Tag Archives: nature

Rambling report

February 27, 2015

The most recent ramble began at Public Pool in Hamtramck, January’s weekend destination of picnic fun curated by Picnic Club Detroit in conjunction with their exhibition “Picnics in the Polar Vortex”. A mix of ramblers, picnic-clubbers, and random gallery-goers down for whatever chatted, looked at the art, and bravely set out into the 35-degree sunshine.

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We strode east on Caniff amid conversations of the neighborhood’s history (allegedly having been called Ducktown when it was populated in the 1920s — nobody knew why). Scenes of tranquil domesticity abounded — the house with its shoe rack kept on the porch; another with a lush, moss-like carpet over the walkway; a sidewalk painted with wild patterns in celebration of the residents’ wedding day.

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At Mt. Elliott, these gave way to a more barren industrial feel that would characterize the heart of this ramble. We boarded the long hidden pedestrian ramp that would take us to the bridge spanning the rail yards, encountering a woolly but passive beast along the way.

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After the noise and grime and scenic views afforded by the bridge, we made the best of the dull stretch of Mt. Elliott before travelling east again into our destination, the I-94 Industrial Renaissance Zone (more info). The character of the ramble shifted to that of a nature walk as we followed a little path cutting between hills full of brush and burrs.

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Yet all around this outpost of wilderness, the land had been bulldozed clean to make room for decades of promised industrial park, now alleged once again to come to fruition, or at least pavement. The large pink diamond that Picnic Clubbers had found so photogenic was covered in snow. We explored the zone independently for a while, investigating its quirks and borders, lighting smoke bombs in tribute to past picnics, and drinking tea. Our time in the zone felt short despite the wind and overcast sun.

Searching for the pink diamond.

Searching for the pink diamond.

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Visiting with an old Picnic Club friend.

Visiting with an old Picnic Club friend.

Leaving the zone, we checked out some small abandoned churches and stopped to right a toppled street sign in front of one. Crossing Mt. Elliott, a mile south of where we’d initially veered onto it at Caniff, the neighborhood again changed drastically. Miller and the surrounding blocks felt much like Hamtramck, with its dense population of neighbors going about their business and some variety of hustle and bustle happening by a school prominently situated at what feels like a town square. We popped into an unpretentious bakery tucked into the corner of a strip mall for some cheap tasty snacks.

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Checking out the remote location of What’s Fowling and admiring a deluge of ice under the train bridge, we hiked north on Conant, tacking randomly across Belmont to return to Gallagher, and to more warm beverages and cookies, art and books, waiting at Public Pool.

Thanks to everyone who came on this special ramble! Much thanks too to the picnic clubbers who sat the gallery and made sure there was enough picnic magic to go around. Please join Picnic Club Detroit on their next adventure — you can keep in touch via their blog, mailing list, or, God forbid you join the twenty-first century without me, Facebook page.

Speaking of the twenty-first century, although Facebook owns everything, Detroit Area Rambling Network is now on Instagram @detroitrambling. Bonus #darnrambles photo documentation and Detroit #walksnaps every day! It’s beautiful. Check it out.

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Problem parks

July 9, 2014

Although Detroit still has more parks than it can handle, after having leased Belle Isle to Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources and temporarily closing fifty of them last year, there is a persistent trend of Midtown parks lately coming under siege. Here are some troubled areas in the greater 7.2:

  • Redmond Plaza, fenced off and soon to be remodelled by Midtown Detroit, Inc., for benefit of new restaurant goers
  • Unofficial dogpark at Canfield and Trumbull, unfortunately developed this winter into bland rental units.
  • Current construction that has levelled the gangly tangles of art in the awkward slice of Wick Park at Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cass, handed over last October by CCNDC to Cass Plaza Apartments.
  • Imminent threat of development of the neglected city-owned Wigle Recreation Center at Selden and the Lodge, as vinyl village is rumored to soon seep across the highway. The city issued a Request for Proposals in 2011, stipulating that an experienced developer “renovate the existing recreation structure and/or construct a suitable development at the site.” Guess which one they’ll pick. Another RFP was issued last month. Competing rumors say that the park has been adopted by DTE Energy.
  • And, a close call this winter as Cass Park was nearly gifted to Mike Ilitch. Maybe, like a lot of retirees his age, he’s working toward a secret second career as a master gardener.

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The former Wick Park.

The former Wick Park.

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In return, we get a stinky greenway and a speck of Shinola-branded dog park that no pedestrians can look reasonable entering unless accompanied by a well-socialized dog. Not sure exactly what we’re supposed to do with those picnic tables within the park — obviously not for either human or canine use! Although one day I did see a woman eating an apple at one table while her dog obliviously romped.

At least they've got the important stuff.

At least they’ve got the important stuff.

The cool Adopt-a-Park program launched by Mayor Mike Duggan’s office this spring is evidently not applicable when development money is at stake, with none of Midtown’s green spaces on the list for adoption, despite the persuasive factors of density, need, desire, and money for parks. Midtown may not have as many kids as other neighborhoods in the city, but adults need green spaces, too. Parks are for everyone, not just children, drunks, and crackheads. Or dogs.

Fortunately, the park forecast overall is looking up, with Brennan Pools at Rouge Park reopening today after stagnating for two underfunded years. Imagine if Midtown’s crusty Louis Stone Pool complex were similarly revitalized!

Looking pretty sad as of March.

Looking pretty sad as of March.

Not a lot better today.

Not a lot better today.

UPDATE 07.10.14:
Turns out everybody else is keeping an eye on Detroit’s parks, too! WDET has launched Detroit Park Watch, a wonderful program to monitor the condition of city parks this summer after Mayor Duggan pledged to keep 250 of them open, almost ten times as many as were maintained last year.

By visiting a park and reporting its status either online or by text, contributors can enjoy their greenspaces and help keep government accountable. It’s all the best part, but the other best part is how WDET is keeping track of anecdotes reported by park visitors. “Beyond the data, we will actively look to tell stories about these parks (like why is Twork Park called Twork Park?) and those who are taking care of them,” says WDET’s Terry Parris Jr., coordinator of the project. The site also features a great map where you can search for your nearest parks and read reports on their status by WDET or citizen park-goers.

Forest bathing

May 24, 2014

Cities can be stressful places. Crowds, traffic, crime, grime, offices, jobs, chairs, factories, chemicals, freeways, too many odiferous White Castle locations — it wears on a body. The industry formed around reducing stress to manageable levels is vast and worth some stressful number of dollars. Fortunately, many of the ways to counteract the stresses of living and living in cities are cheap and abundant. Breathing deeply, walking around, and finding some nature are obvious antidotes.

Finding nature, even in a city known for its wilderness — its pheasants and hawks, coyotes and foxes, fields of tall grass and sprawling mulberry trees — can be tricky. Officially, there’s Belle Isle, of course, and Rouge Park, and, if you’re really desperate, the meager route of the concrete-encased Dequindre Cut Greenway. But the pursuit of the real forest experience, free from the sounds and scents of civilization, encourages some Detroiters to trek outside the city.

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What is it about nature that is so deeply relaxing to human physiology? Studies have demonstrated that simply looking at pictures of woodsy scenes calms the brain. Scientists have also been reviving and formally investigating the effects of supposedly traditional practices like forest bathing. Forest bathing! Just the phrase sounds like a balm for our frenetic selves. The Finnish Forest Research Institute is conducting a multi-year study on forests and human wellbeing, and South Korea is investing $140 million in a new National Forest Therapy Center. Japan is the leader in forest medicine, with 48 forest therapy trails as of 2012, and 52 more planned in the coming years. This is a big step beyond, for example, the healing gardens boasted by American hospitals that want to bill themselves as more progressive, holistic, green, and genuinely caring.

The Japanese government coined the term for forest bathing in 1982 — shinrin-yoku, defined as “making contact with and taking in the atmosphere of the forest.” Inspired by ancient Buddhist and Shinto practices, it was a nondestructive way to use Japan’s forests, which cover two-thirds of the country, and to soothe a perpetually wired, frenetic society that has the third-highest suicide rate in the developed world. The government funnelled about $4 million into forest-bathing research between 2004 and 2012. Studies had already shown that hanging out in the woods benefits anxiety, depression, creativity, and cognition, but nobody really knew what was happening to the body on a molecular level.

Two scientists have shaped careers around coming up with an answer to this puzzle. Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a physiological anthropologist at Chiba University, might be forest medicine’s biggest proponent. He’s studied the myriad effects of nature on the body, comparing nature walks versus city walks according to various measures of stress — biological markers like cortisol levels, sympathetic nervous system activity, blood pressure, heart rate — and subjective ratings of moods, anxiety, and depression. Florence Williams, author of Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, visited one of Miyazaki’s research stations in 2012, writing compellingly about her experience for Outside Magazine. As Miyazaki told her, “Throughout our evolution, we’ve spent 99.9 percent of our time in natural environments. Our physiological functions are still adapted to it. During everyday life, a feeling of comfort can be achieved if our rhythms are synchronized with those of the environment.” In short, because humans evolved in nature, it’s where our bodies feel most at ease, even if our minds don’t know it.

Qing Li, an immunologist at Nippon University in Tokyo and chairman of the International Society of Forest Medicine, has also made some fascinating advances. Li’s work deals with identifying the individual natural components that make our bodies respond in such favorable ways. Li suspected that, in addition to the sight of nature, the scent of evergreens and other trees had a considerable role in the health benefits of forest bathing. He tested this by leaving subjects in hotel rooms with cypress aromatherapy, finding that their numbers of natural killer cells, which protect against infection and cancer, had similar increases with the simulated indoor “forest” and a visit to the real thing. Anyone up for a walk in the woods with some cypress aromatherapy tied around their neck?

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Aims of forest wellness absent, Detroit isn’t without significant arboreal attention. The Greening of Detroit has been reforesting the city for the past 25 years, planting over 81,000 trees. It sponsors plantings all over the city every few weeks, and residents can apply to plant trees in their neighborhoods with the Greening’s assistance. This helps, but it’s not meant to make a forest. Last week, Hantz farms did a massive tree planting over 20 acres on the east side, the beginnings of what will be Detroit’s first forest in a while.

Volunteers spent Saturday morning plugging 15,000 trees into pre-dug holes at a cost of about $20,000, an amount Hantz Farms expects it will take a long time, if ever, before the tree farm breaks even. The new saplings are white birch, bur and swamp white oaks, flowering dogwoods, and sugar maples. No cypress, no firs or pines, Hantz Farms? Too bad. There are plans to tap the maples for syrup when they come to a riper age. As part of their hopelessly controversial deal in purchasing the land from the city, they’re forbidden to sell anything, making the more traditional agriculture they had in mind unfeasible. Instead, the trees will beautify and be a showpiece for what is possible with a large-scale urban farm. Nice, huh? For now, there’s not a lot to look at. A video drone captured a disorienting view of the neat rows of holes in the ground.

How open to the public will the new woodlands be? Can visitors freely wander through the rows and admire the trees? Hantz Farms hopes that the soon-to-be majestic stands of white birches and flowering dogwoods will attract visitors to the neighborhood, “a place of beauty in the lower east side that people can go out of their way to see in the spring,” as president Mike Score said in a radio interview. Hopefully this will be more meaningful than just a slow drive through the streets, a parade of idling vehicles offsetting the good atmosphere generated by the trees. Hantz Farms has been glowing with praise from the immediate community, about 200 of whom were believed to have attended the tree planting. According to surveys, 94% of neighbors supported the project. That’s much better than recent outcries over the Greening of Detroit’s dendroremediation projects, where frustrated residents voiced fears of air pollution as contaminated soil was unearthed. As John Hantz told the Free Press on Saturday, “It’s really a community deal happening today,” he said. “How many more people are out walking now? This will be the first summer they can walk to church instead of drive because they feel safe.” Let’s hope this is what happens!

Paradoxically, other dreams for significant reforestation in Detroit have been regarded with little but skepticism. Encouraging the growth of a dense forest was suspected to result in more places for criminals, rapists, drug users, and other objectionable types to hang out. If open spaces deter crime, some of the homes adjacent to Hantz Farms’ woodland might be in trouble, situated immediately next to the new trees. Will the trees be equipped with security cameras? It’s a strange deal to live in a city that turns increasingly wild as the years ebb — the quiet woods a tradeoff for the peace of mind in living within easy sight of each other that urban neighbors expect. Whatever the eventual social outcome, at least, according to data from researchers like Miyazaki, Li, and others, it might do wonders for residents’ blood pressure.

Migration

October 3, 2013

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Where are all of Detroit’s signature pheasants hanging out lately? Accustomed to seeing them often, to being taken by surprise at their sudden ascent as I tromp through a field, the dearth of them is eerie. Their staccato honk hasn’t woken me up in the morning as they roost and forage in the yard, and investigations of the neighborhood and nearby fields haven’t scared up any, either. Are they missing?

The number of pheasants in Detroit has oscillated since their introduction in the 1850s, according to a wildlife specialist from the Department of Natural Resources. Some say their presence goes back further, to Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac’s establishment of Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit, when he allegedly had crates of pheasants imported from his hunting lodge in France. However they got here, pheasant populations in Michigan began to shrink in the 1960s and 70s, a decline most likely attributable to toxic pesticides. That admission of fragility seems peculiar, and sad, for a bird that seems so at home in Detroit’s littered fields and heaps of discarded tires.

What’s certain is that over a six-year period in the 1980s, the DNR struck a costly deal with China to import thousands of pheasants to southeast Michigan, resulting in what seemed like robust numbers, until now. All stories appear as unlikely as the bird itself, walking nonchalantly down the pavement. What is causing the pheasants to abandon our streets? Perhaps, I hope, their paucity is only a misperception, and somewhere in the city pheasants are multiplying with wild abandon.

Beauty

March 12, 2013

What makes one thing more beautiful than another? Sometimes beauty can be measured, like the symmetrical arrangement of facial features; other times, it remains wholly elusive. What makes this landscape lovelier than that? What makes one street more appealing than the next? It’s a simple matter to characterize a neighborhood’s well-being by population flow, crime statistics, health trends. As Frank Hebbert of OpenPlans says, “But it’s harder to establish the softer feeling: Is this a place I like? Would I prefer the street on the left to the street on the right? That’s not a metric, but a gut feeling about comparing places.”

This last quandary is what the people at OpenPlans have set out to quantify and solve. For Valentine’s Day, they launched the Beautiful Streets project, which asks visitors to choose the more appealing scene out of the two options presented on the page. The site is populated by images of Philadelphia from Google Street View.

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Not everything in Philadelphia is beautiful, and this is what works so well about this project — its unabashed realism, albeit through a fisheye lens. Fortunately, there is a ‘skip’ button for each pair. While sometimes one image seems almost objectively fairer than the other, it is more often than not hard to tell which streetscape would better lend itself to a good stroll. Ask yourself: what are my priorities? Trees, shrubs, sidewalks, density and attractiveness of buildings? What about the instances when these fine things are in competition? It’s challenging, too, to base a judgement solely on the content of the image, without yielding to the enticements of good composition or blue skies, the distortion of lenses and the fleeting smudges of cars. It’s tricky enough deciphering where the sidewalk leads in the umbrage of trees, and whether it would be nice to walk in their shade, or peering past the bridge to see whether the shops are worth visiting without having to assign a superlative to either potentiality.

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Whether Beautiful Streets will become the data goldmine the planners intend is a dubious unknown, but meanwhile it’s fun to flip through the images, taking a gander at the views of human nature on display. Read more about Beautiful Streets at the Atlantic, or help make the Beautiful Streets project more meaningful with your input!

Studying walking yields pedestrian advice:

December 19, 2012

Don’t study while you walk. Or do much of anything else. Just walk.

Drivers have been encouraged to keep “thumbs on the wheel, not on the text” since Michigan enacted a ban on texting and emailing while driving. But what about cyclists and pedestrians?

In a study published last week, researchers from the University of Washington took to the streets to qualify distractions and quantify seconds it took to cross 20 risky Seattle intersections. Almost one-third of pedestrians were inattentive while maneuvering. Among the 1102 people studied, the most popular ambulatory activity was listening to music, which accounted for 11.2% of distracted pedestrians. The distracted pedestrians were also seen text messaging (7.3%) and making phone calls (6.2%).

Technological diversions correlated with speed and safety in clearing intersections unscathed. Worst off were the texters, who took an additional 1.87 seconds to navigate the intersection compared to attentive pedestrians — almost 20% longer. They were also nearly four times more likely to “display at least 1 unsafe crossing behaviour (disobeying the lights, crossing mid-intersection, or failing to look both ways)”. People listening to music walked faster through intersections compared to both phone users and undistracted pedestrians.

Smithsonian’s Smart News blog covers a few past studies on distracted pedestrians injuring themselves.

It’s not all grim tidings for walkers — on the other hand, researchers found that walking without the phone may counteract the frazzling of nerves that technological devices can promote. In a recent study by researchers at the University of Utah and the University of Kansas, unplugging and taking a walk in nature increased performance on a creative problem-solving exercise by an incredible 50%.

Previous studies have established that demanding cognitive functions, including selective attention, problem solving, inhibition, and multi-tasking are crucial to getting by in our media-saturated surroundings, and that the systems responsible for these functions can easily become overtaxed. Exposure to nature can restore functioning in these areas. Through this study, researchers have been able to add improved creative performance to the list of benefits realized by spending some time outside. Whether that is due to the walking, the nature, or to another variable is yet uncertain, but surely the message is clear enough.