How the City of Grand Rapids is Amplifying Local Voices to Connect Children with Nature

Dialogue between the city’s parks and recreation department and its schools and residents has resulted in a new environmentally-focused park system – built around local history and identity – that aims to connect children to nature.

Plaster Creek, a tributary of the Grand River, runs through multiple parks, neighborhoods and commercial areas in southeast Grand Rapids, Michigan. (photo: Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department)

This is a guest post by David Marquardt and Catherine Zietse.

On a sunny afternoon last fall, neighbors from the Hispanic community in southwest Grand Rapids, Michigan, met to re-imagine the space of Roosevelt Park, a well-loved neighborhood gathering place. The group made its way past the picnic shelter and the playground to a wooded bank near a small creek that unobtrusively winds its way along the edge of the park. Conversation quieted as they paused to listen to the babbling sound of the creek water and enjoy the dappled sunlight bursting through the colorful fall leaves.

During this unexpected respite, a moment of realization occurred and a few of the women looked at each other in excitement. This space, they later explained, was just like many in their home country of Guatemala, where women frequently gather along river banks to weave and share conversations. The women noted how remarkable it would be if there were greater access to places like this in their neighborhood.

This story is just one of many shared by city residents through the robust public outreach component of Grand Rapids’ Parks and Recreation Strategic Master Plan. The story captures the desire of a community to better connect to its environment, unique cultural legacy, and neighbors. By providing a space for these connections to thrive, parks have a great impact on the quality of life of city residents. As one resident described, parks “breathe life into our city.”

“My hope for this city is that we would not only maintain our parks, but proliferate them. Through that, we can allow more children to have experiences of joy and compassion. If we understand the world around us, we can understand each other better.”

These words were shared by one of many young presenters at KidSpeak, an event at which Grand Rapids children and teenagers discuss the value of green space in their everyday lives. Organized by Our Community’s Children (a partnership between the city of Grand Rapids and Grand Rapids Public Schools), this annual event gives children the opportunity to speak directly to local legislators about important issues in their community. With the theme “Planting Seeds for a Greener Grand Rapids,” many young people spoke of moments when an experience with nature made a notable impact on their lives.

The perspectives and stories shared by Grand Rapids youth during KidSpeak were an important part of shaping the vision for future green spaces incorporated in the city’s Parks and Recreation Strategic Master Plan. Other voices heard at farmer’s markets, cultural festivals, neighborhood meetings, park walks and community barbeques across the city also impacted the Master Plan vision and recommendations.

In conversations and comments regarding the Master Plan, the Grand Rapids community made it clear that they want more contact with natural spaces and local culture in their everyday lives.

Students at C.A. Frost Environmental Science Academy take the classroom outdoors. (photo: Blandford Nature Center)

Grand Rapids has a unique ecological legacy created when retreating glaciers shaped the Grand River, a fertile river valley that offers striking vistas from its bluffs. The distinctive nature of the landscape is complemented by the strong identity of the people of Grand Rapids, who take great pride in celebrating the diversity of local art, music and culture in their community.

Today, Grand Rapids parks have great untapped potential to be vibrant spaces reflective of their unique ecological environment and the diverse community around them – but many of the current parks and play spaces lack distinction, making this an ideal time to restore and showcase these parks.

Parks and Schools Shared Use Partnership

The partnership between the city’s parks and recreation department and Grand Rapids Public Schools is critical to attaining an environmentally-focused park system. The relationship between parks and public schools has always been strong in Grand Rapids, and with energized leadership from Mayor Rosalyn Bliss and Superintendent Theresa Weatherall Neal, the future looks bright for the city’s children.

Much like important advocacy opportunities such as the KidSpeak event, the preservation of the Joint-Use Agreement between the parks department and Grand Rapids Public Schools provides a unique opportunity to maximize the potential of every natural area in Grand Rapids and extend the reach of green space into every neighborhood. Future collaboration in these spaces will transform parks and playgrounds into natural classrooms and learning labs where children can authentically interact with the world around them.

Instead of common playgrounds or traditional large fields of grass, the spaces in parks can be used as opportunities for discovering and exploring an area’s unique ecological environment, local history and neighborhood context. This process can be achieved by incorporating art, playground amenities, signage and programming, or other enhancements. Moving forward, the Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department plans to continue intentional engagement with teachers and children in the design of public spaces to create natural classrooms that make encounters with local ecology and culture an everyday occurrence.

Thousands of citizens in Grand Rapids have been engaged in shaping a new community- and environmentally-focused mission for the city’s parks and recreation department. Together, the city and its residents will build on months of inclusive participation to shape an equitable approach to future investment in Grand Rapids’ valued natural areas that will connect the community and its children to the city’s unique ecological environment and cherished local culture.

About the authors:

David Marquardt is the director of Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation.



Catherine Zietse is the planning and community relations coordinator at Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation and one of the department’s team leads in garnering meaningful community engagement in all park work.