Robert Marans, Longtime Metroparks Commissioner Believes In Power Of Nature
Throughout a long and rich career, retired University of Michigan professor Robert Marans has championed the importance of environment — the natural and the built — on quality of life.
A hybrid social scientist-architect-urban planner, Marans has worked on planned communities in Israel and regional transportation in Southeast Michigan. He has conducted and analyzed countless surveys, most recently on sustainability initiatives at U-M. He has authored eight books on his own and many more papers and reports on better living through better planning.
Marans, 82, was just appointed to a sixth term as the Washtenaw County representative on the Huron-Clinton Metroparks Authority (HCMA), making him the longest-serving member of the commission and its only Jewish member (county representatives serve six-year terms). He is a calm but effective voice, guiding policies that enhance the usability of the 13 parks in the Metroparks stable.
Since Marans was first appointed to the HCMA Commission 30 years ago — not long after he earned a doctorate in urban planning — he has seen the Metroparks system grow to encompass some 25,000 acres, eight golf courses and 55 miles of paved hiking/biking trails. The commission oversees an operating budget of $55 million, most of which comes from a millage paid by residents in the five counties, with the rest from user fees and grants. The parks — from Kensington to Hudson Mills to Indian Springs to Stoney Creek — attract some 9 million visitors a year.
“Without those parks, we would have ongoing sprawl,” says Marans of Ann Arbor. “If you didn’t have park land, there’d be more subdivisions. There’s a lot of data to show that being close to a park, using recreational facilities, is important to the quality of people’s lives, in terms of psychological and physical well-being.’’
George Phifer, HCMA director, calls Marans a “true advocate” for the parks.
“He has an ability to connect the Metroparks with the people we serve,” he says. “Bob is passionate about quality of life,” noting that Marans brings back workable ideas from his world travels. “And he’s the only actual planner who sits on the board.”
Israel And Back
After earning a degree in architecture from U-M and a master’s degree in urban planning from Wayne State, Marans, a 1952 Central High graduate, moved his family — wife, Judy, and his first child, Gayle, to Israel. He wanted to work with renowned architect-planner Artur Glikson on an experimental community called Kiryat Gat, a town midway between Beersheva and Tel Aviv.
“It was going to integrate new immigrants from North Africa and Eastern Europe and mix them with native Israelis,” Marans says. The experience led him to focus his academic research on how the built environment influences behavior and social connectedness.
Marans has been back to Kiryat Gat many times — once at the request of the United Nations, which was interested in social integration strategies.
“My conclusion was that it was moderately successful in integrating these different groups,” he says. That early project has come full circle: Marans is working with a student at the Technion who is interviewing Kiryat Gat residents about growing up in a planned neighborhood with different housing types and different types of people.
Upon their return, the family — now with a second daughter, Pam — moved to Oak Park. Marans landed a job with a transportation planning agency that later became the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG). There, he was part of a major survey that looked at transportation and land use.
Marans graduated with a Ph.D. from a new program at U-M and, in 1974, began teaching in the Institute of Social Research. Many of his books focused on how nature influences the way we live.
In 1971, Washtenaw County created a county parks system and brought in Marans as a board member. He has served on that board since 1971, the last 10 years as its president. In 1986, he was appointed to the HCMA Commission.
As a member of the commission, Marans is proudest of the cooperation between Washtenaw and HCMA in maintaining some of the county bike-hike trails that wind through the Metroparks. He is also proud of Summer Fun, a newer program that enables seniors and nature-deprived city children to spend time in the parks.
Marans, an avid swimmer, retired from teaching in 2004, but continues to stay involved in U-M and in the Southeast Michigan region. He served on the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and Michigan Land Use Institute boards, among many others. He’ll travel to China next month to lecture on patterns of rural-urban migration in that country and perhaps start a program to address the challenges in that movement. He has also been asked to write about the quality of life in new towns.
“I may be involved in that for the next decade — who knows?”
By Julie Edgar | Contributing Writer
Photography by Brandon Schwartz