Located at 426 E. Michigan Avenue in downtown Kalamazoo, the Urban Nature Park (UNP) is a 4-acre natural area in the heart of downtown Kalamazoo. There is no fee for entrance, and free parking for UNP visitors is located on E. Michigan Ave, right across the street from Hopcat. The UNP is open daily from dawn to dusk.
The challenges of inequitable housing access in the City of Kalamazoo have broad and painful impacts across our entire community. The Kalamazoo Nature Center (KNC) is one of many local organizations navigating this crisis, particularly as a growing encampment formed at KNC’s Urban Nature Park downtown. Many members of the community have reached out to KNC with understandable concerns and questions about how this situation has been managed.
Since the outset, KNC’s primary concern has been the well-being of those who have been staying at the encampment. At the same time, as an environmental organization, we are responsible for managing the ecological health of this property, which serves as an urban nature preserve. Over the last two months, we have worked to balance these priorities by working closely with the City of Kalamazoo, Integrated Services of Kalamazoo’s Housing Recovery Center, and neighboring landowners to identify resources and support that honors the dignity of the people using the space, while also upholding responsibility for our land stewardship obligation. We have considered the following factors:
Land Ownership: KNC owns the 4-acre Park, yet the encampment stretches across roughly 8 acres of undeveloped land in the area. Altogether, the affected properties are owned by several landowners, and KNC has taken the initiative to collaborate with them and to coordinate on the site’s extensive clean-up.
Safety of those in the Encampment: Recently, a brush fire broke out at the property which was safely extinguished by Kalamazoo Public Safety. Thankfully, no one was injured. Yet the fire highlights the risk of camping in a place maintained as a natural area that includes tall grass and brush that serve as wildlife habitat. Moreover, the site has no public water supply, source of electricity or restroom facilities, as it is designed for short-term, day use only.
Prohibition Against Camping: Given its small size (four acres), the Urban Nature Park was envisioned as a convenient place for city dwellers to spend a few minutes or hours in a natural setting. The Park is open from dawn to dusk, which precludes overnight camping.
Conservation Obligation: KNC holds responsibility, through an agreement with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) to maintain the environmental quality of the Park’s restored wetland along Portage Creek. Waste from the current encampment has caused contamination of this area and the need for immediate remediation.
Removal of Unhoused Persons from the Park: Any removal of unhoused persons from the Park and neighboring lands has been carried out by City officials, per their own legal process. By working in collaboration with the other affected landowners, the City, and social service agencies, we developed a coordinated response over many weeks that provided our unhoused community members access to receive the services that they need and deserve.
KNC’s Role in the Evolving Situation: In any park or nature preserve, the landowner must balance human use with environmental protection. Natural ecosystems, such as the grasslands and riverbanks that comprise the Park, are fragile. Currently, discarded trash has overflowed the riverbanks to pollute Portage Creek, and extensive human debris poses a risk to public health. As an environmental nonprofit, KNC lacks the expertise to manage the social needs of those encamped at the Park. Nor are we equipped for hazardous waste removal, which we will manage via contracted professionals. Going forward, KNC will maintain the Park for its stated use, and work with the City, social service agencies and other parties to serve our community’s unhoused neighbors in the most compassionate way possible.
Visiting the Urban Nature Park
Located at 426 E. Michigan Avenue in downtown Kalamazoo, the Urban Nature Park (UNP) is a 4-acre natural area in the heart of downtown Kalamazoo. Historically, it was a coal yard for the railroads and recently was a polluted brownfield site. The Kalamazoo Nature Center has cleaned up contamination and restored the historic railroad bridge overlook across Portage Creek. Clean topsoil has been graded into rolling curves and a native shortgrass prairie was planted in 2017.
A paved hiking and biking trail leads to a scenic overlook of Portage Creek, and you can observe birds and other wildlife using the restored wetland along the creek.
There is no fee for entrance, and free parking for Urban Nature Park visitors is located on E. Michigan Ave, right across the street from Hopcat. Please visit and bring your friends! The Urban Nature Park is open daily from dawn to dusk.