Michigan seeks public input for revitalization of Detroit’s long-abandoned Belle Isle Zoo

Something Old, Something Zoo

Michigan seeks public input for revitalization of Detroit’s long-abandoned Belle Isle Zoo

The abandoned zoo site at Belle Isle Park in Detroit is laced with elevated wooden boardwalks added in the 1980s as part of the Safariland rebrand. (Courtesy DNR)

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is slowly but surely moving forward with a long-term vision to reimagine a swath of long-forsaken land at Detroit’s storied Belle Isle Park that was once home to a modest yet beloved zoo.

Debuting in 1895 on the sprawling, Frederick Law Olmsted-designed island park is the Belle Isle Zoo, the attraction was rebranded as the Detroit Children’s Zoo in 1947 and renamed/revamped/re-themed again in the 1980s as Safariland. Plagued by declining attendance and political malfeasance, the zoo was ultimately shuttered in 2002 by disgraced then-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and never reopened. Although the resident animals are long gone, the old zoo site, sitting in a state of abandonment for two full decades, has remained a popular spot among camera-wielding ruin porn aficionados. Detroit-based urban exploration website has referred to the abandoned zoo as “one of Detroit’s most shameful victims of neglect and corruption.”

vintage postcard of a children's zoo entrance
Vintage illustration of the entrance to the old Children’s Zoo at Belle Isle Park, Detroit. (Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers collection/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

Still very much in the early stages, the revitalization of the old Belle Isle Zoo is kicking off an initial public engagement phase with a survey led by the parks and recreation division of the DNR in collaboration with the Michigan State University School of Planning, Design and Construction (MSU-SPDC). Now through July 8, the public is invited to opine on how they would like to see the old zoo site be redeveloped. Specifically, the public is being asked to share their thoughts on a half-dozen overarching reuse themes and resultant design proposals established last fall following a virtual design workshop led by landscape architecture and environmental design students from MSU-SPDC, and involving the participation of a limited number of park stakeholders. As detailed in a DNR press release, the student-conceived design proposals for the site are tied to the following six broad themes developed in the workshop:

  • Honoring and exploring Belle Isle’s history
  • Showcasing the island’s opportunities for sustainable ecosystems
  • Providing ample outdoor education opportunities
  • Elevating creative and performing arts in nature
  • Offering interactive outdoor adventures and concessions
  • Making space to retreat to and interact with nature and each other

More information on the collaborative visioning process between the DNR and MSU-SPCDC for the Belle Isle Zoo revamp scheme, which is the latest endeavor in a long-standing partnership that enables landscape architecture students to “gain practical experience in proposing and creating solutions for project identified by the DNR,” can be found on the introductory page of the recently launched public survey. The results of the survey will be compiled for a summary report for the DNR and MSU-SPDC, and help to guide more formal redevelopment plans further down the line.

rendering of a park space with a large fish sculpture
A student-created rendering responding to the theme of “Creative and Performing Arts in Nature.” (Courtesy DNR)

“We want to get a clearer picture about what people think the old zoo area could be, explained Amanda Treadwell, an urban field planner with the DNR Parks and Recreation Division, in a statement. “The survey is the place to let us know which themes you think are most important, as well as the public amenities and natural and built settings you most want to see. The results will be an important starting point for more conversations to guide how the old zoo area might be used in the future.”

“Public input is a big part of creating meaningful public spaces, and this survey opportunity is a first step toward involving the public throughout the process as we work toward redevelopment of this historic space on Belle Isle,” Treadwell added.

rendering of a sunken outdoor amphitheater
A design proposal responding to one of six broad themes envisioned for a future revamp of the old Belle Isle Zoo site. (Courtesy DNR)

In addition to seeking feedback on the six specific themes and accompanying design renderings, the survey also poses a series of more general questions, including if respondents would rather see the site be used for passive or active recreation and if they’d like the land to be kept in its natural state or see the addition of new structures and built elements.

As for the location of the old zoo on the nearly 1,000-acre island park in the Detroit River, it’s located right off Central Avenue opposite the park’s baseball field and not too far from the historic, Albert Kahn-designed Belle Isle Aquarium and neighboring Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory along with the newly opened Oudolf Garden Detroit. Other (non-abandoned) attractions at the city-owned, DNR-managed Belle Isle Park include the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS)-operated Belle Isle Nature Center (its indoor exhibitions are currently closed while the facility undergoes major renovations), the James Scott Memorial Fountain, a municipal golf course, swimming beach, and much more.

And, yes, despite the old Belle Isle Zoo being shuttered for the past 20 years, Detroit does indeed have a major zoo: the Detroit Zoo, which opened in 1928 in suburban Royal Oak. Like the Belle Isle Nature Center, which is a successor of sorts to the old Belle Isle Zoo, the Detroit Zoo is operated by the DZS.