Detroit Regional Chamber > Detroit Policy Conference > Spotlight On: Placemaking and Green Design

Spotlight On: Placemaking and Green Design

January 11, 2023

Two organizations making massive investments in the greenspaces and parks in the city of Detroit are the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation and the Gilbert Family Foundation. Rhonda Walker, Morning Anchor at WDIV-TV 4, sat down with J.J Tighe, Director of the Parks and Trails Initiative at the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, and Laura Grannemann, Vice President of the Rocket Community Fund and Executive Director of the Gilbert Family Foundation to discuss what the funding means for the community. 

Community Engagement is Key to Making Spaces People Enjoy

A mantra and core value at the Gilbert Family Foundation is “you’ll see it when you believe it,” which is the idea that you can’t get to the outcome you want unless you believe it can happen. With project timelines often spanning decades, it can take years to see the results of each step in the process, which is why building a strong foundation and doing it well is key.

“We don’t want people to just survive, we want communities to thrive,” Grannemann said, adding that part of this is bringing the community into the conversation to understand their wants and needs long-term.

Tighe agreed, sharing that community engagement is the starting point of evaluating any project.

“It’s not just about presenting a project to the community, but about that authentic community engagement and asking intentional questions, active listening, and incorporating that into the design or plan,” he said. “It is an ongoing process that evolves through a project’s lifecycle.”

Tighe’s team even went so far as taking community members to different cities to gain inspiration for the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park to see the possibilities. Tighe said the timeline can be long when done right, such as with the Joe Louis Greenway. But he predicts that this won’t be the last substantial investment they make in this type of project.

The Joe Louis Greenway and Other Investments

Planned as a 27-mile loop that connects both sides of the Detroit Riverfront, the Joe Louis Greenway has been made possible through coordination among leadership from all segments of the community, including residents, nonprofits, the city, and the public and private sectors. Grannemann said the Greenway’s best part is its connectivity that helps people access economic opportunities and recreation.

“When we can create loops like the Joe Louis Greenway, it’s very transformational,” she added.


The ribbon-cutting ceremony is always a satisfying end to a project, especially when it has been many years in the making. But how are these spaces being maintained and operated after the reveal? Tighe shared that 20% of the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation’s $100 million commitment was set aside for endowment funds to support their spaces’ sustainability to ensure a “fighting chance” to be around for use by future generations.

A critical component of park and greenspace maintenance is having a well-trained workforce. With projects like the Joe Louis Greenway creating many employment opportunities for residents, the Gilbert Family Foundation is planning to build out one of their workforce development ambassador programs for public spaces that will help people get trained to learn how to maintain, take care of, and operationalize public spaces.

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