Visit Detroit’s RiverWalk on any given morning, and you’ll see a waterfront buzzing with energy. Children look for fish and frogs in the wetlands, while tourists photograph outdoor sculptures and flowerbeds. Teenagers chat noisily from their bicycle seats, while young mothers push strollers and office workers enjoy a brief escape in the sunshine.
Today’s RiverWalk bears little resemblance to its counterpart of two decades ago. Financial woes had left Detroit’s riverfront in utter disrepair, its neglected parking lots choked with knee-high weeds and its dandelions the only flowers in sight. The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, a partnership between the city of Detroit, the Kresge Foundation and General Motors, launched in 2003 to transform the riverfront into a gathering space Detroiters could love.
“All great cities have great public spaces,” said Marc Pasco, director of communications for the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy (detroitriverfront.org). “It was important to us to make the riverfront part of Detroit’s public life.”
Sixteen years later, the RiverWalk ranks as one of Detroit’s favorite green spaces, a chain of waterfront attractions stretching 3½ miles from Cobo Center to Belle Isle. William G. Milliken State Park opened in 2004, forming the RiverWalk’s 31-acre core with a harbor, a lighthouse, wetlands and picnicking and fishing facilities. That same year, Chene Park and its recently renamed Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre opened, joining Hart Plaza as the RiverWalk’s premier music venues.
Civic leaders come to us and say, ‘If Detroit can do this, we can.’ That gives us a great deal of pride.
— Marc Pasco
Cullen Plaza draws families to its fountains, playground and Cullen Family Carousel, furnished with Great Lakes birds and amphibians in lieu of traditional horses. Wheelhouse Detroit rents bicycles, and the Dequindre Cut, a newly revitalized urban rail trail, leads from the RiverWalk to Detroit’s Eastern Market. Other attractions include Gabriel Richard Park, with birding and fishing stations, and Diamond Jack’s riverboat tours.
Rochester Hills resident Laura Ray and her family bicycle the Dequindre Cut to the Detroit River as many as 10 times each summer, to relax, watch people from the RiverWalk’s park benches, enjoy live music and generally absorb the scenery.
“Most cities with a river make use of the waterfront,” Ray said. “But for a long time, that never seemed the case in Detroit. Now, there seem to be improvements every year.”
The RiverWalk’s development does, indeed, continue. A 3-acre park called Atwater Beach opens in August, featuring a sand beach, an expansive lawn and playground, a floating café called The Barge and a programming space called The Shed.
Ongoing projects promise to overhaul still-unimproved properties and extend the RiverWalk’s overall length another 2 miles, from the Ambassador Bridge to Canada to the MacArthur Bridge to Belle Isle.
“Three-and-a-half miles of uninterrupted public space in the heart of the downtown,” Pasco said. “Five-and-a-half miles once the entire project is complete. That’s simply unheard of in a major U.S. city.” The RiverWalk has so transformed Detroit that the city now serves as a model for others.
“Civic leaders come to us and say, ‘If Detroit can do this, we can,’” Pasco said. “That gives us a great deal of pride.”