Detroit’s Capital Park (Paul Angelone/ULI)

For most of her life, retired Detroit schoolteacher Paula Trilety has lived within walking distance of Rouge Park, the city’s largest park at 1,181 acres (4,779 sq m). It has a golf course, a butterfly garden along a prairie pathway, and an organic farm. But for several years the city lacked the funds to mow Rouge Park’s grass regularly, replace dilapidated playground equipment and broken picnic tables, or groom its baseball diamonds. And the park’s Brennan Pools complex, where the 1956 U.S. Olympic trials were held, was shut down in 2011.

That has changed as Detroit emerged from the last recession and its historic bankruptcy that wiped out billions of dollars in debt. Detroit has attracted investment dollars in its resurgent downtown, and corporate and philanthropic donations also have spurred redevelopment. Propelled by a $5 million donation from auto supplier Lear Corp., coupled with some public financing, the Brennan Pools complex reopened in 2013. Rouge Park “is better than it has been in a long time,” said Trilety.

But Trilety, membership chair of the Friends of Rouge Park community group, wonders if the improvements will stick. That is why she attended a public presentation by a ULI Advisory Services panel, which convened in Detroit in early April to brainstorm ideas on how to improve funding for long-term maintenance and sustainability of Detroit’s parks.

Detroit’s reliance on philanthropy for park upkeep stems from decades of decline that led to the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy in 2013–2014. The city’s population has shrunk from 1.8 million in 1950 to about 673,000.

Just a few years ago, Detroit’s park staff numbered about 60 people, who were expected to oversee all parks, including the city’s jewel, Belle Isle. Belle Isle’s operation alone required about 30 employees, according to Brad Dick, Detroit’s group executive of infrastructure. In some Detroit neighborhoods, area parks had not seen significant investment in decades. Post-bankruptcy that has changed. Detroit has about 250 parks that are actively used, Dick said, and the city’s park staff has climbed to about 300 employees, while Michigan now operates Belle Isle as a state park.

Detroit’s 5,500-acre (200 sq m) park system “is at a tipping point,” said April Lamoureux Anderson, president of Boston-based Anderson Strategic Consulting and the panel chair, during the panel presentation, attended by community activists, city officials, and other stakeholders. “Parks are underfunded, and there’s an overreliance on philanthropy and corporate sponsors.”

The setting for the presentation was the community center in Detroit’s Palmer Park, its 296 acres (120 ha) distinguished by an 1880s log house built by Thomas W. Palmer, a U.S. senator who donated the land on which the park sits.

ULI panelists walk through Clark Park in Detroit. (Michael Brown/ULI)

Panelist Michael Brown, planner supervisor for the Montgomery County, Maryland, Planning Department, said the city’s parks face a backlog of deferred maintenance and that “without a major shift in funding,” it is unlikely the city could realize its goals. Detroit’s funding of parks falls below what other major cities provide, said panelist Neelay Bhatt, principal with PROS Consulting Inc. of Indianapolis.

Detroit also has the unparalleled burden of dealing with vacant space created by the abandonment and demolition of thousands of homes and businesses, noted panelist Savlan Hauser, executive director of the Jack London Improvement District in Oakland, California. The city shows “profound scars of the past,” she said, but added that efforts underway portend the “beginning of a beautiful story of sustained success.”

Panelist Donald Schrotenboer, president and chief executive officer of Private Equity Group in Fort Myers, Florida, outlined several possible funding sources for Detroit parks.

He proposed that Detroit designate value increment recapture zones around specific neighborhoods the city already has targeted for investment and development. By doing so, the city could target a portion of the tax revenue generated from property sales toward neighborhood and citywide parks.

As an example, if a business property previously valued at $100,000 is sold to a new owner for $150,000, one-third of the adjusted taxes generated from the $50,000 in increased value could be designated for maintenance and long-term sustainability of parks within the zone, another one-third to overall city park maintenance, and one-third to the city’s general fund.

Other funding possibilities include setting aside 10 percent of interest from all philanthropic and corporate gifts raised for park improvements for endowments dedicated to city parks; Schrotenboer termed this the “low-hanging fruit” among the city’s options. The city also could consider implementing an initial flat impact fee for parks paid by developers as new projects unfold, or selling naming rights for some parks. Schrotenboer, who grew up in Michigan and has lived in the Detroit suburbs, cautioned that naming rights need to avoid a “misaligning of values” between the park’s image and a sponsor’s business/product.

Panelists tour Detroit’s Beacon Park. (Michael Brown/ULI)

Panelist Ilana Lipsett, cofounder and community design strategist for Just People in Oakland, California, said the panel recommends the city create a Citywide Parks Alliance, which could develop citywide priorities for parks in conjunction with existing neighborhood park groups, raising funds collectively to help avoid what she called “philanthropic burnout.” The panel also urged the city to collaborate more with residents to develop “deep, authentic community engagement.” More avenues should exist for resident-led programming as well as experiments using resident voting to determine park programming.

“If they build it, they’ll stay,” said Lipsett. “We see the parks as a central piece of the city redevelopment.”

Detroit’s riverfront, with its view of Windsor, Ontario, is a valuable asset with historical significance, noted panelist Steve Qualkinbush, a developer, landlord, and investor in commercial real estate from Northbrook, Illinois. Detroit’s riverfront has a rich legacy as a destination for the Underground Railroad for escaping slaves, a Native American passageway, and home to the mid-1800s U.S. military outpost Fort Wayne, which still stands. It also is one of the nation’s busiest international ports of commerce.

Qualkinbush termed it a national treasure. He said that as the ULI panelists brainstormed ideas over a dinner, they wondered, “Why can’t this wonderful place be a national—or even international—park” or a federally recognized national monument?

Such a designation could boost tourism, encourage more economic development, and bring in support from federal funding and perhaps funds from the International Joint Commission.

“Think of the benefits to all of Detroit if the riverfront had support from the entire nation,” said Qualkinbush. “The panel thinks this idea is worthy of your consideration—where the riverfront could become not only a place for all Detroiters, but also a place for the entire nation.”

As a model for this approach, he cited the Roosevelt Campobello International Park, off the coast of Maine. The summer home of President Franklin Roosevelt, Campobello Island is part of New Brunswick, Canada, across the international border from Lubec, Maine, at the state’s easternmost tip. The park is operated and funded by both countries.

Maurice Cox, Detroit planning director, afterward called it a “fantastic recommendation” that illustrates how “our international riverfront has so much value.”

“They laid out some pretty powerful and structural changes they think we need to consider to take our parks to the next level,” he said. Cox asked the panel to provide a timetable with goals for the city to achieve in three, six, and nine months.

“If we’re successful in spurring economic development, we need to make it easy for that investment to create value for parks,” he said.

The panel was partially funded by the 10-Minute Walk campaign, in partnership with The Trust for Public Land and the National Recreation and Park Association.