Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Green City Diaries: This land is our land, part 1

Photo by Marvin Shaouni
(originally published 7/10/12 in Model D)

I found myself thinking about public space in Detroit a few months ago while mowing a sizable swath of Lafayette Park with a borrowed push mower.

A few dozen picnic guests were set to arrive in a matter of hours, and after several days of heavy rain, the grass in the park was calf-high. I’d been willing the city to mow all week. "Please mow by Sunday" became a mantra, repeated each morning after I woke up and looked down from my apartment at the park below.

But the grass cutters, with their efficient, industrial riding mowers, never came. (It must have been near the end of the park’s 12-day mowing schedule.) Picturing itchy picnic guests politely pretending to have a good time, I decided to take matters into my own hands.

Detroiters, I thought while trudging behind the lawnmower, make this kind of decision all the time. Living as we do, 700,000 or so in a city intended for 2 million, we take ownership of public space that has been otherwise neglected, tending to it, rejuvenating it, and encouraging its active use.

We do this because we want a better quality of life. We do it because the city can’t always afford to. And we do it in different ways, from simply mowing the grass every once in a while to cleaning up vacant lots or trash-strewn alleys (sometimes planting food or flowers in them afterward), or adopting and maintaining officially closed parks.

When we think about a more sustainable Detroit, which must include our continued social and economic health in addition to environmental concerns, this practice is key. It’s clear that the city is not going to experience a sudden population boom to help fund the maintenance of our public spaces anytime soon, yet these spaces remain. Under such circumstances, they require our care to reach their full potential. Viable public spaces are where we meet and talk with our neighbors. They’re where we play and get fit together, where we share skills and learn from one another. They provide us with the opportunity to pass on our neighborhoods' stories, and to create safer environments for all who use them.

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