then jump on a bicycle and spend the latter half of the day on the Detroit RiverWalk or the Joe Louis Greenway or visiting Milliken State Park, Belle Isle, or Eastern Market. These opportunities are enormous and would reap benefits in both Windsor and Detroit metro areas. Nowhere else can you get such compelling cross-border trail tourism experiences.

Strengthen Transboundary Conservation Benefits

The Detroit River, Lake Erie, and Lake St. Clair are our shared natural resources between the United States and Canada, requiring transboundary conservation. Bringing conservation to cities and protecting biodiversity are shared goals of the soon-to-be Ojibway National Urban Park, the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, and the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy’s Detroit RiverWalk and Belle Isle Park in Detroit. Today, 80% of American and Canadian citizens live in urban areas, yet most are still disconnected from nature.

Ojibway National Urban Park, the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, and other urban conservation partners have a unique opportunity to reconnect urban residents with continentally significant natural resources right in their backyard, inspire a sense of wonder for these Great Lakes and its biodiversity, and help develop a conservation ethic. The creation of Ojibway National Urban Park will clearly strengthen transboundary conservation efforts and will provide a Canadian federal lead agency – Parks Canada – to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to showcase the Windsor-Detroit metropolitan area as a North American leader in protecting urban biodiversity and helping make nature part of everyday urban life.

Celebrate History

Ojibway National Urban Park will be on lands that were the traditional territory of the Anishnaabeg people of the Three Fires Confederacy – Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Odawa. This national urban park will be a great place to celebrate our shared Indigenous peoples’ history, including the Caldwell First Nation in Windsor and the Potawatmi and Wyandot of Anderdon Nation in the Detroit area. People will learn about Indigenous Peoples’ history at Ojibway National Urban Park and can then visit First Nation sites in metropolitan Detroit, including the First Nations’ burial mounds at Fort Wayne in Detroit, Six Points Village under development by the Wyandot of Anderdon Nation along the lower Detroit River in Gibraltar, and at River Raisin National Battlefield Park in Monroe.

“Indigenous Americans have been living on both sides of the Detroit River for thousands of years. Visitors will soon be able to celebrate their heritage when the Ojibway National Urban Park opens in 2024,” said Claude Molinari, president and chief executive officer of Visit Detroit. “The park and the pedestrian trail on the new Gordie Howe International Bridge will better connect Michigan and Ontario and highlight the opportunity to make Detroit and Windsor a two nation-destination.”

Help Change the Perception of the Windsor-Detroit Metropolitan Area

Windsor is the automobile capital of Canada and Detroit is the automobile capital of the United States. Their long automotive and industrial history has led to their perception as Rust Belt cities in the industrial heartland. However, this is no longer accurate.

Having Ojibway National Urban Park within easy access to Detroit right across the Detroit River will surely help promote cross-border trail tourism, further transboundary conservation, and help celebrate our shared history and culture. This will, in turn, help change the perception of Windsor and Detroit being Rust Belt cities in the industrial heartland to ones actively engaged in sustainable redevelopment.

Ojibway National Urban Park will become another unique piece of our binational quilt that already includes Belle Isle, the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, Windsor’s many outstanding waterfront and inland parks, the Detroit RiverWalk – the No. 1 riverwalk in the United States two years running, Fort Malden in Amherstburg, Fort Wayne in Detroit, the Underground Railroad where 40,000 freedom seekers crossed the Detroit River to Canada, and so many more. This will help showcase the Windsor-Detroit Metropolitan area as a great place to live, work, and play and an ecotourism and cultural destination of choice. It will also play a key role in helping attract and retain employees for businesses.

Catch more news at Great Lakes Now: 

Great Lakes Moment: New video game teaches watershed management

Great Lakes Moment: Rouge River Revived

Featured image: Land holdings of the Ojibway Prairie Complex in Windsor, Ontario that are part of the draft study area for the proposed Ojibway National Urban Park. (Photo Credit: City of Windsor)

1 Comment

  1. Tom Henderson, Chair, Public Advisory Council, Detroit River Canadian Cleanup, Windsor, Ontario 1 year ago

    John Hartig has penned a tour de force on the beauty and diversity of a prime natural destination in Windsor-Essex. The Ojibway National Urban Park now teams up with America’s Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge to form a bond of environmental grandeur that will last for generations.

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