Stories of growth, stories of impact, stories from our community.

A Huron River Renaissance

September 7th, 2016 Back to Browse Stories

Outdoor Spaces that Transform Communities

The public spaces in our communities say a lot about our values and priorities. Well-conceived public spaces provide a sense of culture and place. They inspire us, bring us together and even have the potential to strengthen bonds across barriers such as race, income, religion and other differences that sometimes divide us in our private lives and pursuits.

At the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, we invest in outdoor public spaces throughout the seven counties of southeast Michigan because they add so much to the quality of life in our region. In addition to intangible qualities like connectedness and sense of place, they boost property values, improve the environment and help us stay healthy by providing places to bike, walk and experience the restorative benefits of nature. The stories that follow touch upon just a few of the diverse assortment of outdoor places that have been created, improved or sustained with grants from the Community Foundation. We hope you will get out and explore some of these parks and trails in the coming months, or enjoy time with family and friends at your own particular favorites in our region.

Waterways that are clean and well cared for represent a priceless asset. They are a source of beauty, clean drinking water, recreation opportunities and much more. There is a river renaissance occurring in southeast Michigan, as communities take better care of their rivers and attempt to reclaim unused industrial sites for greener, 21st century economic opportunities.

The Huron River is considered the cleanest urban waterway in Michigan. Much of the credit goes to the Huron River Watershed Council (HRWC), which has been protecting the Huron River since its 1965 founding as the first watershed council in the state. Based in Ann Arbor, HRWC serves 73 townships, villages and cities across seven counties, conducting research, water quality assessment, and conservation and restoration activities. The organization also deploys more than 500 volunteers for much of its monitoring and clean-up work.

An innovative initiative at HRWC called RiverUp! is moving beyond conservation to lead riverside communities in a strategy to thoughtfully and sustainably make the Huron River their signature asset and find ways to make it easier for more residents, visitors and tourists to enjoy. This means improved infrastructure and access points as well as new waterfront developments where people can live, shop, dine or enjoy music and art within sight of the river. A 104-mile-long stretch of the Huron River, starting at Proud Lake in Oakland County and ending at Lake Erie, has been designated a National Water Trail by the National Park Service.

RiverUp!, which has received grants totaling more than $155,000 from the Community Foundation for this multi-year effort, involves close coordination among leaders of the five largest riverfront towns and cities along the Huron — Milford, Dexter, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Flat Rock — which are designated Trail Towns. Fostering relationships and public-private partnerships within and among the communities is an important aspect of the project.

Paddlers on the river this fall will see tangible results of HRWC’s efforts along the Water Trail, such as standardized information kiosks dotting the shoreline at liveries and key public parks. HRWC has published the second edition of the Huron River Water Trail Paddler’s Companion, a detailed, waterproof map that includes safety tips, river etiquette, river conditions and skill levels, paddling times, and information about natural and man-made attractions along the trail. Copies are available at

In each of the Trail Towns, RiverUp! champions are raising funds to purchase boat lockers so paddlers can secure their boats while they stop along the route. A visitor study undertaken with Grand Valley State University will help determine who is using the river, the quality of their experience, and the overall economic impact of river use. New marketing and advertising efforts are aimed at promoting river tourism and helping visitors plan multi-day trips that include top attractions in the Trail Towns.

HRWC has leveraged an estimated $30 million to date through the RiverUp! initiative to make improvements along the Huron River Water Trail, ranging from recreational infrastructure to habitat improvements that benefit the fisheries and animals in and around the river. More hard work and funding will be required to fully realize the Huron River’s potential in the civic life of the communities along its banks, but there is strong momentum.