Yosemite city? The National Parks Service showcases its urban agenda in Detroit

Ask someone in Detroit where they might find the National Park Service (NPS) in Michigan and they are likely to think of Sleeping Bear Dunes or Isle Royale -- not an urban park like Detroit's Belle Isle.
Yet the NPS is on Belle Isle and for many years has been present in Detroit through historic preservation. Most recently, the NPS is helping to restore Rouge Park and create a network of greenways in the city.
In May, Jon Jarvis, NPS director, announced in Detroit a $325,000 NPS investment in Belle Isle to restore sports play fields and make other improvements, coinciding with the commemoration the agency’s 100th anniversary.
More commonly associated with the scenic splendor of the iconic natural landscapes of America, you don’t think about park rangers working on a trail along the Rouge River or restoring a soccer field on Belle Isle. It’s all part of the NPS "urban agenda," an effort to build awareness and support for conserving natural and human historic places -- Detroit being one of them.
The NPS "has to be more relevant to all Americans," Jarvis said at the Belle Isle news conference. The agency, he says, needs to form more partnerships and enhance its image among people in urban places like Detroit where there isn’t a national park for hundreds of miles.
However, there is a lot of green space here, from the classic landscape architecture of Belle Isle to the 1000-plus acres of Rouge Park to the hundreds of smaller neighborhood parks, many of them no longer maintained. There is also a lot of history -- one of the low profile aspects of the NPS's mission. Identification of national landmarks and administration of historic task credits are among the ways NPS is involved in historic preservation.
Barbara Nelson-Jameson, who works in the NPS Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program, is helping community groups revive Rouge Park.
Raised on the east side of Detroit, nature to her was Balduck Park. Her awareness of the Detroit River was going under the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, and Belle Isle as a place you went for a picnic. "Today, there’s a much greater emphasis on outdoor education," she says.
There has been a subtle shift in perspective regarding national parks.
“[We've been] broadening a conversation that is often centered on what is best for the future of the parks to a conversation that is expanded to include what is best for a larger set of social and environmental objectives and ways that parks, in collaboration with other institutions, can help achieve those objectives,” says Rolf Diamant, a retired NPS architect who writes for the George Wright Forum.
According to the NPS Second Century Commission report, published in 2009, national parks, are "community builders, creating an enlightened society committed to a sustainable world."
The NPS Collaborative for Innovative Leadership has framed an "urban agenda," to include establishing formal working relationships with partnering organizations and non-traditional partners like health providers. The NPS has established a "Healthy Parks/Healthy People" campaign. According to the collaborative, NPS "should aim to understand community health and transportation needs and identify ways they can help address those needs including physical access, public transportation needs, alternative transportation, education or marketing programs... and outreach (urban gardens, natural playgrounds)."
"Park design work looks at improving neighborhood access, making sure it’s safe to go to the park," Nelson-Jameson says. Among the collaborative’s projects is developing one-mile “health” loop neighborhood trails in Rouge Park.
Like the Ecology Center’s Fresh Prescription program  in Wayne County, in which health providers prescribe fruits and vegetables for low income, chronically ill people, NPS promotes a Park Prescription, which encourages health providers to prescribe walks through parks to promote cardiovascular health.
Urban national parks, Nelson-Jameson notes, comprise a third of the national park system and 40 percent of its patrons. An "affinity caucus" of NPS staff working in urban national parks initiated a process to "enable urban parks and programs to step into their power with the intent of becoming a larger, more relevant part of urban life in America." That resulted in “communities of practice” in which NPS focuses on urban innovation, economic revitalization, connecting youth with nature, and establishing "portals of diversity."
The urban agenda has also spawned internships and fellowships that introduce professionals to the opportunities of defining conservation work in urban areas. Jon Jarvis, in his Belle Isle remarks, announced that Detroit would host to one of 10 NPS fellowships beginning in July. David Goldstein, the NPS fellow, will have an open-ended assignment to create linkages between NPS programs and local initiatives.
Juliana Fulton, an urban designer, is working in an internship supported through a three-way partnership between the NPS, Conservation Legacy/Americorps, and the city of Detroit. Raised in Ann Arbor, Fulton says she wanted to work here because it has "such exciting stuff happening... challenges no other city has... doing things that no other city is doing." She says several of her colleagues are looking for job opportunities in Detroit, where there is "a lot of change" afoot.
Fulton, who has purchased a house in Detroit’s North End neighborhood, works with the City of Detroit Recreation Department to finalize its master plan for parks. She has begun work on a nature trail in Rouge Park. Parks, she says, are about appreciating nature as well as connecting people.
In Rouge Park, the NPS is building a kayak launch and helping develop a paddling guide for the Rouge River as part of the Southeast Michigan Water Trail collaborative.
This summer, NPS will host two national events in the area: the first National Water Trail Forum in Ann Arbor, June 24-26 , and a Wilderness Inquiry Program on the Detroit River, Aug. 7-9.
Tom Goss, a resident of Detroit Towers who cycles regularly on Belle Isle, serves on the National Park Foundation's board of directors. He adds a Detroit perspective to the urban agenda, with social and cultural inclusion being a major focus of introducing new people to national parks. "As we look at that group, the majority is 65 years and older," notes Goss. "As we look at our community, there are kids who have never seen our (national) parks....We have an opportunity to reach out to young people to get them started in parks so they can go farther...so that they might want to go see Yellowstone and see the sites that we as taxpayers pay for."
Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.
All photos by Marvin Shaouni.
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Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.