Detroit and New York are hard to compare. Besides concrete, cars and people they are completely different cities. One has 20 million in the metro area and more than 8 million in the city itself. Although Detroit has less than a tenth of that population – only 700,000 remaining in the city limits – but that doesn’t mean we here in Detroit can’t look to the Big Apple for some guidance and potential outcomes.
After taking a taxi into Manhattan the other day I was shocked by the sheer size of New York and the overwhelming activity. Here in Detroit we get used to the sleepy streets and comparatively easy-moving traffic. New York’s cacophony and restlessness takes an adjustment.
My first stop was Central Park. It has captured my imagination since childhood and I figured it was the best place to start exploring the Big Apple.
Central Park has a very concrete link to Detroit. The name of that link is Frederick Law Olmstead. This was the man that designed both Central Park and Detroit’s Belle Isle, amongst countless other municipal park projects across the country. In the late 1800’s the United States started looking at how to preserve green spaces as as the industrial revolution began pushing more and more people into urban settings. Cities began gaining population swiftly as people flocked to them for jobs.
It takes only moments to capture the scale and energy in Central Park. I have walked through the some of the biggest urban green spaces in the world including those in the cities of Madrid, Paris, London, Berlin and Budapest. Most large cities have a large space they gather in.. but Central Park is in a different league.
The rolling landscape and rocky outcroppings hide endless swaths of well tended topiary. Bike trails, running paths and hiking paths swirl through many layers of flora and fauna. Restaurants, cafes, boat and bicycle rentals are peppered throughout the 840 acres stretching from Manhattan to Harlem. All the while surrounded by skyscrapers from the past and present. It provides the ultimate green respite from the mayhem that is New York.
Walking through the Central Park from south to north I realized how far our own city park has to go. Belle Isle is still in my mind a true feather in Detroit’s cap, but it needs some tender loving care. And that doesn’t take a large population, that takes an organized, competent effort to keep things nice. Recently, I took my dog on a slow exploratory jog on Belle Isle. The potential is palpable and you can sense it at every turn, but around every corner is evidence of a long neglect that has left much of the park plagued by a slow decay. It is the result of the same war of economic attrition and lack of care that the city itself is pained by, and the almost complete void of private enterprise of any sort has shortchanged the potential attractions for park-goers.
Belle Isle is bigger than central park, at nearly 1000 acres and has limitless ability for growth and enjoyment. Control of the park is now with the State of Michigan. This will allow the city to free up money for other much needed services and the State of Michigan has vowed to dedicate resources for much needed improvement and to hire more staff. More on Belle Isle’s near future from The Detroit Free Press.
I think people in Detroit proper and the Detroit metro area (which is more than 4 million people) need to realize what a wonder Belle Isle is. It has all the ingredients to be a world class green space. It’s yet another example that Detroit is not a blank canvas.
Once we as a region truly realize this and act upon taking care of it, Belle Isle can regain its place in the books as a world class park that is part of a future world class City of Detroit.
Editor’s Note: This is part of an ongoing series looking at New York and Detroit and what we could learn. It’s inspired from being on the ground and spending time in the city that never sleeps. Check out “A Detroiter walks The High Line” and “Wi-Fi on a truck”
Photo credit: Getty Images. Used with license.