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In the late 1930s, the people of southeast Michigan were facing a crisis in outdoor recreation—namely the lack of public parks. Parkland, about 6,000 total acres, was so limited for the three million residents of five southeastern counties that long lines of vehicles often formed waiting to find parking places, and picnickers waited hours for places to eat at existing parks. Throughout the region’s 3,310 square miles, there were only four public bathing beaches and, although the region had about 600 lakes, the public had access to only 14 of them. The general public was virtually barred from the lakes and streams that gave the area much of its charm and attraction, and the residents were deprived of the many benefits that arise from participating in outdoor recreation. This was the setting in which the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority was born.

The idea for a regional park system in southeast Michigan can be traced back to the minds and work of two men, Dr. Henry S. Curtis and Professor Harlow O. Whittemore. Dr. Curtis was a nationally recognized expert in recreation, having been director of playgrounds for New York City, the District of Columbia and the State of Missouri. He had written several books on recreation and also had been an organizer and secretary for the National Recreation Association.

Professor Whittemore was professor and chairman of Landscape Design at the University of Michigan. He, too, was interested in parks and recreation and had helped design and develop many public parks and private estates.

In 1936, Dr. Curtis directed a recreational survey of Washtenaw County in southeast Michigan for the National Youth Administration. The survey revealed that there were no public recreational facilities in the county except for one small county park and that all the lakes suitable for recreation were surrounded by private developments. The survey brought Dr. Curtis into contact with Prof. Whittemore, who had long been interested in the recreational possibilities of the Huron River Valley. The Huron River is one of three rivers that course through the five-county region. As the men discussed and explored options for developing recreational opportunities for Washtenaw County, they decided that the most practical solution would be to develop in the Huron River Valley. Their thinking soon turned more grandiose as they began to see the benefits of developing both the Huron River Valley and the Clinton River Valley. Together, the two rivers formed a 120-mile horseshoe around the Detroit metropolitan area with a radius that varied from 25 to 60 miles to the center of the City of Detroit, which had the largest population of the region.

From the beginning, they envisioned a limited-access parkway connecting a series of four to five large (more than 1,000 acres) parks and that ran along the two rivers from the mouth of the Clinton River on Lake St. Clair to the headwaters of the two rivers to the west and then to the mouth of the Huron River on Lake Erie.


A Park System is Born

The plan quickly gained support from other members of the University of Michigan faculty, citizen groups and other public agencies In Washtenaw County. In 1937, a group of private individuals, including university professors and businessmen, formed a committee to advance their plan to people throughout the five-county region. At first called the Huron Valley Committee, it later became known as the Detroit-Huron-Clinton Park and Parkway Association to reflect the expanding scope and support of the plan. Over the course of the next several years from 1937 to 1939, the concept of developing large recreation sites along the two rivers connected by a limited access highway gained support from academics, influential business leaders, local and state public officials and, most importantly, the general public. In 1939, legislation was introduced into the State Legislature that authorized the establishment of a regional park system—Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority. The enabling legislation was approved and signed into law as Public Act 147 of the Public Acts of 1939, with the provision that it be approved by the electorate of the five counties in the general election of 1940.

A massive marketing campaign by the Detroit-Huron-Clinton Park and Parkway Association took place during the next year primarily focusing on the need to provide a regional answer for a regional problem. The region was woefully lacking in outdoor recreation space. The Detroit metropolitan area had about one acre of public parkland per 500 people, while the minimum national standard set by the National Park Service was one acre per 100 people. Separately each local government, city or county could do little in the way of planning, developing and maintaining adequate large recreational facilities because the costs would be prohibitive. Also, the land for parks was not available in the more populous parts of the region yet those populated areas had no power to purchase and create parks outside their boundaries. The beautiful valleys of the Huron and Clinton rivers were ideally suited to recreation sites connected by a landscaped parkway and they were close to the heart of Detroit. Revenues for this new system would come from a quarter mill ad valorem tax on the property within the five counties, as well as through grants from other governmental agencies.

The enabling legislation was approved by a two-to-one margin during the 1940 election. Almost immediately after the 1940 election, however, the issue was raised of taxing residents of a given jurisdiction for parks acquired outside the jurisdiction. Although the residents of Detroit and Wayne County had approved the enabling legislation, the Wayne County Board of Supervisors brought suit against the Authority questioning its legal power to levy a quarter mill property tax. The Board argued that Wayne County, which included the City of Detroit, would pay the lion s share of the taxes, but would not receive the benefits of a large park nearby. The legal issue was resolved in the courts in favor of the HCMA, so in early 1942 the way was cleared for the HCMA to begin collecting funds and to begin acquiring and developing parks. However, the issue of park distribution vis-a-vis the City of Detroit has continued to come to the forefront to this day. More on this point later.


Placing the First Huron-Clinton Metroparks

Having the general location of parks in mind, i.e., along the Huron and Clinton River valleys, the HCMA staff and Board of Commissioners set out to determine where along those routes would be best to place parks. The young park system made use of several studies and information that had been gathered earlier by the Detroit-Huron-Clinton Park and Parkway Association. In the late 1930s, this group had worked to get recreational planning studies completed by the National Park Service and Michigan Department of Conservation. Both provided detailed information on the region’s demographics, physical features and topography, forest cover and agricultural land, industrial and business concentration, road systems and traffic flows, political subdivisions, and current recreational areas and facilities.

The National Park Service Survey on “Recreational Use Of Land” (1938) also identified several recreation planning principles for metropolitan areas.

  • The existing transportation methods, primarily private automobile, made possible the frequent use of recreation areas within a 50-mile radius of the central city, and this zone could be reasonably accepted as the metropolitan regional planning unit.
  • In the general planning of recreational areas, primary importance should be given to preserving natural topographic features such as streams and stream valleys, lakes and lake shores, wetlands areas, forested areas and areas of special historic significance to the region.
  • The responsibility for providing recreational areas in metropolitan regions should be assumed by several different public agencies—the state, the metropolitan park district, the county and the city. The metropolitan park district’s function is to assume major responsibility for the planning, development and operation of recreation areas in the zone extending from near the boundaries of the central city to the limits of the territory that has already become suburban-urban or is tending that way.
  • The central cities will probably continue to acquire and administer recreational areas within their own borders.

These principles strongly influenced the placement decisions made by the HCMA. Using this information, along with the general guidelines for parks development as outlined by the enabling legislation, the HCMA saw its role in providing parks as complementing or supplementing what other public agencies in the region were doing, not replacing the activities and park developments of other agencies. HCMA leaders envisioned large parks of 1,000 or more acres that would be in the zone outside the central city and primarily along the two rivers. Developing a few larger areas rather than many smaller ones would provide economy in operations and would have a variety of facilities and activities so that people would be willing to drive distances, up to 50 miles, to use them. Other characteristics considered in determining whether a site would be suitable for parkland included: a variety of topographical features; next to or including water; marginal economic value for agricultural or industrial purposes; within 50 miles of the region s population concentration (Detroit and adjacent cities); close to existing or planned highways; and a sufficiently large contiguous tract.

In the early 1940s, the State of Michigan through its Department of Conservation was also beginning a major effort to increase its park and recreation lands in Southeast Michigan from its 194 1 total of 14 state parks or recreation areas containing about 955 acres. It identified about 100,000 acres in southeast Michigan as having potential as public parklands. So, early in the park siting process, the HCMA worked with the Michigan Department of Conservation, attempting to locate and develop parks that would complement rather than compete with the other’s parks. In the same report referred to earlier, the National Park Service recommended that the state take the responsibility of providing natural recreational areas in the outer reaches of the metropolitan region (20-50 miles from the central city), i.e., areas that would preserve large tracts for more passive outdoor activities such as hunting, fishing, camping, hiking and picnicking. While the HCMA’s enabling legislation also mentioned these as possible activities in the regional parks, the HCMA Board decided that parks under its control would be more intensively developed to provide swimming beaches, playgrounds, ball diamonds, large picnic areas and winter activities such as sledding and skating. HCMA decided early that its parks would not provide open hunting and family camping (group camping areas were to be developed) and that its individual parks would not typically be as large as the state areas.

Armed with comprehensive and recent information, the guiding principles for recreational planning in a metropolitan area as laid out in the National Park Service report, and its plan to work cooperatively with the state, the HCMA placed its first several parks. Note that there had been no specific survey conducted of the general population about what specific facilities and activities should be provided in the parks. Public recreational land was in such limited supply that a park providing any outdoor activity would be heavily used. But areas for water activities such as swimming, boating and fishing, along with areas for picnicking and hiking, appeared to be the most urgency needed and would be most heavily used.

The first two sites located and developed were St. Clair Beach (now called Lake St. Clair Metropark), along Lake St. Clair just south of the mouth of the Clinton River and about 22 miles north of central Detroit, and Kensington Metropark located along the Huron River at the border of Oakland and Livingston counties about 35 miles from central Detroit. The sites were within 50 miles of the region’s population center, they were located along major roads, water was the central feature of the sites, the tracts were large and the land was of marginal economic value. In fact, much of the land in both of the parks could be characterized as “swamp. The first development to take place in the 550-acre Metro Beach (now 770 acres) was to dredge two million cubic yards of sand from the lake to raise the land level about three to four feet. The first improvement at 3,600-acre Kensington (now 4,357 acres) in 1946 was to construct a dam south of the park along the Huron River, thereby enlarging the existing 70-acre lake to one of about 1,200 acres. Surrounding the lake were morainal hills, some of which had been cleared for agriculture, but many of which were still wooded. The varied topographical features made for a spectacular natural park setting. Two new swimming beaches, fishing and boating opportunities on the lake, along with picnicking, play fields, hiking trails and camping for organized groups on land, made this park an instant success when it opened in 1948. By the second summer of operation, a warm, sunny, weekend day could draw up to 50,000 visitors at Kensington. By the mid-1950s the park had an annual visitation of more than one million people. Today, this park continues to be the most heavily used of all the HCMA Metroparks, hosting about 2.6 million visits per year. Located along a main highway artery for the region when it opened, accessibility to the park improved even more in the 1960s with the construction of 1-96, an east-west expressway coming out of Detroit that touched the southern boundary of the park. Another expressway, US-23, was constructed that ran north-south and intersected 1-96 about three miles west of the park. This gave people from the southern part of the region easy access to the park.

When Metro Beach opened in 1950, it was an immediate success as well. With a manmade lakefront beach almost a mile long, it too hosted crowds of from 35,000 to 50,000 people per day during the warm summer months. Today, it is the second most heavily used Metropark with visitation of 1.25 million to 1.5 million people annually. A major expressway that runs north-south through Detroit and passing about five miles to the west of the park, makes this park easily accessible by automobile to a large part of the region’s population.

Within the HCMA’s first 10 years, a couple other regional parks were planned and development started. Lower Huron opened in 1951 to become the first Metropark located in Wayne County. Both it and Hudson Mills, which was located in Washtenaw County, were more linear parks that had the Huron River running through them. They opened as primarily picnicking parks. Their placement continued the goal of developing a ring of parks around the metropolitan area.

At about the same time these four parks were being developed, the HCMA began to operate three other parks that certainly didn’t fit into the original planning and development scheme as envisioned by the founding fathers and later the HCMA Board. All three became a part of the park system because they were donated. Although all three were very small, ranging in size from 50 acres to 125 acres, and although one wasn’t located along either the Huron or Clinton rivers, the HCMA Board decided that politically it would be best to accept and operate these parks as part of the system. A 115-acre parcel, Marshbank Metropark, was donated by industrialist Howard Bloomer. Its small size and distance from any larger Metropark made operating it difficult. In 1985, it was deeded to a local governmental agency with the stipulation that it continue to be maintained as a public recreational facility. The other two parks, Delhi and Dexter-Huron, were located along the Huron River in Washtenaw County and were near Hudson Mills, the staff of which can economically maintain the two parks. With picnicking and canoeing along the river as the main activities, these two parks were more local in nature, however.


Long-Term Placement and Acquisition Plans

By the early 1960s, the Authority had about 16,000 acres in seven parks either in operation or under development. As it continued to grow and make decisions on where best to place regional day-use parks, the HCMA began working to develop a long-term, comprehensive recreational plan that would facilitate decisions on future land purchases. In 1962, the HCMA teamed with the Detroit Metropolitan Area Regional Planning Commission to develop a regional recreational lands plan for southeast Michigan to 1980. The plan was based on several intensive studies that had been completed by the planning commission in the late 1950s. First, an inventory and analysis of existing public recreational land in the region had been done. Second, a park user’s survey of eight selected regional parks had been completed. A ” home survey, done by mail to gain basic demographic information and to obtain information about non-users of regional parks, had also been completed. Finally, a survey of potential recreational sites was conducted, selecting lands on the basis of natural features that would make them appealing as parks—varying topography, bodies of water, stream and river valleys, and wooded. Using this information, the regional recreation lands plan was developed indicating how much land for regional parks would be needed over the next 20 years, the type of facilities that would be needed and the general location for each park. The plan also estimated the financial ability of the HCMA to provide additional regional day-use parks and it suggested priorities for land acquisition.

To identify the supply of land and natural resources available for parks, the plan divided the five-county area into four natural resource regions: morainal hills, which contained the most rugged topography; upland lake region, which surrounded the morainal hills and had gently rolling terrain with many lakes and meandering streams; lake plain region, which was located between the upland lake area and the Great Lakes waterfront, was flat with only shallow river valleys to provide topographic relief (the City of Detroit and its suburbs are located in this area); and the waterfront, which included land along Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River and Lake Erie.

Land needs for regional parks to 1980 were estimated. Using guide-lines developed in the studies of the 1950s, it was estimated that about 90,000 acres would be needed to supply the day-use demand of the six million people expected to live in the region by 1980. Some of the guidelines used to arrive at this figure were:

  • An estimated 15 percent of the population would be expected to use regional parks on an average summer Sunday;
  • The amount of land needed per person varied with activity, but in general, one acre was needed for every 10 people visiting a regional park per day;
  • Forty miles or one hour driving time was the maximum distance or time a majority of the people would travel to use a regional park facility;
  • Picnicking, rest-relaxation (sightseeing) and swimming would be the primary activities.

To better determine how these 90,000 acres should be distributed within the region, the five counties were divided into three sub-regional areas. The regions were identified based on a comparison of what recreational opportunities were currently available and what the park user survey stated people preferred, and on the proposed regional highway plan. The user survey indicated that ease of movement and quality of the park were the major factors attracting people. The region was divided into three sectors—northeast sector, northwest sector and southwest sector — and the recreational needs of these particular areas were identified. For example, the northeast sector was found to have sufficient swimming and beach facilities, but insufficient picnicking areas, while the situation was just the reverse in the southwest sector, which included Wayne County. Because the southwest sector was already heavily developed, resources for recreation were very limited. Additionally the area was primary glacial lake plain so it wasn’t conducive to providing water-oriented facilities. As a result, swimming and boating facilities were almost non-existent in this sector. The plan did not separate Detroit as a fourth sector. It assumed that Detroit residents were equally close to any of the three sectors and so would use all three.

Examining the growth trends for the metropolitan region and the management policy of the HCMA, the plan estimated the financial ability of the Authority to provide additional recreational facilities. It estimated that of the HCMA should be able to provide 30,000 of the 90,000 acres of regional parkland projected to be needed by 1980.


New Placement Guidelines

With 30,000 total park acres as a goal, the plan also identified guidelines for determining where, in general, the parks should be placed:

  • Distribution of additional park acreage and the facilities provided thereon should be related to the needs and population distribution of the sub-regional sectors identified by the plan;
  • Sites should be located within an hour driving time from the center o.” population of each sector, and close to present or proposed major highways;
  • Advantage should be taken of natural scenic attractions, and the potential for dam impoundment;
  • Sites should be large enough to provide a full range of day-use activities.

The HCMA used these guidelines and the information of the plan, which included specific areas within the five-county region that should be considered for park development, to guide its land purchases for the next 1 5 to 20 years. Beginning in the 1960s and going on into the 1970s and 1980s, the HCMA purchased property for three Metroparks in Wayne County (southwest sector) located along the Huron River—Willow, Oakwoods and Lake Erie. Two focused on water activities with two pools, a marina and boat launch being developed in the parks, while the other focused on preserving a natural area and providing nature interpretation. Three thousand-acre Wolcott Mill Metropark, which is still under development today, was located in central Macomb County (northeast sector). It focused on passive facilities such as history and farm interpretive centers and picnicking. In central Oakland County (northwest sector) a 2,225-acre park was established at the headwaters of the Huron River. Natural area preservation, along with environmental education, was its primary focus. Another park, Huron Meadows, was developed in this sector along the Huron River between Kensington and Hudson Mills. It provided a golf course, natural area with trails and picnicking for people in the western reaches of the region.

The system did not reach the planned goal of owning 30,000 acres of parkland by 1980, but the region s population did not reach six million by 1980, either. The system currently includes a total of 24,000 acres in 13 Huron-Clinton Metroparks serving a regional population of about 4.6 million people. Considerable shifts in the population from urban areas to suburban areas has taken place since the placement of parks, which in general has brought the region’s population closer to the parks.

In general, the placement of parks followed the ideas set forth by the system’s founders, that is, they were located on or close to the Huron and Clinton rivers. In both major phases of parkland acquisition, extensive data were gathered before any purchases were made. In the second phase of development especially, an extensive planning process, regional in scope, was used to guide the placement of parks. Unlike the first phase, the second phase included surveys of users and non-users to identify their needs.


Controversy Regarding Placement

Some people in the region did not agree with the placement of Metroparks as outlined in the plan, however. The placement of the parks had all been predicated on the willingness and ability of people to travel by private automobile to get to the parks. In the first phase of park development it was determined that people would be willing to travel up to 50 miles to visit a large park located in attractive natural settings and having a variety of facilities. Survey data used in the planning of the second phase of park development suggested that parks be within an hour drive of population centers of the sub-sectors. In the late 1960s to early 1970s, leaders in Detroit and Wayne County questioned this basic premise. They argued that 28 percent of the people in Detroit did not have access to an automobile, and many that did were unwilling to travel up to an hour to use a regional park. Yet the people of this area were paying more to support the Metropark system than other parts of the park district.

With political pressure mounting for the HCMA to locate a park within the City of Detroit close to a large concentration of people, the Authority reconsidered its long-range park plan. Because there were no large parcels of land available within the city to develop a new park, commissioners and staff developed plans to renovate and to take over the operation of Belle Isle, a 1,000-acre island park that was Detroit s largest and most heavily used park facility. The plan was well received by city leaders, and in 1970, the voters of the City of Detroit approved the “idea” of leasing the park to HCMA. The plan had a redevelopment price tag of $39 million, well beyond the financial capacity of the HCMA at that time. To pay for Belle Isle s redevelopment and operation, along with continuing the HCMA s plan of purchasing property in other parts of the region, a proposition to increase the HCMA’s property tax levy by a quarter mill was put before the voters of the entire region in 1972. This proposition was defeated, however. In 1973, the HCMA went back to the City of Detroit with another plan to lease the park and to undertake a less ambitious redevelopment effort. This would be funded by an introduction of vehicle entry fees into the Metroparks and by pushing back the timetable for parkland purchases in other parts of the region.

By 1973, a new city administration was in place and it did not look favorably on this new plan. The new administration saw this as giving away control of one of the cities jewels to a regional organization, an outsider. Rather, the new city leaders favored the ideas of the HCMA granting money directly to Detroit for it to use in the operation of city parks, or in the building of smaller parks within the city. The HCMA rejected both of these suggestions. Smaller parks would not be regional in nature and so would be readily criticized by citizens of other counties, and if done, this could lead to smaller parks throughout the entire region, destroying the original purpose of the HCMA and increasing the costs of maintaining the parks considerably.

This issue became so politically sensitive that state legislative hearings were held in 1973 to consider changing the HCMA s enabling legislation. Changes considered and debated during the hearings Included changing the representation on the Board of Commissioners to include a member from the City of Detroit, requiring that the HCMA grant funds to Detroit for operation of city parks, and changing the HCMA’s plans for locating large parks so that they are more accessible to the residents of Detroit. HCMA commissioners and staff countered that HCMA had attempted to have a presence within the City by taking over the operation of Belle Isle, but had been rejected. It had looked for other sizable tracts of land within or near the city to develop, but none existed. Further, HCMA was already providing its piece of the region’s recreational puzzle by preserving large tracts of quality natural areas and operating regional outdoor recreational facilities, and that 50 percent of the Metroparks visitation was from Wayne County. Although no parks were located within Detroit city limits, two Metroparks were already in operation within the county and two more were planned. The founding fathers of the HCMA never intended it to be the only agency responsible for providing the region s recreational opportunities. The area s cities and counties, as well as the state, also played a role in providing various types of outdoor recreation.

No changes were made to the HCMA’s enabling legislation in the 1970s, but to this day, the issue of providing more recreational opportunities for the residents of the region’s central city has not been resolved. At various times through the ensuing years, the HCMA, Michigan Department of Natural Resources (formerly Department of Conservation) and Wayne County all have tried to develop a park and/or recreational presence within the Detroit City limits. Although the Belle Isle initiative failed, and no parks have been established to date, for years the HCMA has offered educational outreach programs to groups within the city through its interpretive program. Since the late 1960s, interpreters have conducted nature and cultural programs for groups throughout the region. In 1995, a 48-foot exhibit trailer, or “Mobile Learning Center,” was put on the road with the specific goal of reaching people within areas of the region who were less likely to be able to visit a park.

For the last couple years, the idea of partnering with other agencies on a recreational project in Detroit has made a resurgence. HCMA, Wayne County Parks and Recreation and the City of Detroit have been meeting to develop an agreement and plan for the renovation and operation of Fort Wayne, a site of about 70 acres within the city that has considerable historic significance to the area. The project is too big and too costly for one agency to take on by itself, but by working together, It is hoped that a viable program can be developed for this site.

It is still too early to know whether the three agencies will succeed in coming together on this effort, but it is clear that the general issue of developing and operating a recreational facility closer to the population concentration within the Authority’s district will be a major issue facing the HCMA in the near future vis-a-vis placement of parks.


The Huron-Clinton Metroparks system is now a mature regional park system in terms of placing new parks. While location is only one variable in determining the successful marketing of a park system, it is a critical factor. The Metroparks’ experience in placing day-use parks over a regional area can be used to illustrate several points for practitioners to consider. Some park professionals may take the “build it and they will come,” approach towards park placement decisions. To the extent that the site has exemplary natural features such as varied topography, water, etc., and/or considerable historical significance, this may be a workable approach. But, this approach can be hit or miss in terms of whether the target market will heavily use a site. In addition to considering the physical features of a site, location decisions also need to consider accessibility, or the time, distance and ease of traveling to a site, as well as the programs and facilities to be offered at the site. Balancing these considerations is difficult, but it is at the core of a successful park placement process.

Locating Metroparks in a ring around the Detroit metropolitan area where the topography was varied and included water, that were large enough to support a variety of outdoor recreational facilities, and that were close to major transportation arteries has been generally well received by the residents of the region in terms of visitation and positive public attitudes. The system’s 13 parks typically host about 9 million to 9.5 million visits annually, and in every user survey that has been done on the parks they have been ranked good to excellent by a large majority of the respondents. Kensington, Metro Beach and Stony Creek, the Metroparks with the most varied natural resources and the easiest access to major highways have proven to be the most heavily used. Stony Creek and Metro Beach have visitation of 1.25 million to 1.75 million people annually and Kensington has visitation in excess of 2.5 million.

Where the HCMA was unable to provide the accessibility desired by the market, Detroit, dissatisfaction developed. The issue of equitable distribution of regional park and park services for the residents of the metropolitan areas central city has been an ongoing struggle and is one that the HCMA and other park agencies will need to work together to resolve.


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