How Detroit Created a Green Oasis in the Middle of Motor City

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Three years ago, the first Detroit Outdoors campers in Scout Hollow admired a pair of Red Tail Hawk parents feeding their chick nestled in a huge nest perched in a tall Sycamore Tree. The hawks’ vantage point gave them a commanding view of the 5-acre meadow and Detroit’s only campground, which had been unused for over a decade. The hawks could see what the campers below were rediscovering: nature abounds in this park on Detroit’s west side.

That recognition in mind, our organizations decided that the way to connect more city youth and families with this bounty was to collaborate and leverage existing strengths and assets. Our story is one of leadership seeing the way forward and creating space for a multi-organizational program built with existing assets. The results after one year reinforce what we saw: 280 Detroit youth camped in Rouge Park, 45 adults completed overnight leadership training in the park, and a fully outfitted camping gear library is ready to equip thousands more youth on overnight experiences for years to come.

Each of our three organizations could have developed strategic plans to accomplish this on our own. Our histories and missions could each be grown to support a youth camping program. Detroit Parks and Recreation owns Rouge Park and employs hundreds of recreation professionals in the city. The Sierra Club has a network of staff and community volunteers in Detroit, including a Detroit Inspiring Connections Outdoors program that has been connecting Detroit youth with nature for over two decades. The YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit has deep roots in the city and it has run overnight camps for decades in Southeast and Northern Michigan. For decades, however, no organization has run a camping program within the city border. This was the context of camping in Detroit when our organizations found themselves in conversation as part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Outside initiative.

On the ground leadership from the Department of the Interior embodied in National Park Service Urban Fellow David Goldstein, helped us organize successful Every Kid in a Park (EKIP) events for Detroit youth. EKIP, a Department of the Interior program started under President Obama’s administration, seeks to inspire a new generation to get outside and to become stewards of our nation’s cultural and natural heritage. Through this program, every fourth grader in America can obtain a pass for free entry for them and their families into more than 2,000 federally managed lands and waters nationwide for an entire year. Our local event for distributing park passes brought over three thousand Detroit Public School Community District fourth graders to Historic Fort Wayne, a public park located along the Detroit River. They students experienced a day filled with activities. Parks and Recreation Staff led games, YMCA staff taught outdoor crafts, and Sierra Club volunteers created a campsite relay race.  A dozen other partners shared their own activities and programs at the event as well. The success of the EKIP events, along with the Let’s Move! Outside conversations being facilitated by the YMCA, made it clear that our groups could collaborate to do much more. We had the park space, staff and volunteers were already engaged with us in the idea for a camping program in the city, and we had a demonstrated success collaborating on an initiative.

We can’t say if the Detroit Outdoors youth camping collaborative is an example of what former First Lady Obama envisioned with Let’s Move! Outside, but her leadership brought our organizations together with a focus on getting kids outdoors. That was an opportunity we chose not to miss.

The hawk nest is still nestled above the Scout Hollow campground in Rouge Park. Campers have had some up close and personal experiences of the wildlife that those hawks see from their perch and on the wing: deer, wild turkey, pheasant, woodchuck, opossum, great blue heron, and even the occasional coyote. Hawks are drawn to Rouge Park because of what is already there, the bounty that already exists. It’s a lesson not lost on our organizations. We come together with a focus on our assets and strengths. Our funding partners recognize this as well. The Kresge Foundation, the Sierra Club Foundation, REI Co-Op, and dozens of individual supporters have partnered with us because we are building on strength, not because we are backfilling a deficit. This spirit is imbued on camping trips in Rouge Park. Detroit youth visit Scout Hollow and they connect with the natural beauty and wonder of the park. Our hope is that they also leave with an enriched perspective of their hometown. A perspective that recognizes a rich legacy and possibilities for the future. That is certainly what we see.

About Detroit Outdoors: Detroit Outdoors is a collaborative effort between the City of Detroit Parks and Recreation Department, the Sierra Club, and the YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit, with guiding support from additional organizations such as the National Park Service, Friends of Rouge Park, Outdoors Empowered Network, US Forest Service, and US Fish and Wildlife Service. It’s mission is to connect Detroit area youth with meaningful overnight experiences in nature through the camping program at Scout Hollow and beyond.

Photo credit: TJ Samuels

About the Authors:

JJ Velez is Deputy Director of Detroit Parks and Recreation Department.

Scott Landry retired January 1, 2019 from his role as President/CEO of the YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit.

Jackie Ostfeld is the Director of Sierra Club Outdoors and the Founding Chair of the Outdoors Alliance for Kids.