Detroit’s waterfront was once an industrial wasteland. Now it’s a destination that attracts 3 million visitors a year.
John Hartig, internationally renowned conservation scientist and visiting scholar at UWindsor’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research, has documented the renewal of Detroit’s riverfront in a new book, entitled Waterfront Porch: Reclaiming Detroit’s Industrial Waterfront as a Gathering Place for All.
“It’s a story that gives hope,” Dr. Hartig said. “If you can do this in the rust belt, in Detroit — the largest city to go through bankruptcy — you can do it anywhere.”
Hartig was one of the first members of a committee tasked with studying the waterfront and finding a way to reclaim it. That committee gave way in 2003 to the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy which replaced abandoned parking lots and dilapidated warehouses and silos with parks, plazas, pavilions, and trails that draw people from near and far.
Hartig said the next chapter of the riverfront’s story of regeneration lies in the bike and pedestrian lane promised for the Gordie Howe International Bridge, planned for completion by the end of 2024. The lane will connect Detroit’s greenways with those in Windsor and Essex County, supporting active transportation for cross-border commuters, and bicycle tourism for the region, he said. Greenway partners on both sides of the border have created a “vision map” to encourage people to explore both sides of the Detroit River by bike once the bridge is complete.
Detroit had for decades looked longingly across the river to Windsor’s waterfront, Hartig said.
“We kept asking ourselves, ‘Why can’t we have what Windsor has? In many respects, Windsor's waterfront greenway trails were an inspiration for the Detroit RiverWalk.”
Hartig is an award-winning scientist who was born in Vancouver, Wash., but grew up in the Detroit area. He studies the cleanup and restoration of the most polluted areas of the Great Lakes.
He was with the Greater Detroit American Heritage River Initiative when he was appointed to the blue-ribbon committee tasked with reimagining Detroit’s waterfront. Writing a book about the process seemed fitting, Hartig said.
“I was on the team that put the vision together and now I’m telling the story.”
Waterfront Porch is Hartig’s fifth book. It is available through MSU Press.
─ Sarah Sacheli