The Arb and Other Urban Green Spaces

When I was in high school, I was terrified of driving on the freeway and absolutely dreaded taking my driver’s test. The day I finally passed that test, I celebrated by driving the hour from Detroit to the Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor. I spent that afternoon sitting along the Huron River, eating fruit on a picnic blanket, and watching ducks swim in the shallows. 

The Huron River as seen from Nichols Arboretum.

It was a beautiful, celebratory way to spend an afternoon, and from then on, the Arb has been an important place for me. I go there before large exams to quiet my head and gain some focus. I go there after I’ve done something hard to bask in the sunshine and take a moment to rest. I go there to celebrate good things, and it’s also a refuge when I’m sad or stressed. 

This is one of the main reasons why I’m so passionate about the preservation of green spaces within cities. I grew up in Detroit, in an area where the houses are about seven feet apart from one another. The joke in my neighborhood is that if you need bread, you can yell and ask your neighbor if they have any, and they can pass it to you through an upstairs window. There are very few trees on my block, and most of the neighborhood is houses and storefronts. 

However, that’s not to say there wasn’t any green space. Many people in my neighborhood have elaborate gardens and grow vegetables. There are also undeveloped lots here and there that are filled with milkweed and clover, which serve as a refuge to stray cats and the occasional raccoon. It’s just that in my neighborhood, there aren’t really any large areas where native plants and landscapes are preserved, or places where one can be surrounded by trees like in the Arb. 

Plants in the Arb.
Trees in the Arboretum.
Photos of the Arb.

Now that I’m living in Ann Arbor where the Arb is only a short walk away, I’ve grown to appreciate it even more. Beyond all the benefits that green spaces like the Arb bring to urban environments—decreasing air pollution, mitigating the heat island effect, even reducing crime rates—I think that having access to someplace like the Arb to go to at any point for any reason (be it refuge, celebration, or just quiet) is an incredible right that everyone deserves. 

Living near the Arb has also caused me to think about how green space can be incorporated into urban landscapes, even if there isn’t a lot of space to work with. For example, community gardens and farms are a great way to do this. I spent a lot of time during my final years of high school working at Bandhu Gardens in Detroit and found it incredibly rewarding, not only because of the vegetables we planted and harvested, but also because it was wonderful just to hang out under the shelter among the apple trees and watch insects buzz around the goldenrod and raspberries. 

On campus, I’ve spent a lot of time studying in the East Quad Garden, and though it’s much smaller than Bandhu Gardens, it’s still a beautiful green space within an otherwise hectic and busy urban environment. I love taking breaks from studying on the benches to enjoy the sunshine and to sniff the parsley, basil, and sage growing in the raised beds. 

Another green space I really appreciate is the rain garden on the east side of the Dana Building. It’s an apt place for the garden, as the Dana Building houses the School of Environment and Sustainability (SEAS). According to the garden signage, there’s jack-in-the-pulpit, trillium, and mayapple, among others. I was also happy to see that the garden has plenty of milkweed, which is the only plant monarch butterflies can eat—this is important as monarchs have recently been classified as endangered. This garden, with its abundance of milkweed, can provide an important food source and habitat for monarchs at some point in their migrations. 

The rain garden outside of the Dana Building.

At the end of the day, however, when I’m really anxious and feel like I can’t do anything about it, I end up going to the Arb. Sometimes I go to the poet’s bench, sometimes I walk in the long, misty green meadow in the central valley. Sometimes I sit under the pine grove and look way up at the pines and think about how old they are. Sometimes I go along the wetland boardwalk and smell the spicy, woody scent of all the plants there. Sometimes I sit with my feet in the river and watch herons on the opposite bank. Somehow the Arb always helps. I encourage you to try it too! 

If you’re interested in reading more about community gardens, this article provides an overview of the community gardens in Detroit, and this does the same for Ann Arbor.  If you have a favorite community garden, arboretum, or green space that you take refuge in, share it with the rest of our readers by entering it in the comments below!