Greening Detroit’s Riverfront

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By RI’AN JACKSON
Capital News Service

LANSING — The Environmental Protection Agency has signed a $2.5 million agreement to clean the Detroit River and create new habitat for wildlife.

The money will be used to clean contaminated river sediments and create homes for fish and wildlife in a cove area at the Ralph C. Wilson Centennial Park, which is being built along Detroit’s waterfront.

Set for completion in 2022, the 22-acre park is between Rosa Parks Boulevard and Eighth Street on the site of what was once a Detroit Free Press printing plant.

Originally named West Riverfront Park, it was renamed in 2018, after the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation donated $50 million to support its construction and long-term sustainability.

Wilson was a business owner and founder of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. After he died, part of his fortune went to his namesake nonprofit. It’s aimed at improving the lives of residents in Detroit, where he grew up, and in Buffalo, where he owned the football team.

The park is among the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy’s largest efforts to build 5½ miles of greenways and parks along the river, said conservancy president Mark Wallace. It features a large playground, sports area, beach and cove area and an open spot for concerts. 

The project will work alongside the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a federal effort started in 2009 to accelerate action to protect and restore the Great Lakes. 

And the EPA’s design to clean contaminated sediment will help restore the river. The sediment is within the Detroit River Area of Concern, a stretch of river designated for cleanup because of its environmental degradation.

Since 2010, 4 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment have been cleaned or removed from a variety of Areas of Concern through the initiative’s efforts, according to project leaders.

“What I think is so cool about this project is that the cleanup of the Detroit River has been a catalyst for reconnecting people to the Detroit riverfront,” said John Hartig, a member of the conservancy board of directors.

“And this is a key part of the revitalization of Detroit. There’s a lot of spin-off economic developments and community benefits from this whole thing,” he said. 

Hartig’s passion for the riverfront runs deep. He wrote a book about it: “Waterfront Porch: Reclaiming Detroit’s Industrial Waterfront as a Gathering Place for All” (Michigan State University Press, $24.95).

That labor of love took Hartig, who served as a manager of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge for 14 years, two years to write. It takes readers through the major events that impacted the riverfront from the early 2000s to the present. 

The book highlights construction of the Detroit Riverwalk as a way to revitalize the city and promote sustainable practices. Hartig said he aims to showcase the potential of the Detroit region. 

What drove him to write the book is his passion to “green” the Detroit Riverwalk. Moving from a member of the blue-ribbon committee to create the conservancy to conservancy board member, he said he’s always been the “green” voice — the voice that advocates for natural resources. 

“I thought it was time for somebody to share this story because if you can reclaim an industrial waterfront as a gathering place for people and wildlife in Detroit, you can do it anywhere,” he said.

The riverfront, which once had limited public access, now hosts millions of people a year. The development of the riverfront will connect people, Hartig said. 

“Not only will kids and families from Detroit and the suburbs be able to connect to the Detroit River,” Hartig said. “It gives wonderful public access to the river, and allows them to experience some of these habitats, allows them to touch the water at the beach.”

It will also help people learn about and care for the river. 

“People, wherever they are in the United States or other parts of the world, need these kinds of projects that give hope,” Hartig said. 

“This is a (project) that really gives hope that we can reclaim these areas — these industrial waterfronts — and we can clean them up. We can reconnect people to them, and they can be amazing places that enhance the quality of life.”

Ri’An Jackson writes for Great Lakes Echo.

The Detroit River Conservancy is developing the 22-acre Ralph C. Wilson Centennial ParkThe project connects Detroit to the environment and restores habitat of native species. Credit: Detroit Riverfront Conservancy
Cover of “Waterford Porch: Reclaiming Detroit’s Industrial Waterfront as a Gathering Point for All.” Credit: Michigan State University Press.

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