Detroit: Parks & Rec Improvement Plan

Case Study | Economic Development
Detroit: Parks & Rec Improvement Plan


The Detroit Mayor Michael Duggan was elected in 2013 and ran on a campaign that “every neighborhood has a future.” In 2015, the City of Detroit Park Planning Team was created to develop an equitable vision. The Park Planning Team drafted the first parks and recreation improvement plan using collected equity data. The first phase of the improvement plan included 40 neighborhood parks. In order to create efficiencies in park capital renovations, the park planners work closely with a team of in-house landscape architects on park redesign.

Detroit, MI, 4/18/2017: Ribbon cutting for Szafraniec Park Renovation - funded by the Neighborhood 40 Parks Initiative.


The City of Detroit Department of Parks and Recreation is a division of the General Services Department (GSD). The parks and recreation department maintains, programs, designs, and renovates the city’s 311 parks. It also oversees the planning efforts and implementation strategies of three major future greenways linking the city, as well as several smaller connector greenways, berms, and parkways, and is responsible for the maintenance of all city-owned vacant lots. Currently, the park system is just under 5,000 acres, with Rouge as the largest park at 1,181 acres and plans underway for Detroit’s longest greenway at 31.5 miles long.

A large proportion of Detroit faces concentrated poverty, homelessness, or precarious housing, and these challenges heightened the importance of public spaces to its residents. In early 2015, the City of Detroit Park Planning Team was created as a part of the General Services Department (GSD). The Park Planning Team drove the vision for how it wanted to equitably push for parks as a driving facet of social justice in Detroit and thereby drafted the first Parks and Recreation Improvement Plan to address this issue.

Each year during capital budget development, the team makes sure that, according to the strategy set in place by the Parks and Recreation Improvement Plan, residents can point to renovations across every corner of the city in a geographically-distributed manner so that they don’t feel like only certain parts of the city are getting infrastructure improvements. City staff takes into consideration which parks/neighborhoods are already receiving special attention from funders.

The explicit first phase of the parks master plan included 40 small neighborhood parks (between 1-5.5 acres) tucked away into neighborhoods that hadn’t seen investments in the public infrastructure in (most often) several decades. The total budget for the 40 neighborhood parks was $11.8 million. The Park Planning Team considered those neighborhoods to be spaces where the city was not providing the “bread and butter” necessities of playgrounds and simple parks spaces because of the city’s bankruptcy. The major emphasis was simply to rebuild trust in those areas and act as agents of stabilization.

Site Selection Criteria

The 40 parks were chosen on the basis of their size, corresponding neighborhood population density, and years since recent improvements. Other factors taken into consideration with each park planning decision include the following:

  • Housing prices
  • Socioeconomic status
  • Number of individuals without stable housing
  • Immigrant populations
  • Minority households (defined differently around each park)
  • Childhood obesity
  • Access to a greenway
  • Transportation limitations
  • Foreclosure rates
  • Vacancy in the neighborhood
  • Senior population density
  • Child population density by three age ranges (under 6, 7-12, and teen to 18)
  • High rates of violent crime
  • High rates of “blight” crime (crimes easier to commit in abandoned homes, like drug trafficking, human trafficking, and prostitution)
  • Funding history

Driving Force Behind Equitable Funding

The driving force was a combination of factors. The Park Planning Unit of GSD took the lead with the mayor’s backing. There was a local void about how to think across all of the parks holistically, so stepping into that space and making the team’s objectives clear to serve all Detroit residents was one of the easier elements of actually implementing the strategy.

The Detroit Mayor Michael Duggan specifically ran on a campaign that “every neighborhood has a future,” tapping into a resonant narrative of downtown vs. the neighborhoods (that the development of the entire city where residents could see impacts in their neighborhood and reasons to keep them there as opposed to trying to attract new residents to the downtown areas). The Park Planning Team made the case that parks are one of the most visible ways that Detroit’s government was already putting that policy into place and continuing to implement it every construction season.

The foundation community is driven by some of the most up-to-date research on what makes for strong community investments. Chief Parks Planner Meagan Elliott of the Parks and Recreation Division utilized her sociology background to highlight research on the impacts of parks and recreation on public health, neighborhood stabilization, and other quality of life measures and the ways the department puts those into practice in the field.

The city’s equity strategy was least driven by non-profits. There are very few citywide non-profit organizations specifically focused on parks in Detroit. Those that do exist primarily focus on specific parts of the city and not Detroit as a whole.

How to Keep the Program Running

Each year during capital budget development, the Park Planning Team makes sure that it is in accordance to the strategy set in place by the Parks and Recreation Improvement Plan. Every five years, the state of Michigan requires that the Park Planning Team generate and submit a new parks master plan. This is difficult with current workload and lean staff. However, it allows the team to step back and take into account new research and data that can inform their prioritization strategies and account for new findings as they relate to equity.

Tracking the Progress of the Initiative

City park planners track the progress of their efforts as much as possible given staff capacity, but citywide non-profit groups or organizations like Data Driven Detroit, Loveland, and the media also keep track of the city’s progress and intent.

Conditions Specific to Detroit that Made the Initiative Possible

Detroit was in bankruptcy, and the city had no money of its own to spend on park investments. Nonprofits, foundations, and corporations chose which parks received funding. It took the creation of the Park Planning to make the equitable funding case, establish the criteria, develop the plan, and implement it.

Also, the city needs to comply with a plan of adjustment (this is a strategy formally filed with US bankruptcy court) that came out of the city’s bankruptcy. The plan outlines a ten-year strategy for park maintenance.

Key Ingredients to Making Equitable Park Funding a Success

Strong government leadership was instrumental. It was government leadership, working with the Public Space Planning Unit, that insisted on equitable park funding due to its obligation to serve all residents of Detroit. Meagan Elliott, chief parks planner of the Parks and Recreation Division, stated, “Too often I see cities that want to bend over backwards for funders and make projects orient to their priorities (including our own city in the past). Mitchell Silver from NYC Parks is a great example of that strong leadership. The Community Parks Initiative is essentially the same as our 40 neighborhood parks phase of our master plan (with way more funding) but he came out strong saying that those were the neighborhoods that desperately needed new neighborhood parks.”

In order to create efficiencies in park capital renovations the park planners in GSD work closely with a team of in-house landscape architects on park redesign. This both offers continuity to the public in terms of community engagement work and a cost-savings on the design side to be able to spread their limited budget as far as possible.

Obstacles to Implementing Equitable Funding

There are a lot of competing interests in the government, outside contractors, on the design and development of the parks, and it is often difficult to bring all parties in on the same page when choosing a park development option.

Can this Model be Replicated?

The Detroit model can be replicated.

To reference this material, please cite Equitable Parks: Case Studies + Recommendations, City Parks Alliance, 2020.

Equitable Park Funding Research & Strategies

This case study is one of seven, compiled as part of City Parks Alliance’s national initiative to research, curate, and disseminate innovative strategies and models for funding parks and green infrastructure in low-income communities.


  • Member Exclusive
    Technical Tool

    Milwaukee Parks Foundation Grant Application Guidelines

    Milwaukee Parks Foundation

    Milwaukee Parks Foundation offers grants to grassroots groups seeking to improve parks. Application guidelines and evaluation criteria are outlined.

  • Member Exclusive
    Technical Tool

    Milwaukee Parks Foundation Project Tracker Template

    Milwaukee Parks Foundation

    This project tracker is used by Milwaukee Parks Foundation and Milwaukee County Parks to track progress, funding, and tasks for joint projects.