Parks department strives to turn funding into fun for Lansing residents

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The construction of the SkyVue apartment buildings, as seen from Ranney Park on the city's east side. In addition to a towering hill, the park includes a softball field and skate park frequented by MSU students. Photo by Maxwell Evans

 

Parks and recreation departments aren’t all office hijinks and witty men with mustaches like you might see on TV. In reality, they have a responsibility to maintain one of the few sources of nature in urban areas using limited resources. For Lansing Parks and Recreation Director Brett Kaschinske, this means turning $10 million a year into places for relaxation, exercise and fresh air for 100,000 people.

According to the budget for Lansing’s 2017 fiscal year, the Parks and Recreation department has been allocated $10.4 million, a 1.6 percent increase over the previous year. Despite the increase, Kaschinske claims the funding for the 114 parks his department must maintain is still lagging behind similar cities.

“We would always love to have more [money] for programs and maintenance,” Kaschinske said. “We are above the national average for parks and acreage for cities this size, but below the national average for the amount of funding we have to work with.”

The price tag associated with park upkeep strikes Lansing resident Annie Cifaldi as surprising. Yet Cifaldi, a regular visitor of downtown’s Ferris Park, thinks it is also necessary to prevent parks from degrading to the point of being useless.

“I mean, on one hand that is a lot of money,” Cifaldi said. “But that also keeps the parks clean, and we don’t have messy, broken parks. That would be kind of sad.”

Alexander Hoffman, a recent University of Michigan graduate and Dimondale resident, says he has no way of knowing how far the city’s parks budget is supposed to go, but he doesn’t think residents fully take advantage of the outdoor resources available to them through the Parks and Recreation department.

“It doesn’t seem like there’s actually as many people … as I would hope to see that would be evidence of a desire to spend time outside,” Hoffman said. “There aren’t as many people [using the parks] as other places I’ve seen around the state, but [the funding] is crucial for the people that do use them.

Hoffman takes advantage of one of the most popular attractions in the park system: the Lansing River Trail. The extensive system of trails, which offers views of the Grand and Red Cedar rivers and connects to other pathways that extend beyond city limits, are a popular spot for runners and bikers to explore the city. Hoffman is one of the regulars, and hopes this aspect of the park system not only gets residents out in the fresh air, but gets them in shape as well.

“[The trail] is really necessary,” Hoffman said. “Hopefully it’s promoting better health and fitness among the local population, which is desperately needed.”

Professor Stephen Murphy from Canada’s University of Waterloo said trails tend to have a minimal impact on the surrounding nature, but can sometimes benefit it by giving would-be disruptive trailblazers a clear walkway.

“They generally are neutral [on the surrounding environment] but may enhance it if they prevent people from trampling new ‘desire paths’ through already fragmented habitats,” Murphy said. “Given the Red Cedar River and Grand River states, [this] is probably the case.”

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An outline of the city of Lansing. The parkland is shaded green. Map by scribblemaps.com and Maxwell Evans

As part of the parks budget, $3.6 million will be spent on riverbank restoration and asphalt and bridge repair along the trail system. Projects funded by a county-wide trails and parks millage include a $1.8 million renovation of the Potter’s Zoo Creek Bridge and over $368,000 to repair the Moores River Drive Trail, both scheduled for completion in fall 2018.

Murphy, the director of Waterloo’s School of Environment, Resources, & Sustainability, said based on his 25-plus years of experience of working with engineers and landscape architects, he believes these projects can be completed with minimal effect on the surrounding natural habitats.

“I’ve rarely seen this have a major impact on natural areas,” Murphy said. “Permits and professional experience normally prevent impacts. And with this trail, much of it is near narrow areas in suburban or urban zones so there’s little ‘natural’ about large parts of it.”

Hoffman said he had not previously heard of the planned improvement projects, but welcomes the possibility of a higher-quality experience on the trail. While he said he has seen better trail systems around the country and state in terms of “legitimate trail surface” and natural scenery, the improvement that he would most like to see has nothing to do with aesthetics.

“I’ve heard women and girls say how they wouldn’t use [the trails] at night, especially in winter when it gets dark earlier,” Hoffman said. “[Renovation] is a good start and it could definitely be beautified more … but I hope they do address those safety concerns.”

In addition to enabling safety and comfort in the parks, one of Kaschinske’s biggest concerns is with graffiti, a common problem for many departments. The Parks and Recreation website has an entire page encouraging residents and community groups to be proactive in removing graffiti, and Kaschinske made clear that vandalism of this sort will not be tolerated in any Lansing park.

“[Graffiti] is something we want to address right away,” Kaschinske said. “It detracts from quality of life. We take getting it covered or removed as soon as possible very seriously.”

However, not all residents feel all graffiti is something that needs to be completely eliminated. Cifaldi thinks the quality of the graffiti must be taken into consideration before deeming it all “unsightly.”

“It depends on what it is,” Cifaldi said. “If it’s like a mural or something, I actually think that would be pretty. But if it’s vulgar … then that’s not good.”

Despite a few minor complaints, such as being occasionally bothered by other visitors of Ferris Park, Cifaldi says without the parks she wouldn’t have anywhere to go walk around and talk with her friends. From the public health benefit Hoffman believes the Lansing River Trail to be, to the simple pleasure Cifaldi finds in swinging on a park’s swing-set, Lansing residents are finding many reasons to use the 2,000 acres of parkland available to them for everyday use.

“It’s good to be outside,” Cifaldi said. “You can only handle sitting at home for so long.”