Greenspace starts with grassroots


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This is the third story in a 4-part Great Lakes Echo series on environmental equity and access to the outdoors s in the region.

By Jake Christie

Improving access to green spaces helps communities and individuals alike.

Green spaces, like parks, riverfronts and forests, improve people’s physical and mental health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Michigan, there are grassroots organizations that run programs and hold events to engage the public and improve green space equity.

Improving green space equity means increasing the amount and accessibility of green spaces, especially in areas otherwise lacking them.

A Friends of Grand Rapids Parks member prepares to plant a tree. Image: Friends of Grand Rapids Parks

Among them, the nonprofit Detroit Riverfront Conservancy works to maintain and improve the Detroit RiverWalk, and recently broke ground for the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park.

The conservancy received $40 million from the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation in 2018, and broke ground on the project in 2022.

The park should be finished in 2024, according to the conservancy.

Grassroots efforts to expand green spaces can be found throughout the state.

For example, the Friends of Grand Rapids Parks formed in 2007 and helps maintain parks and educates young people about caring for newly planted trees, Executive Director Stacy Bare said.

More green spaces contribute to lower stress, decreased inflammation and can increase people’s curiosity and openness to new ideas, Bare said.

But they could also lead to gentrification by increasing property values in areas that develop more green spaces, according to a study from the National Library of Medicine.

But that can be avoided with the inclusion of the communities where development is planned or underway, according to a report from the National Recreation and Park Association.

A Friends of Grand Rapids Parks volunteer puts the finishing touches on a newly planted tree. Image: Friends of Grand Rapids Parks

In addition to expanding access to parks, the organization wants to increase the availability of shade throughout Grand Rapids, but they face challenges in working with some communities.

“Where there’s a lack of trees and a lack of shade, there’s a lot of historical exploitation,” Bare said, “It’s difficult at times to say that a tree should be a priority.”

But the organization makes it clear to residents that having a tree planted on their property is an option, but if the organization does plant a tree on someone’s property, it’s also going to take care of it, said Bare.

Friends of the Grand Rapid Parks works closely with local residents to expand shade and park equity, and the idea that its work could lead to gentrification is something Bare said he keeps in mind.

Overwhelmingly, residents welcome trees, and the best way they can address concerns about gentrification is to make sure there’s not a street without trees and everybody has access to parks, said Bare.

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