Windee Brown remembers growing up in Detroit. “It wasn’t easy,” she says. Her family moved away from Detroit when she was eleven. Now, two decades later, she has moved back with four kids of her own. Things are still tough. “Coming back home, it’s a complete shock for me,” she says. “I see the lack [of resources] in my community.”
Brown now works as a community engagement coordinator at the local non-profit organization Brilliant Detroit, which provides needed resources to families in underserved neighborhoods. Its mission is to create “kid success neighborhoods”: areas where young people and their families have everything they need — education, health, and family support — within twenty minutes of home. Now, the nonprofit has launched a program to build pocket parks at each of its twelve “home bases.”
With an eye on closing the park equity gap and fostering kids’ success. The organization has started work on four parks so far and plans to have one at each of its twelve existing and twelve additional planned locations by 2024.
“You’ll have these beautiful spaces in the middle of the neighborhoods that become a hub along with a place to play, raise your children, and actually gather,” says Cindy Eggleton, the organization’s co-founder and CEO.
Pocket parks are usually no larger than a quarter of an acre or about the size of a couple of housing lots. Sometimes criticized for their size or lack of amenities, even these neighborhood nooks have outsized effects on their communities, especially in places like Detroit, where safe and well-equipped parks are hard to find.
According to the Trust for Public Land’s annual ParkScore Index, which evaluates city park systems on five key metrics, Detroit ranks 61st out of America’s 100 largest cities. Detroit’s park system performs particularly poorly on park acreage, investment, and amenities. A recent community needs assessment survey conducted by the Detroit Parks and Recreation Department echoed the low ParkScore rating, as 83% of respondents said they want safer access to green spaces.
The problem is worse yet in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, like those where Brilliant Detroit Works. According to data from The Trust for Public Land, in the nation’s 100 most populated cities, communities of color have access to an average of 44% less park acreage than majority-white neighborhoods, and low-income neighborhoods average 42% less park acreage than high-income neighborhoods.
Brilliant Detroit also makes the most of its small spaces and ensures its pocket parks meet its communities’ needs through a resident-led design process. Brown describes the experience that her kids had at one of the community planning meetings for an in-progress pocket park in Detroit’s Morningside neighborhood where her family lives.
Detroit youth build the things they want to see in their parks using recycled materials. (Photo courtesy Brilliant Detroit)
“They showed the kids a structure or a map and asked what kind of things they would want to see in the park, and they had them come out and draw on a board — it was a really fun experience,” Brown says. The kids suggested a range of amenities, from big-dream ziplines to more achievable relaxing yoga zones and a vegetable garden. The final park design includes pollinator and vegetable gardens, a calm reflection space, play structures, and gathering spaces. Now that designs have been finalized, Brilliant Detroit is preparing to break ground on the project.
Diane Regas, president and CEO of the Trust for Public Land, says collaborative planning processes like this one are the “magic ingredient for creating a beautiful, well-used, well-loved park.”
Playground designer Nathan Schleicher agrees: “The goals of any park, no matter the size, should be to complement the needs of the surrounding community,” he says. Schleicher works as lead designer at Earthscape Play, the company that designed the playground at Ella Fitzgerald Park just down the road from Brilliant Detroit’s Fitzgerald neighborhood location and has worked on pocket parks across the country.
Schleicher suggests that in cities like Detroit, natural materials like wooden logs or climbing boulders can be used as playground features “as a counterweight to the surrounding urbanism.” The pocket park at Brilliant Detroit’s Morningside location will accomplish this with multiple gardens and a natural play structure designed for young children. According to Schleicher, the more natural and abstract a space is, the more opportunities young people will have to use their imaginations, ensuring that trips to the neighborhood park never get old.
Brilliant Detroit's Morningside pocket park will feature multiple gardens and a natural play structure, designed by kids and community members. (Courtesy Brilliant Detroit)
Brown says she hopes this will be the case for her four kids, ages 7, 8, 9, and 14, and her 3-year-old nephew when Brilliant Detroit’s Morningside pocket park is finished. She says she wants to see a space appropriate for kids of all ages to enjoy nature not too far from home. “On a big community basis, I feel it’ll be a place where everyone can come and we all have a responsibility as community members to take care of and show our gratitude to one another at this park,” Brown says. “A nice little park that’s closer to the Morningside would help a lot.”
Eggleton says she hears this from a lot of parents, and that’s why her organization is so committed to creating small but mighty pocket parks in Detroit. “If we can build out an infrastructure where there are these pocket parks, we can fundamentally change how the city is,” she says.
Marianne Dhenin covers social and environmental justice and politics.