Communities In Action: Flint, MI

In a city striving for revitalization, one key asset had been long neglected: an extensive park system. Partners in Flint, MI, set out to make parks a local priority again by building residents’ capacity through facilitative leadership.

Population loss in Flint, MI, which was once an auto-industry boomtown, has left residents struggling from acute poverty, high unemployment, high crime rates and vacant, blighted properties. Limited resources have also made it difficult for Flint to care for its 63 city-owned parks. Although those 1,800 acres of public green space are within walking distance of most households, 57 percent of residents surveyed stated that their neighborhood park was in poor or fair condition.

The Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC) partnership, led by the Flint-based Crim Fitness Foundation and the Michigan Fitness Foundation, knew that in such an environment, the city’s children needed safe places for active play and that improving the parks system was key to achieving that goal.

“There’s a really rich history of parks in the community, and I think that was part of why people gravitated toward parks as something key they could invest in and work on.”
—Lauren Holaly-Zembo, Vice President of Community Impact, Crim Fitness Foundation


Rather than spending energy and resources building new relationships from scratch, they expanded their network more quickly by partnering with key stakeholder organizations that were already grounded in the community. For example, they worked with the local YMCA and Boys and Girls Club to receive youth input as part of a process to select three focus parks. The HKHC partnership then worked to strategically develop resident leaders around key neighborhood parks.

“Leadership and partnership capacity were the most important things. Investing in time spent with both partner organizations and community members kept [the work] going.”
—Lauren Holaly-Zembo

As the economy suffered, Flint’s parks fell in disrepair.  Max Brandon Park, one of the focus parks and the largest park in the city, experienced little improvement beyond the efforts of a few steadfast residents, who mowed the grass or picked up trash. This changed when committed neighbors and local organizations formed a Friends of Max Brandon Park group with support from the Crim Fitness Foundation and HKHC partners. As the group worked to create visible physical improvements and steadily promoted the park, a number of organizations, including Genesee Conservation District, University of Michigan-Flint, Ruth Mott Foundation, and KaBOOM!, were impressed by their commitment and initiative and contributed financial support to continue the work.

“Residents have the capability to take ownership and do good things. By providing tools, resources and experiences, it built [residents’] confidence. Every community has those seeds, and it’s a matter of taking the time, building that capacity and cultivating those local leaders that’s so important.”
—Sarah Panken, Director of Network Programs, Michigan Fitness Foundation



To lay the groundwork for change and prioritize improvements, the partnership engaged residents in transparent and accessible ways to gather input around needs and perceptions of Flint’s parks. This input helped drive the selection of the focus parks where model approaches could be piloted. Selection was determined using results from a community-wide survey and youth focus groups, along with an equity assessment of parks, which included a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) analysis of population demographics near parks and the neighborhood environments in which parks were located. To make it easier for residents to participate in the focus parks selection process, the partnership also combined its outreach efforts with existing events and city processes that had built-in feedback mechanisms.

“Before this project was even developed, we took the time to talk with folks, to help identify the issue or topic that needed to be addressed.”
–Sarah Panken
“When we did our survey, we put it out in places where people were already going and had established trust. For example, ‘You’re going to a clinic for an appointment, so would you mind filling out a survey while you’re in the waiting room?’ We believe residents might feel more comfortable providing feedback at an organization where they had an existing relationship or frequented regularly.”
—Lauren Holaly-Zembo

In addition, to affect change at the city level, the partnership completed the first-ever amenity assessment to inventory and document the facilities in, and condition of, all 63 parks. This was of great value to the city, which lacked current records providing that level of information. A park policy analysis determined the status of Flint parks policies compared with the Trust for Public Land’s Seven Measures of an Excellent City Park System. Based on the outcome of that analysis, as well as stakeholder engagement and key informant interviews with city officials, a clear set of park policy recommendations were created.  Strategies for policy, systems, and environmental changes were shared with local stakeholders and decision makers to inform the update of the five-year Parks and Recreation Master Plan.

“We were intentional about saying, ‘Here is what we are asking from you,’ and then we put it back out: ‘Here is what we heard from you. And here is what we’re going to do about it.”
—Lauren Holaly-Zembo



The HKHC partners approached the change process from multiple levels simultaneously. While the partnership worked on policy and systems change at the city level, residents were also planning and improving their neighborhood parks to test approaches that could be replicated throughout the city moving forward.

Results from all of the assessments during the planning phases helped guide project implementation. They also provided much-needed information to enhance local planning processes, including two plans adopted in 2013: the City of Flint’s parks plan and the new city master plan, which was based on a two-year process with intensive community involvement. It was Flint’s first master plan in more than 50 years.

Ongoing community engagement at the neighborhood level helped catalyze existing momentum around each focus park, building capacity for park improvements in the future. Resident leaders took ownership to create visible changes, including hosting park clean ups, building park benches, programs that demonstrated why the work needed to continue, and investments in building partnerships. As residents saw these changes and became more involved, it created a positive feedback loop of residents using their voices and actions to demonstrate the desire and need for quality parks in Flint.

“It’s messy, right? It’s really hard to lay out: A happens, then B happens, then C happens—because so many things can stop and start. You could be making no progress for what feels like years, and then all of a sudden the right pieces will fall into place: the right political will, the right champion, the right message, and things could speed up.
—Sarah Panken

Visible physical improvements and steady promotion helped transform Max Brandon Park into an active and vibrant space. The Friends of Max Brandon Park group inspired other nearby organizations to promote the park as a great place to host programs and activities. For example, West Flint Church of the Nazarene organized events for their congregation to help clean up, paint and repair equipment and spread woodchips under playgrounds. Nearby churches and other organizations now view the park as a safe outdoor space for physical activity events and a weekly Bible study. Today the space is much more heavily used, which also makes it a safer place.



One way in which the partnership tested the effectiveness of its work in focus parks was by using a park observation study to better understand how residents were using the parks for physical activity. Results showed that the focus parks had more people participating in moderate and vigorous physical activity overall and fewer sedentary people than in parks with no investment. Furthermore, to examine impact, the partnership implemented two community surveys three years apart to learn how attitudes and behaviors related to parks had changed over time. The results showed that more than 50 percent of respondents were familiar with local efforts to improve parks and had seen positive changes in their neighborhood parks over three years, and 40 percent reported feeling safer in neighborhood parks because of better maintenance and increased use.

 “I don’t think that would have happened had we not spent intentional time working with residents, allowing them to become the leaders of the group, letting them facilitate the change, making sure that they knew they have a voice in the process and how important planning is. They got it. And now they continue, and they’re seeing the benefits.”
—Lauren Holaly-Zembo

A number of systems changes have also laid the groundwork for long-term sustainability. The city is implementing the master plan and is using recommendations generated by the HKHC partnership. A recent success has been the City’s reclassification the city’s parks to fall in line with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources standard, as well as updated data and maps associated with the 63 parks. The Parks Department also left its silo and is now part of the Planning and Development Department. And the work still continues with residents:

“Friends of Max Brandon Park continues to meet. It is not facilitated by Crim or any other organization—it is facilitated by residents. And they have continued to meet every month since the end of HKHC.”
—Lauren Holaly-Zembo


*Throughout this story, references may be made to Active Living By Design. In April 2018, the organization adopted its new name, Healthy Places by Design.

If you’d like to learn more about how the Crim Fitness Foundation worked with local residents and city staff while implementing principles within Healthy Places by Design’s Community Action Model, please contact Lauren Holaly-Zembo at, Sarah Panken at or Risa Wilkerson at

June 2016