Parks, Recreation and Water in Flint, Michigan

March 1, 2016, Department, by Samantha Bartram

Contaminated water flows from a faucet at a Flint Hospital in October of 2015.As this article was being finalized, a four-member chemical exposure team from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was on its way to Flint, Michigan, to investigate the latest scourge visited upon this city’s already-poisoned residents. In addition to ingesting water with dangerous levels of lead and other chemicals for months, many Flintstonians discovered painful skin rashes all over their bodies. The Assessment of Chemical Exposure (ACE) investigators will attempt to determine the cause of the rashes — ask anyone on the ground in Flint, however, and they’ll readily supply the answer: it’s the water, stupid. 

The disastrous decision to switch the city from the Detroit water system to an untreated supply pulled from the Flint River— initially projected to save the city $5 million over two years — is now expected to cost anywhere between $750 million and $1.5 billion to fix and has caused irreparable damage to the health of hundreds of the city’s residents, particularly the children. This is just the latest indignity suffered by the mostly low-income, mostly African-American community, which over decades has seen its municipal services — including parks and recreation — decimated beyond recognition or eliminated completely. What recreational services residents do enjoy are mostly provided by the larger Genesee County Parks and Recreation Department. In a cruel twist, Genesee County was never required to switch from its water source, even though Flint, the county seat, was. That meant people could still visit Genesee County-operated community centers without fear of the water — its parks have no  running water to begin with, and there are no aquatic facilities apart from lakes. 

This writer sought to learn how the water crisis in Flint has impacted parks and recreation there — what was gleaned is a portrait of a town that has been serially abused by the public officials entrusted with its care, but which will not be defeated even in the most trying of times. 

‘Continue to Provide, as Best We Can’

Flint has no independent parks and recreation department. What it does have is an Office of Planning and Development, which oversees planning, zoning, community and economic development, business services, blight elimination and neighborhood stabilization, and, parks and recreation. There are three employees listed under the parks and recreation masthead. They are planners and the scope of their job encompasses much more than the standard fare of our field, even considering park and recreation’s dubious motto to “do more with less.” Still, says Adam Moore, planner I with the city of Flint, “We’re operating, still making plans for new projects, still implementing projects — obviously there is a crisis going on, but conversations about parks and rec are still ongoing every day.” 

Similar statements are a common refrain when speaking with Flint residents. Despite the daily anxiety of knowing their water is unsafe, there is still a determination to pull together and press on. “We’re going through hard times right now, but it’s not a new thing for us to face challenges here,” Moore says. He continues by listing a number of projects and capital improvements underway in his city: enhancement of wetlands, installing natural drainage systems, building boardwalks, crime prevention through environmental design, establishing an environmental education program in local schools and spearheading the recent community build of a playground. “One-hundred-thirty-five people came out in cold, wet, down-pouring rain to build a playground with us — some were crying thinking about everyone who came out to support the city,” Moore says. 

Flint Parks and Recreation, such as it is, provides no recreational programming — any such organized activities are handled by Genesee County. Flint has three active community centers, all of which are leased to or managed by outside groups. The city has almost 70 parks of varying size under its purview, while its larger properties — Flint Park Lake, Max Brandon Park, Thread Lake Park and McKinley Park — operate under the auspices of Genesee County. Park maintenance is handled by contractors and any related duties are accomplished through creative partnerships with friends groups, Keep Genesee County Beautiful, Genesee County and other entities. Moore said his colleagues in municipal government are doing all they can to maintain normal operations and reassure residents: “Our role to play here, and we do have a role to play in terms of parks, is to continue to provide, as best as we can in limited means, quality outdoor recreation and fitness spaces inside our neighborhoods, and to educate the public and work on park naturalization and expansion of rain gardens, wetlands and other features that can help improve the quality of ground and river water in Flint.”

Meet the New Boss

Despite the wary national eye that seems perpetually fixed on the problems in Flint, just four months ago, Flint native Brian Larkin stepped up to lead his city’s Office of Planning and Development. Larkin is already well-versed in local politics, having previously served as the director of core initiatives at the Flint and Genesee Chamber of Commerce, as well as a stint as the associate director of the Michigan Governor’s Office of Urban and Metropolitan Initiatives in Flint. Larkin attended high school in Flint and left only to attain his bachelor’s degree at Morehouse College and his master’s in planning at Florida State University. 

With credentials like this, Larkin could presumably enjoy his pick of high-level administrative jobs anywhere in the country, but he prefers to keep his talents at home where he can give back to the city that, for all its challenges, helped raise him. “There’s been a lot of attention focused on this area, but I see this as a time for opportunity,” Larkin says. “It’s an opportunity to address longstanding challenges and issues. Currently, we’re experiencing this public health crisis, but it’s a result of generations of decisions.”

Reserved but optimistic, Larkin believes that Flint will overcome the water crisis and emerge as a stronger, better-managed city. “At times in this country, we’ve been able to have heartfelt discussions about how we provide infrastructure, fund cities and support a high quality of life, but, right now, that system is broken,” he says. “The quality of open spaces, healthcare provisions, the system of revenue structures for urban centers — it’s broken and right now Flint is at the helm of that discussion. When all is said and done, we will have a better perspective on how to address these quality-of-life issues for urban center residents.”

For now, Larkin will oversee close collaboration with local public health agencies as his constituents continue to seek information and comfort in their daily lives. He underlines the importance of Flint’s parks and community centers as places where people can regain a sense of normalcy amid swirling rumors and slow-to-respond state officials. “Our community centers, parks and open spaces have catalyzed behind this experience,” he says. “They’re communal places serving as distribution centers for bottled water and places for residents to convene.” Park and recreation professionals know this is a core function of community centers — they should function as safe places for socialization and leisure, as well as the heart of neighborhoods where people can get basic information. Flint’s centers, even as their water fountains are shut down and covered up, even as cooking meals for seniors has been suspended, continue to provide this core function. “Active participation has remained high, but these spaces are also key places to disseminate information,” Larkin says. “Residents are concerned and the community centers are key in addressing their needs and resources, even though the consumption of water has halted.”

Larkin and his staff are still awaiting test results of the water sampled at Flint community centers and public water fountains. Based on those results, he’ll have a better sense of when things can return to normal. “Residents are hearing the information that comes out — more and more every day in both directions: sometimes things that heighten concerns; sometimes information that alleviates them. Residents just want answers. They want to know the time frame, what activities can they do with their children, is it safe to bathe or to cook? They’re really concerned and want to make the best decisions for their families. My work is to disseminate the information that can help them.”

Standing Together

Genesee County Park and Recreation Director Amy McMillan, who also serves as chair of the Flint River Watershed Coalition, is careful to emphasize this crisis is a man-made problem, from the decision to disconnect from the Detroit water supply to the regulatory agencies that were tasked with making sure Flint’s drinking water was safe. “It’s not that the river is somehow at fault,” she says. “The water was not treated properly. The systems that were used to treat it, the oversight — there are many reasons why this happened, none of which are specific to the Flint River. Many communities use this water safely because they treat it properly.” 

McMillan urges a visit to the Flint River website, which hosts ample information about the health of the Flint River and its watershed. Indeed, news reports indicated it was the decision to omit anti-corrosion agents — the application of which would’ve cost a whopping $140 a day — that caused the erosion of the pipes used to transmit Flint River water to residents’ homes. McMillan’s observations are backed by Marc Edwards, a professor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech University, whose testing helped uncover high levels of lead in Flint’s water, in a January report by Jim Lynch of The Detroit News: “We can say with high confidence, that if the [corrosion controls] had been used, nearly all of the problems that have occurred — from lead to leaks to possibly Legionnaires’ disease — would not have occurred,” Edwards said.

Although Genesee County residents outside Flint’s boundaries were not forced to endure the consequences of such disturbing decisions, McMillan says the crisis touches everyone in the area. “It’s not accurate to say [Genesee County] is insulated in all this — many people working for the county live in Flint,” she says. “A significant number of visitors to our parks and facilities are Flint residents. [Genesee County] may have different sources of water, but Flint residents are Genesee County residents. We stand with them.”

Logistics make bottled water distribution at Genesee County community centers unfeasible, but McMillan says her agency is spearheading a major recycling effort to handle the plastic bottle and filter waste through Keep Genesee County Beautiful. “We are very fortunate in that several private funders have contacted us to invest in recycling programs,” she says. “An unintended consequence of this crisis is recycling the empty bottles and filters. We are in the process of developing operations for recycling within four parks we manage in Flint. Wherever there are gaps we can help fill, that’s our job.”

McMillan is herself a 16-year resident of Flint and can personally attest to the constant mental anguish and anxiety caused by knowing her water is unsafe and state and federal officials untrustworthy. “It’s extraordinarily stressful,” she says. “The practicalities of having safe water to drink, cook and bathe in…the sense that people whose entire reason for existing, in terms of departmental functions, at the state and federal level failed Flint — in some cases it appears they’ve deliberately discounted Flint — that is incredibly difficult to experience. I am really lucky. I have a great job, a good education, I have a home and in comparison to many others I am tremendously privileged. If this crisis is difficult for me, how difficult is it for someone who is not? Someone who doesn’t have a safe, reliable car to drive to have their water tested or to pick up water and filters? These are the things we really need to recognize.

“As someone who has spent her entire career in government, parks and recreation in particular, I know these services are vital to emotional and physical well-being. I and my staff feel responsible to provide those resources and manage the public trust, and it’s a huge level of trust. To see another unit of government at the state level fail in the way they have and make those deliberate choices, it feels like it reflects on us. People’s trust in government is reduced and that affects all of us who are being responsible and supporting our cities. It’s the water and everything around it. Property values will take another drop — my home is worth less again and that’s one thing for me, personally, but the overall taxable value goes down, so there’s less money coming in for parks and rec, seniors, libraries, public safety, etc. Follow the consequences of this all the way through and you’ll begin to understand the impact of this crisis, even separately from health, which is foremost. It is not an overstatement to say this is a disaster — it’s absolutely a disaster.”

Samantha Bartramis the Executive Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine.