Detroit Riverwalk Wins USA Today Best Riverwalk for Third Straight Year

The Detroit Riverwalk on a cold morning. Photo by Zynab Al-Timimi

The Detroit Riverwalk is number one in the United States. Photo by Zynab Al-Timimi

Celebrating its 20th Anniversary this year, the Detroit Riverwalk was named the nation’s best riverwalk for the third year in a row by USA Today’s 10 Best Readers Choice Awards.

On being named the best Riverwalk for the third straight year, Marc Pasco, director of communications for the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, says, “It’s an incredible honor, and we’re thrilled about it.” The riverwalk was selected by a panel of experts to be a part of the competition between twenty other riverwalks across the country. Pasco says, “The people who voted were the ones that loved the riverfront, were appreciative of it and had an incredible sense of ownership toward the riverfront.”

Before the Detroit Riverwalk was in place, the riverfront was very industrial. The Detroit River was so busy that Congress named it a “Federal Highway” because of the boat traffic that congested the water. But as the city changed, businesses moved away, factories closed and what was left were abandoned buildings and weed-filled lots.

In 2003, the nonprofit Detroit Riverfront Conservancy launched with three partners: General Motors, the city of Detroit, and the Kresge Foundation. The latter granted 50 million dollars to begin implementing plans to improve the riverfront with parks, public walkways, and green spaces. Pasco said, “It wasn’t very pretty, it wasn’t very safe, and there wasn’t a whole lot of public access. So everyone felt that needed to change.”

According to Pasco, the biggest challenge of changing the riverfront was that some businesses did not want the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy to impede their property. For instance, Pasco mentioned a small boutique hotel that loved the idea of a riverwalk but promptly refused because they said that if the riverwalk were built, it would take up the valuable green space in front of the hotel. The area was for weddings, events, jazz concerts and hotel guests. Pasco said that after some hard work, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy came up with more funding, which enabled the riverwalk to be built closer to the water.

While the Kresge Foundation funded the start of the project, General Motors, which had purchased the Renaissance Center, donated the first half mile of the riverwalk to the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. The City of Detroit budgeted 3 million dollars annually for the riverwalk. The Conservancy was also able to apply for federal and state funds. According to Pasco, as a nonprofit, the Conservancy depends heavily on donors, from individual donations of $20 to big donors, such as the Davidson Foundation and Wilson Foundation. All sources of funding have helped the Conservancy achieve their vision. “It is everyone’s riverwalk, and that sense of pride in ownership translates to people wanting to support it in any way they can. We are grateful for all of them,” Pasco says.

The Detroit Riverwalk is 5.5 miles long and starts from the Ambassador Bridge and ends at the bridge to Bell Isle. Pasco says, “If we were to break that up, the East Riverfront is 3.5 miles long, and the West Riverfront is 2 miles.” Locals can enjoy jogging along the riverwalk, passing by beautiful art murals, taking a ride on the carousel, or booking a cruise on the Detroit Princess Riverboat.

According to Pasco, the value of the riverwalk was heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying the pandemic “made everyone rethink the importance of public spaces.” People wanted to leave their homes and get some fresh air but still be arm’s length from one another, particularly in the early stages of the pandemic, when there was tremendous fear and uncertainty. Pasco noted the usage of the riverwalk increased by 20 percent during the pandemic. Now, approximately 3.5 million people visit the riverfront every year. “The riverfront has impacted the way we come together as a city. It is one of the city’s gems and creates a great selling point for people who plan to live here,” Pasco says.

The Renaissance Center, Eastern Market, Campus Martius, Cadillac Square, and Beacon Park are all public spaces that are popular attractions near the riverfront. The Riverwalk is one of the only places in the U.S. where Canada is to the south.

Pasco explains that environmental concerns were seriously taken into consideration for the riverwalk. The Detroit Conservancy worked with the EPA to address contaminants in the soil and sediment. With the sediment, the EPA determined that the best solution would be to lock those toxins in place by using a large net at the bottom of the river to not stir the toxins and potentially pollute the rest of the river and lakes. “We also try to ensure we can direct rainwater for the landscaping whenever possible,” Pasco said. Numerous rain barrels have been set up at Cullen Plaza to catch rainwater for watering plants.

Pasco says that in the future, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy plans to have the 22 Acre Park on the West side of the riverfront complete and open by 2024. It will include a new fishing outlook. Pasco noted that will add to several existing places for people to fish along the riverwalk.

Pasco says, “Everyone enjoys the riverfront for different reasons. Some people like it because they can be alone with their thoughts. Others like it because it is vibrant and is the ideal place for yoga. People love to play volleyball by the riverfront and pass time with friends. But the most popular destination near the riverfront that residents enjoy the most is the Cullen Plaza near the carousel ride.”

Another popular destination near the riverfront is Lake Park which opened in the fall of 2019. There is a barbecue restaurant and a sandy area for kids to play.

On a hot summer day, families can enjoy Mount Elliott Park with its large splash pad that helps people cool off.

People can enjoy hearing live music during the Rockin’ on the Riverwalk summer concert series.

Anyone who has yet to enjoy the riverwalk, Pasco encourages you to “Come on down! You can eat, you can drink, you can exercise. We have special events and programming all year long.” Pasco adds, “Rain or shine, warm or cold weather, you can count on it being beautiful.”

The Detroit Riverwalk is a four-season destination and is open every day from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Information on upcoming activities can be found at: