Collaboration Brings Fresh Ideas for Michigan's State Parks

  • Pat L. Crawford, Ph.D.
  • Associate Professor, Landscape Architecture
  • Associate Director, School of Planning, Design, and Construction
  • College of Agriculture and Natural Resources
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With 102 state parks and recreation areas, Michigan has one of the largest state park systems in the country. Millions of guests visit these properties each year, and understandably, local businesses that rely on tourism count on these sites to attract millions of dollars as well. While the Recreation Passport program—instituted in 2010—has increased revenue for the parks, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources still operates on a tight budget, one that is unable to address hundreds of millions of dollars in needed capital improvements. The DNR has been called on in recent years to assume responsibility for new properties such as the state's historic parks and Belle Isle in Detroit.

In 2012, MSU's School of Planning, Design, and Construction (SPDC) and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) launched a program that addresses some of the most pressing needs for Michigan's state parks. It is called the MSU-DNR Sustainable Park Planning Partnership, and aims for collaborative learning that puts students to work tackling projects as diverse as trail development and conference center design. The plans they have created have led, so far, to roughly $600,000 in improvements to the park system.

The idea for the partnership was initially generated at a Great Lakes Leadership Academy Alumni Event coffee break in late 2011. Monica Day, research administrator at the School of Planning, Design, and Construction, met with Dan Lord, development program manager at the DNR and former colleague. Together they proposed recruiting students to work on plans for park development. Day recruited faculty, including Dr. Crawford, and within a few short months a class was underway.

"From the start, there was excitement surrounding the idea. We met several times to talk about what the program might look like, how we might want to structure it," Crawford said. "We could have kept meeting for a year, but I thought, Why not just start with one class next semester and learn as we go?" The DNR was willing, so it was decided to launch the program with one class in the 2012 Spring semester.

That first semester, an interior design student created a proposal for a luxury cabin at Grand Haven State Park. Other students took on Cambridge Junction Historic State Park in the Irish Hills area of Michigan, southeast of Jackson. A tourism student made recommendations for how best to stock the Walker Tavern Mercantile. A group of design students analyzed indoor air quality in the park's buildings. And another team developed a site plan that featured the Junction's historic value front and center, but also opened up the property's natural and agricultural features.

Picture for Collaboration Brings Fresh Ideas for Michigan's State Parks

For the fall semester of 2012, Dan Lord identified three more sites that would benefit from the partnership. Landscape architecture students prepared a set of plans for a trail at Petoskey State Park; the Bald Mountain Recreation Area was assessed for recreational development; and students created a site plan for the Ralph A. MacMullan Conference Center Campus.

The structure of the classes has varied from year to year. According to Crawford, "The needs of the DNR drive the program. Each semester, they bring us the sites that they believe need the most attention." Each site, in turn, has its own requirements, and as Crawford explained, the work doesn't always conveniently fit into a 14-week calendar. Instructors have had to be creative in how they design each class. For example, Crawford recently offered a year-long course for undergraduate and graduate students that developed plans for the adaptive reuse of park structures. Another professor, Tim Mrozowski, has developed a hybrid internship program for his students, allowing them to put more time in on a project.

Underlying the partnership is a commitment to environmentally responsible and sustainable park development. There's also a commitment to include learning from stakeholders. A recent assessment of the Bass River Recreation Area, for example, required students to consider how the park was being used by different groups. The needs of mountain bikers are significantly different from the needs of duck hunters, and the master plan the group created had to assimilate those diverse needs. The partnership has brought a number of groups together, creating many opportunities for further collaboration. Instead of a model where students work alone or in teams and develop proposals to pitch to their "clients" at the DNR, the Student State Park Program has students working alongside DNR staff from all levels of the organization. As Crawford said, "Space is created where students can share their craziest ideas and really get the DNR thinking about options and possibilities they hadn't considered before."

Crawford noted that the program brings together DNR staff from the state and local levels who often haven't had a chance to network outside their silos. They gather together to work with the students and end up strengthening their own relationships internally.

Students learn from their instructors and the DNR, but the department learns from them as well. As Dan Lord, the program's original point person with the DNR, explained, "One of the reasons we find the partnership valuable is that it introduces department staff to emerging technologies, materials, and recreational trends that are being explored through the School of Planning, Design, and Construction and are being taught to the future professionals in the fields of landscape architecture, interior design, urban planning, and construction management."

According to Lord, the partnership also allows the DNR to interact with the future stewards of the state's park system. The DNR learns from the students, but it also introduces them to one of the largest park systems in the United States. And along the way students learn a little about how things are done in state government. The program is funded by a DNR grant and is currently overseen by Mary Nardo, the department's development program manager. In addition to Pat Crawford, there is multidisciplinary collaboration with MSU SPCD colleagues Suk Kyung Kim, Interior Design Program; Paul Nieratko and Vanessa Warren, Landscape Architecture Program; Tim Mrozowski, Construction Management Program; and Sarah Nicholls, jointly appointed in the Department of Community Sustainability and the Department of Geography.

  • Written by Matthew Forster, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photographs by Pat L. Crawford, School of Planning, Design, and Construction and Matthew Forster, University Outreach and Engagement

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