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Jul 9 / Zach Kilgore

RISEUP interns go on kayaking tour of Belle Isle

Belle Isle, often called the “gem of Detroit,” has been a sustainability battleground for years. This week, RISEUP interns got to see it from a unique perspective – by kayak.

The largest city-owned island park in the United States, Belle Isle has historically been the place where Detroiters went to relax after a long day at work. The island is home to 1.5 square miles (4 square km) of green grass, forests, and beaches with beautiful views of the Detroit, MI and Windsor, ON skylines. Of course, it may be more famous for its museums, historical features, and public aquarium, where RISEUP’s own Jaime Gonzalez is conducting his research on organizational sustainability.

However, the island park has been a topic of contention in recent years. Due to the financial stress of the City of Detroit, the grounds have been leased to the State of Michigan. It is now run as a pay-to-enter state park – to the dismay of many city residents. Leading up to this, the city government closed the Belle Isle Aquarium, the nation’s oldest operating aquarium building, to the public (it has since been reopened by volunteers). Meanwhile, invasive species, such as phragmites and quagga mussels, have damaged native ecosystems, as there is no sustainable funding source to remove them.

RISEUP interns saw these issues first hand. They spent the morning kayaking along the Detroit River with guests from program director Dr. Jeffrey Ram’s lab. While paddling, they discussed their projects and their project’s relationship to the issues they saw on the island. In one telling moment, intern Brett Zeuner, who researches community responses to urban gardening, connected the property ownership issues in regards to the island with similar ownership issues within the gardening communities he studied. In addition, RISEUP alumnus Jonathan Witham spoke with this year’s interns about writing successful final reports and his post-RISEUP experience.

Of course, the kayaking trip was not all about work and academics. Gonzalez, the intern researching the Belle Isle Aquarium, summed up his experience in one word: “exhilarating!”