Natural Spaces

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Belle Isle Detroit - Willows. Photo by Gordon-S2.8 on Flickr

Developing a meaningful relationship with nature is entirely possible in Detroit. Below is a partial list of places Detroiters can go to experience the restorative rhythms and cycles of the natural world without having to leave the city limits. Did we forget your favorite spot? Email us at greengaragedetroit@gmail.com and we'll be happy to add it.

Original Landscape

Detroit's pre-settlement landscape (as described in this 1702 letter from Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac to Louis XIV) is largely lost, but traces of it remain somewhat intact. Below is a list of the seven largest "virgin forest" sites in the city, as determined by local landscape architect and historic tree preservationist Jim Meyers. Each site includes a patch of land at least the size of one city block containing remnants of the pre-settlement oak/beech savanna landscape. In order of size from largest to smallest, they are:

  • Witherell Woods
    • 90 acres of virgin forest, located inside Palmer Park at 7 Mile and Woodward
  • Pitcher Woods Nature Area
    • Located inside O'Hair Park at 8 Mile and Evergreen
  • Eiza Howell Park
    • Along Telegraph between 96 and Fenkell
    • Specifically, the west Rouge River ridge and northeast valley
  • Riverside Park
    • Jefferson and West Grand Blvd
  • Rouge Park
    • Specifically, the southwest corner of city corp line and Chicago Blvd
    • There are also great sycamores along the actual river, further south
  • Tuttle Playground
    • 8 Mile and Evergreen
  • Patton Park
    • SW corner of Vernor and Woodmere, on the hill

Please note that not all these parks are officially maintained by the City of Detroit, and in recent years, some of them have become more known for criminal activity than natural beauty. You should use caution and your best judgment when visiting. For more specific information about any of the sites, contact Jim Meyers at jimmeyers3.14@gmail.com.

Detroit River

A significant component of the extensive waterway connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, the 32 mile Detroit River has coursed for more than 10,000 years from Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie. Today, portions of the river in the city of Detroit are easily accessible via the Riverwalk, as well as Hart Plaza and the following parks, listed west to east:

  • Riverside
  • William Milliken (State Park & Harbor, includes a small wetland demonstration area)
  • Chene
  • Mt. Elliott
  • Belle Isle
  • Gabriel Richard
  • Owen
  • Stockton
  • Reid Memorial
  • Maheras Gentry
  • Alfred Brush Ford
  • Riverfront-Lakewood
  • Mariner

For more information, contact the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy.

Belle Isle

Detroit's largest park includes nearly 7 miles of Detroit River shoreline and 200 acres of deciduous forest. Nearly 40% of its 982 acres are natural spaces, including the forest and a native prairie. Abundant with wildlife and located along two major migratory flyways, the island is an especially rich destination for birdwatchers. (Over 200 species have been documented, including owls, woodpeckers, geese, swans, and blue herons.)

For more information, contact the Belle Isle Conservancy.

Click here for an excellent 15 minute video about Belle Isle's natural spaces and plant and animal inhabitants.

Elmwood Cemetery

Designed in the late 19th century by Frederick Law Olmstead to mimic southeast Michigan's native landscape, Elmwood Cemetery is a surprisingly idyllic natural oasis, complete with rolling terrain, the Bloody Run stream (elsewhere long-buried, but maybe not for long), and abundant trees and native plants.

For more information about Elmwood's history and landscape, click here.

You can read Olmstead's original report about Elmwood here.