New partnership will bring improvements to 8 under resourced Detroit parks

Eight under-resourced parks across Detroit will get a surge of love and attention this summer through a new partnership between the Gilbert Family Foundation and Green Living Science. 

The goal of the partnership, Our Backyard Detroit, is to increase access and utilization of public greenspaces by recruiting and training eight community members to be a “park champion” for their local parks. The parks are: Fitzgerald, Jayne Lasky, Balduck, Maheras Gentry, Pingree, Hedwig, Zussman, and Stoepel.

“We’ve tried to target a lot of under-resourced parks that have already been mostly community-led projects,” said Natalie Jakub, executive director of Green Living Science. “Our hope is that we can then help them become a ‘friends of’ group and help them learn how to do all those things to activate a community to space.”

Pingree Park hosted an Our Backyard Detroit kickoff event on June 28, 2023. The initiative aims to improve access to public green spaces with the help of “park champions.” (Photo courtesy of the Gilbert Family Foundation)

Throughout the summer the park champions must host a kickoff event, at least four community events and participate in community events programming, park clean ups, anti-litter initiatives, and recycling education. The champions, who must be residents of the immediate neighborhoods, will be trained in hosting events, securing grant funding, volunteer management, and other resources to ensure the longevity of activating their park spaces. 

Leslie Grant is the park champion for Zussman Park in District 7. She lives in the house passed down from her grandmother and became a park champion to add to the work she’s already doing in the neighborhood through her nonprofit Because of His Love Outreach, focused on family and mental health services. 

“I just thought it would be a really, really, really good opportunity to kind of incorporate that into what we were already doing in the community,” she said. 

Zussman Park’s kickoff event was June 17 and featured potato sack races, tug of war, a DJ, hotdogs and ice cream and giveaways. Neighbors could also sign up for recycling bins and the maternal and infant resources Grant’s nonprofit provides. 

“We had over 100 people that came out and were able to teach everyone about the importance of not only recycling but just being proud of your neighborhood,” she said. 

The next Our Backyard Detroit event at Zussman Park will be a back-to-school event in August with stuffed backpacks for kids. 

The Gilbert Family Foundation donated $200,000 to the initiative and each park receives a portion of that money as a beautification grant. The park champions are tasked with asking neighbors what they want in the park and the money can be used for things like benches or basketball hoops. Additionally, each champion is paid a $400 monthly stipend for their work. 

“We believe that inclusive public spaces are the centerpiece of building community,” said JJ Velez, director of public space for the Gilbert Family Foundation.

The foundation wanted the residents doing the work and adding in components community members may not know as much about, like recycling, Velez said. The foundation has also begun having conversations around supporting the city’s 10-year parks and recreation strategic plan, particularly with greenwater infrastructure at Eliza Howell Park, according to Velez. In October 2022 the foundation granted $500,000 across 20 Detroit nonprofits for public space activation. 

For Our Backyard Detroit, the park champions were chosen in late spring and six parks have already had a kickoff event. The kickoff events differ based on what each unique neighborhood wants but have included features like bounce houses, yoga, DJs, scavenger hunts, and food from different vendors. 

In addition to hosting events, the park champions are also tasked with monitoring the park’s progress in terms of reducing litter and how often items are put in the recycling bins at parks that shouldn’t be there. 

Grant said from the beginning the program has been amazing and all of the park champions have hit it off. 

“Detroit should really encourage this throughout all districts and in every area,” she said. 

To get involved, subscribe for updates at the bottom of Our Backyard Detroit’s webpage or to become a volunteer to assist park champions, fill out an online interest form. 

authored by
First published at

Comments are closed.