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A GreenWay Runs Through It

Picture it: A plain gray slab of concrete, perhaps four foot wide. It's large enough for a couple to walk side by side or a couple of kids to race along. It's surrounded by trees, a green field and two newly constructed playgrounds.

This is not a scene out of Rochester Hills, Bloomfield Township or Birmingham. It's within the city of Detroit. It's called a greenway, and it will link some of the D's greatest assets: Its people, neighborhoods and cultural centers.

Recently, I met with the Tom Woiwode, director of the GreenWays Initiative for the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. We took a tour of this project, which is connecting the city, Mexicantown, Corktown and part of Dearborn's Salina business district. It is one of the first projects these groups have ever worked on together. And, chances are, it won't be the last.

As Woiwode notes: Urban landscapes need to be people-friendly. That is how you will get people to stick around…and more families to move in.

“It's always been about the community,” Woiwode emphasized. “You start connecting these groups, and you'll connect the community.”

Woiwode and I met at Patton Recreation Center to tour the GreenWay that will join Detroit and Dearborn. Its official name is Southwest Detroit/Dearborn Greenway or the Rouge River Gateway Link. Yes, there will be signs there to help identify it as the project grows (at least through 2012).

It is a bike path, walking trail, outdoor recreation area and more wrapped up in one long cement stretch. Yes, some might say it is a glorified sidewalk. But it is something for the residents to enjoy and be proud of for years to come.

“This is an attempt to make this neighborhood more attractive to residents and businesses,” Woiwode said.

I can just see the teens meandering, the tots running, the newlyweds strolling. A walkway like this makes you slow down, talk to neighbors about their lawn. The kids get to play together. As a young mother, I loved a smooth path to cruise the stroller along; meeting other people was a saving grace then – and it still is now.

Some background: The Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan was founded in 1984 as a permanent community endowment, built with gifts from hundreds of individuals and organizations committed to a strong future for southeast Michigan. Since its founding 25 years ago, the Community Foundation has distributed more than $390 million in more than 34,000 grants to charitable projects in southeast Michigan's seven-county area.

The Community Foundation's GreenWays Initiative is a five-year program to fund the design and construction of greenways, provide training and technical support to organizations, agencies and municipalities that were undertaking greenways development and raise public awareness about the benefits greenways bring to local communities.

The GreenWays Initiative has been linking the communities of the local seven-county region. This $15 million non-profit program has served as a means to assist communities, many that have never worked together before, in financing the development of greenways. The program has even been cited as a national model for other communities.

The concept begins along Detroit's riverfront and over the course of years, will connect the region with miles of these trails. Since its inception, grants have been awarded by the Community Foundation for projects that, when completed, will have been used to acquire more than 575 acres of land, construct more than 100 miles of greenways and link 80 different cities and towns to neighboring communities.

For example, the organization is a major contributor to the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy's Riverwalk project, which extends a total of 4.7 miles, providing Detroiters with beautiful spaces for enjoying their city outdoors. Other projects include the Dequindre Cut, which is in the process of linking to Detroit's riverfront and to its farmers market – The Eastern Market. A trail that follows the Rouge River links the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus, Henry Ford Community College and other landmarks together.

Let's face it: Detroit doesn't have the money to do a lot of this work right now. And there is plenty of land available. It's a great way for the community to get the green spaces it needs; a so-called “real city” demands it.

“If you view this as a collection of sidewalks, I would agree. But you also could think of it as a way to knit the community together and revitalize neighborhoods. That's a different conversation, and it's one the Community Foundation wants to have,” Woiwode said.

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