Building Greenways Through Philanthropy

Building Greenways Through Philanthropy

I went for a walk today. It's a walk I take often, several times a week if possible. Typically, I walk along the Detroit River from the Renaissance Center to the Rivard Plaza and back. Sometimes, I even walk the entire three-and-a-half-mile route each way along the riverfront.

For those who call Detroit home, a walk like that was not an option until recently. The downtown stretch of the riverfront was inaccessible to the public. Today, however, thanks to programs like the GreenWays Initiative and the contributions of the Kresge Foundation, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, and many other partners, both private and public, Detroiters can enjoy myriad social, cultural, and recreational activities along the riverfront, from enjoying the sight of children playing in a fountain or on a carousel, to enjoying Detroit River Days or taking in an open-air concert while meeting people from all walks of life.

The GreenWays Initiative, an initiative of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, has supported the construction of more than a hundred miles of non-motorized trails connecting communities in a seven-county region. Those greenways provide recreational opportunities as well as places for relaxation and chances to experience community living in different ways. They are also ideal for hiking, running, walking, cross-country skiing, rollerblading, snowshoeing, and biking.

Detroit isn't the first community to develop a greenway system, but its effort is different from others in that it uses private funds to leverage public resources to underwrite the planning and construction of different segments. And the community foundation, working with other philanthropic institutions as well as nonprofit organizations and municipalities, has provided the coordination and community outreach needed to complete many of the projects.

The process has worked well here in southeast Michigan for two reasons. Public funds for these types of investments typically require matching funds from some other source. The private funds awarded by the foundation through the GreenWays Initiative often serve as the necessary matching dollars. In addition, by aggregating a pool of funds from fourteen different foundations, the community foundation is able to achieve far greater impact with its investments.

The results have been remarkable. The initial investment of $25 million from the community foundation and its philanthropic partners leveraged an additional $100 million in public investment, resources that wouldn't have come to southeast Michigan without the funds provided through the initiative.

These investments are also important for the communities that received grants. In addition to the personal health benefits that greenways can provide, many of the cities where paths have been created have realized economic benefits and positive changes in community identity.

For instance, one doctor purposely moved his clinic next to a greenway in Flat Rock so that he could prescribe use of the trail as a way to improve the health of his patients. In Dearborn, Henry Ford Community College and the University of Michigan-Dearborn have utilized the Rouge River Gateway Corridor to provide pedestrian access to their respective campuses for the first time in their more than forty-year history and at the same time created a link to the commercial and residential districts of West Dearborn, thus providing local schoolchildren with a pleasant, safe option to walk to school.

Residents of southeast Michigan can tell you how challenging it is to get communities and municipal leaders to look beyond their boundaries and share resources for the betterment of the region. Greenways have provided an incentive for these entities to collaborate as never before in the design, implementation, and long-term maintenance of projects that cross jurisdictional lines and affect multiple communities. The Macomb Orchard Trail in Macomb County is a perfect example.

The communities along that abandoned rail corridor worked with the county to develop a shared vision for the trail. While the concept called for a unified project, the implementation would be done in segments, as resources became available. Even though several communities knew they would have to wait before they saw something tangible in their neighborhoods, they stayed the course, implementing the vision and working together in ways seldom seen in the metro region.

Another good example of community collaboration is the Clinton River Trail. That greenway and the Macomb Orchard Trail, which both follow the same abandoned rail corridor, create a continuous pathway that extends almost forty miles the longest continuous former rail-trail in southeast Michigan and passes through more than fifteen different communities. While implemented separately, the groups responsible for the two efforts are working together to make the experience of moving from one to the other seamless, enjoyable, and unique.

Ultimately, the goal of the GreenWays Initiative is to connect all the communities in southeast Michigan and to link the system with projects outside the region. In the meantime, watching as greenways are embraced by a region known for the automobile continues to be a pleasure. That we've been able to develop such an initiative thanks to the generosity of local philanthropic institutions and their willingness to forge partnerships is even more gratifying.

These days, that's something we can all celebrate by taking a walk.

Tom Woiwode is the director of the GreenWays Initiative, an initiative of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan.