GW_Detroit planning charette

The GreenWays Initiative

Transforming the Landscape and the Region

An intensive planning process led by the Community Foundation has helped ensure that each greenway project reflects the unique character of its community and has broad-based support.

Did you know?

The GreenWays Initiative:

Launched in 2001

Created more than 100 miles of greenways linking 80 municipalities across seven counties

The Community Foundation leveraged more than $20 million of its own funding to help attract public dollars

Attracted more than $100 million of state and federal funding to the region

Serves as a model program for the nation

Originally published in the Volume 26, Fall 2012 issue.
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When the Community Foundation launched the GreenWays Initiative in 2001, southeast Michigan was far from having a strong culture of support for walking and biking. Investment in non-motorized green spaces was often met with skepticism in a region that was more attuned to the automobile.

Much has changed in just over 10 years, and today our region is a national leader in planning and constructing greenways. More than 100 miles of newly built greenways now link 81 municipalities across the seven counties of southeast Michigan.

This permanent green infrastructure contributes to more inviting and livable communities, provides better access to cultural and recreational resources, and encourages healthier lifestyles.

The work is painstaking and far from complete — there are hundreds of additional miles still under construction or on the drawing board — but it has gained momentum and shows no sign of stopping. In fact, a few years ago, proponents of the greenways movement could cite details of the progress of every mile on the ground; today the network is so extensive and robust, that even accurately mapping its progress is a challenge.

In addition to quality-of-life benefits, the Foundation’s GreenWays Initiative has demonstrated the power of regional cooperation. For years, a coordinated approach to creating biking and hiking pathways remained elusive.

Organizations championing a network of trails often lacked a funding strategy, the backing of individual communities, and/or the support of political leadership at local, state, or national levels. The Community Foundation’s approach was systematic and required that each proposed local greenway be designed to link with adjacent municipalities.

This meant working across jurisdictional boundaries to forge a common vision for what a truly regional system could be.

Greenways contribute to more livable communities, provide better access to recreational and cultural resources, and encourage healthier lifestyles.

To facilitate bringing together a region that has often been fragmented along racial and socioeconomic lines, the Community Foundation held educational seminars to raise public awareness of the economic, recreational, and health benefits of greenways.

The Foundation also sponsored planning meetings and convened more than 1,500 people to think differently about using the landscape to connect communities and the region. These multi-year engagements built the community support, cooperative relationships, and momentum that continue to drive greenways planning and construction to this day. According to GreenWays Director Tom Woiwode, this approach resulted in countywide greenways plans that were agreed upon by 250 municipalities and vetted by the public.

“The GreenWays Initiative is emblematic of the broader goals of the Community Foundation,” says Mariam Noland, Community Foundation president. “It is regional in scope and it interacts with the landscape in lasting ways that build community.

“It is ambitious and a national model for other regions, but it doesn’t lose sight of the fact that its impact is human in scale. All people need access to safe places to get outside and enjoy their surroundings, no matter their age, income, level of ability, or location.”

Greenways Network Map

Each Community Foundation grant has required the recipient to acquire a minimum of a 2-to-1 dollar match of funding from other sources, including the Michigan Department of Transportation, the Michigan Department of National Resources, and federal transportation dollars.

To help attract public dollars, the Foundation has leveraged its own resources — more than $20 million — and those of more than 15 other foundation. We estimate that this investment has attracted more than $100 million state and federal dollars into our region since 2001 to support greenways.

Increasingly, the Community Foundation is drawing upon its expertise in endowment-building to ensure that the system of greenways is maintained. The Foundation has raised close to an additional $13 million to date for greenways endowment.

In Detroit, for example, the Foundation holds endowments to fund ongoing maintenance of the Dequindre Cut and the RiverWalk. Although a permanent solution has not been achieved for the maintenance of all greenways, the Community Foundation is working with many neighborhoods and municipalities to consider how to protect and preserve these precious assets.

The Community Foundation’s process for planning and securing funding for greenways has been a model for Philadelphia, Charlotte, North Carolina, Kansas City, and Missouri, and is under consideration in several other cities. Nowhere else in the country has the development process for non-motorized transport been so extensively guided by a foundation.

Woiwode estimates that he has met or worked with about a hundred different organizations around the country that want to explore the idea of a greenways system. In addition, the Community Foundation was recognized for its leadership with several national and regional awards, including the Detroit Free Press Green Leaders Award in 2010.


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