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Dream green: What do Grand Rapids parks need?


No matter how far a reach, or how out-of-the-box an idea, Grand Rapids’ Parks and Recreation Director David Marquardt says over the next two days he wants the public to tell him exactly what they want to see happen with the public parks in their neighborhoods — especially the ideas that dare dream big. 

“What we’re shaping these public outreach efforts around following this weekend is the ‘make a wish’ slogan,” says Marquardt, who will gather alongside fellow city officials, community leaders, and members of the public for the first of two open houses hosted by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. “Make a wish for your park. If you could have anything in your park, what are the sort of things would you like to see?”

A good example, Marquardt says, is Grand Rapids’ Mayor Rosalyn Bliss, who during her recent State of the City address called attention to the growing importance of public parks in the future development of the city, saying she is committed to ensuring that, in the future, there is a public park within walking distance of every child in the city.  

“That’s a huge deal,” he says. “That’s a big goal, and it’s a bold goal, but it’s one I’m very excited to get behind.”

The open houses come as a precursor to the department's upcoming task of developing the new five-year Parks and Recreation Master Plan, which builds on the sweeping transformation already underway following residents' stamp of approval on implementing a seven-year dedicated parks millage to provide an estimated $30 million in funding for repair, rehabilitation, and new improvements to parks, pools and playgrounds. 

Coming back into focus

Tracey Flower is Executive Director at Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, which was founded in 2008 as an independent, citizen-led nonprofit that operates separately from city government while still working closely alongside it to identify specific park improvement initiatives, generate resources, and mobilize people to help project and enhance public spaces and parks throughout Grand Rapids neighborhoods. 

Flower says you don’t have to look much further than the millage approval for proof that parks are becoming more important to Grand Rapidians, who aren’t alone in the collective refocusing of urban communities on public parks — it’s something that’s been happening for the past decade or so nationwide.

“I think that people have largely…really started to wake up and realize how critical and how valuable setting aside those public spaces are to the health of the community. We’ve even been seeing a lot of discussion over the past few years in terms of research about how important it is for children to have an opportunity to engage with nature and learn in nature,” Flower says. 

“I think there is value in everything from having playgrounds where kids can be creative and interact with, to having an opportunity for everybody in general to engage with each other in those public green spaces, which is especially important in an urban setting where so many living spaces don’t have that kind of space," she continues.

Parks get schooled on tapping full potential

Friends of Grand Rapids Parks reports that in 2014, the city of Grand Rapids had 74 city-owned parks in its entirety, totaling 11,595 acres of land earmarked for parks, recreation, and open space holdings within city limits. 

As far as unofficial public parks go, the total amount of space and ownership status are a little less clear, but those are all the kinds of things the city hopes to figure out through discussions with not only the public but also community partners — and none are more relevant than the Grand Rapids Public School District. 

GRPS spokesman John Helmholdt says that over the past few years, the district has been working consistently alongside the city in a commitment to sustainability goals, which have a lot to do not only with maintaining green space and increasing tree canopy, but finding ways to make the most of all of the underutilized outdoor areas.

“A lot of discussions center around utilization of land owned by GRPS — which is great in number and geography throughout city,” says Helmholdt, using the example of Coit Park, which sports a City of Grand Rapids sign and is treated like a public space, but is legally owned by the district. 

Greater than logistical strategizing, Helmholdt says, are not only the avenues the district can open to the city for using outdoor space, but also the ways the city can facilitate educational opportunities in their outdoor spaces, too, an idea re-enforced with a recently awarded $25,000 planning grant from the National League of Cities to fund efforts focusing on reconnecting children with nature. 

“We’re required to teach the core content standards, also known as Common Core, but how can we incorporate environmental education alongside that natural play? For example, when we’re doing physical education at schools like the Grand Rapids Public Museum school, which has no indoor gymnasium, we have to engage kids in outdoor activity in spaces,” Helmholdt says, noting that is where public parks like Ab-Nab-Awen Park can facilitate whole new ways to engage students outdoors. 

He says he hopes that over the weekend the parents of students in the district will feel motivated to attend the open house meetings and join the discussion, seeing the process very fittingly, as anyone who deals in knowledge might, as an opportunity to learn. 

“It’s a learning experience. It’s an opportunity for children to understand the role of government, the role of public opinion, and to have a vested interest as civic leaders in what’s happening in their neighborhoods and city,” he says. “Kids can relate to a discussion about how we can improve playgrounds and really, they know our playgrounds better than any adults do…It’s important students be engaged, and recognize that they have a voice, and that their voice will be heard, and that action will be taken as a result.”

The first open house will be held at 122 Division Ave. SE on Avenue for the Arts First Friday beginning at 6 p.m., with the second held Saturday from 8-11 a.m. at the Fulton St. Farmers Market, located at 1145 Fulton St. E. Can’t make it? Click here to fill out an online survey with your thoughts or find the form using Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation website.

To learn more about cool programs like Parks Alive or the Urban Forest Project that are happening right in your collective backyard, check out Friends of Grand Rapids Parks online or find them on Facebook.

Written by Anya Zentmeyer, Development News Editor
Images courtesy of Grand Rapids Parks & Recreation 


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