Mike Gallagher, CMF Editorial Correspondent
It isn’t often you hear committed environmentalists talk about using rivers and other natural waterways as focal points for strategic development projects to boost a community’s economic viability, but the executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council (HRWC) says the times are a changing.
This change in philosophy isn’t an abrogation of long-held environmental beliefs and polices; it’s a slowly evolving realization that man and nature can coexist harmoniously by using greenways and blueways as part of a carefully crafted strategic development vision, says HRWC’s Laura Rubin.
Nowhere is this new visionary planning and environmental protectionism effort being more heralded than in the cities and towns linked to the Huron River Watershed area in the Ann Arbor-based region and beyond.
“Ongoing efforts are underway to make the Huron River more of a community magnet by cleaning it up and allowing new business development with river-friendly features,” Rubin told a recent gathering of the Council of Michigan Foundation’s Green & Blue Network group.
Environmentally supportive and concerned foundation leaders from around the state gathered in Ann Arbor recently to hear a presentation on “Using Nature To Support Community Development” and how environmentalists, developers and city leaders are teaming up to find new ways to use greenways and blueways to promote their region’s revitalization.
Have no fear that Rubin – a state and nationally known and award-winning environmentalist who has long fought to protect rivers, woods, forests and the natural beauty of the Michigan landscape – has succumbed to the charms of builders and big development outlays of cash at the expense of nature.
“We’re not talking about building up the land along our rivers with big high-rises and a lot of pavement, because we know that’s what really harms our water quality,” said Rubin. “We know we have to balance access with protection.”
Stressing that “strategic and controlled” development goes hand-in-hand with environmentally friendly – and needed – action such as brownfield redevelopments and river habitat restorations, Rubin acknowledged it is often a delicate balance of sometimes seemingly incompatible interests.
Rivers Once Ignored Now Community Treasures
Sharing a perspective on society’s past uses of waterways, Rubin told the grantmakers:
“Historically the river was used mainly to convey waste, then it became very industrialized and it was our main source of navigation. So traditionally we built our backs to the river, the backs of our businesses, the backs of our community, because it wasn’t really a desirable place to be.
“I think there has been a real shift nationwide and locally over the years of re-embracing the riverfront. We call it a river renaissance. I think most people are familiar with the San Antonio River Walk, but even in some of our Great Lakes cities, Chicago, Buffalo, Cleveland, they found a lot of economic opportunities by cleaning up the industrial lakefront and riverfront and utilizing it. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Various projects HRWC is involved in to facilitate these efforts in the Huron Valley Watershed area include:
- RiverUp! - A long-term effort to improve recreational access and the health of the Huron River.
- The City of Ann Arbor’s draft “Urban and Community Forest Management Plan” designed to protect trees throughout the area, including watershed locales.
- Development of a water trail that creates linkages from city to village; improves recreational access to the river; adds interpretive way-finding and historical signage; and creates economic development opportunities.
How soon before a major transformation takes place utilizing blueways and greenways to spark local community development?
“I think over the next five to 10, maybe 15 years we’re going to start seeing these efforts come to fruition,” noted Rubin. “We need to do things along our (blueways) such as improving portages and launches, developing better access to the rivers and better signage. We’re really just beginning this important work.
“To make all this work we need the public, we need the private industries, we need the community foundations, we need all of the people to come together to make this happen because it’s sort of a mix of clean-up and land use and economic development and so it’s really going to be a lot of partners and a lot of projects.”
Joining Rubin at the Green & Blue Network presentation was Tom Woiwode, director of Greenways Initiatives for the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan (CFSEM). Detailing various Detroit-area initiatives utilizing greenways to revitalize and rehabilitate sections of the embattled Motor City, Woiwode shared one such success story with the Green & Blue Network members: The Dequindre Cut.
“The cut was once a place where derelicts hung out and drug activity was prevalent,” said Woiwode. “It was a wide trench in downtown Detroit, just over a mile long that was sunk 25 feet below street level in the 1920s by the Grand Trunk Railroad to avoid foot and vehicle traffic.”
Through many meetings of city and civic officials, citizen involvement and various foundation grants – including substantial dollars from CFSEM – the trail now known as the Dequindre Cut opened to the public in May 2009.
“This 1.35-mile greenway, developed through a public, nonprofit and private partnership, offers a pedestrian link between the riverfront, Eastern Market and many of the residential neighborhoods in between,” shared Woiwode.
Turning blighted areas into city and neighborhood friendly greenways is nothing new for Woiwode.
In 1999 he developed the concept – and became the vocal leader – of using greenways to connect 250 municipalities within the seven-county area that includes and surrounds Detroit.
The program he developed, the GreenWays Initiative, was the first of its kind in the country. The effort was launched in 2001 with CFSEM leading the effort to raise $25 million from the private sector to leverage $50 million in public dollars for the design, planning, and funding of greenways in the region.
“Greenways are an important component that can be used to help revitalize our cities,” said Woiwode. “Used strategically, they can breathe new life into our neighborhoods…and leverage positive change through new development opportunities.”
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