Belle Isle Park is a 2.5-mile-long, 982-acre island park, located in the international waters of the Detroit River. Inspired by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s design in the 1880s, the park was created to provide an urban oasis in Detroit. Affectionately named the “Jewel of Detroit”, Belle Isle has significant natural, architectural, and cultural resources. Almost one third of the island is a natural wooded area that is home to a wide variety of small animals and birds. The park features a number of historic public landmarks including the Belle Isle Aquarium, Belle Isle Casino, Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, Dossin Great Lakes Museum, and the James Scott Memorial Fountain.
Belle Isle has a rich history that includes many changes in ownership and management over the last several hundred years. Throughout, the island was recognized as a unique natural site—one to be treasured by generations. Today, the park continues to be owned by the City of Detroit and is managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) under a 30-year lease as part of the City’s financial restructuring. The DNR manages the day to day operations of the park, including event bookings, infrastructure management, and environmental management. The BIC operates the Belle Isle Aquarium as well as fundraises for park improvements and enhancements.
The natural features of Belle Isle are incomparable. The island has a unique ecology. Surrounded by water, with approximately 7 miles of shoreline, it is a picturesque spot. It has a high water table, due to its low elevation. More than half of the island is covered by three lakes, a lagoon and 230 acres of forested wetlands. Its rare wet-mesic forest contains specimens that mimic the Detroit ecosystem of hundreds of years ago. Forests like this were found throughout southeastern Michigan after the glacial period. Shumard Oak and Pumpkin Ash, once common, are now quite rare. There are also Red Oak, Pin Oak, Swamp White Oak, Silver Maple, Willow and Dogwood trees. In the 1930’s when trees were labeled along some of the trails, hawthorn, basswood, cottonwood and wild black cherry trees were present. Dutch elm disease ravaged the forests of Belle Isle during the 1960’s. Likewise, during the past several years, the Emerald Ash Borer has taken a toll on the many ash trees on the island. Birds and animals play an important part in the island’s ecology as well. It is a migratory flyway of waterfowl; pheasants and tern have been found on the island. The woods are home to raccoons, opossums, Great Horned Owls, Fox and Grey Squirrels, beaver and a wide variety of birds.
Frederick Law Olmsted was known as the leading landscape architect of the post-Civil War generation and one of the greatest believers in the “City Beautiful” movement. He has long been acknowledged as the founder of American landscape architecture and is known for designing many of the country’s premier parks, including Central Park, the Emerald Necklace, and the Buffalo park system.
Olmsted’s contract with the City of Detroit called for him to be paid $7,000 for his design and included a supervision fee for three years. The challenge for Olmsted with Belle Isle was to create a design that allowed for public gathering and recreation while maintaining the natural state of the island. Olmsted produced a design which placed a ferry dock at one end of the island and concentrated all the public facilities there. The rest of the island he left in as natural a state as possible. To drain the marshy land of the low-lying island, he proposed a system of underground pipes leading into canals, which were emptied out by steam-operated pumps. The canals also served for pleasure boating.
Unfortunately, his design was deemed too elaborate and, due to disagreements with the City Council and Park Board, it was never carried out to the full extent. The elements of Olmsted’s plan that were implemented include the pedestrian oriented Central Avenue; a canal system; thinning the forest and clearing underbrush to develop the open and wooded areas; and the combination pavilion/ferry landing. All of Olmsted’s parks follow a design principle of three zones – a formal zone, an active zone, and a natural zone, which can be seen in Belle Isle Park with the formal zone encompassing the Scott Fountain and Sunset Point, the active zone encompassing the cultural attractions and athletic fields, and the natural zone encompassing the mesic wetland forest.
Photo: John Vavrek
ABOUT BELLE ISLE
Drawing of Olmsted's original plan for Belle Isle.