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Parks as Community Development

Parks equal “conservation,” right? Not always.

In cities, the more accurate word is often “development.” Rather than being a pristine swath of nature, the underlying property was something that had been previously built upon. Rather than being conserved and protected, the land was scraped, cleaned and sculpted. Rather than being saved and preserved, the trees and horticulture were chosen and planted.

For this reason, a small but significant percentage of city parks are being paid for out of a federal funding source known as the Community Development Block Grant program, or CDBG.

CDBG is not well known among conservationists and park people, but it is a huge engine of federal revenue sharing for cities. Administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), it is the premier source of direct aid for lower-income city neighborhoods. At its zenith (in 2002) it distributed more than $5 billion per year to more than 1,200 so-called “entitlement communities.”

As “entitlement” implies, CDBG spending must benefit people of low and moderate income, and it is most commonly associated with affordable housing projects. But HUD lists 25 eligible activities and reports that about one-third of the money ends up going for public facility improvements, including parks. “One of the great hallmarks of the CDBG program,” according to Marion McFadden, deputy assistant secretary for grant programs, “is local discretion.”

CDBG Funding for Parks & Recreation, 2005 - 2013

CDBG Funding for Parks & Recreation, 2005 – 2013. Click to enlarge.

Between 2005 and 2013, more than $864 million in CDBG funding was spent on parks and recreation, an average of just over $96 million a year. While that’s a small percentage of the $6-billion-plus spent annually by big-city park agencies, it is much more federal money than comes in to city parks from conservation programs through the U.S. Department of the Interior.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that there has been a steady decline in CDBG funding, from $4.84 billion in 2005 to $3.56 billion in 2013. As one of the premier “domestic discretionary” programs on Capitol Hill, CDBG is a fat target for budget cutters, particularly since many cities are jurisdictions that are less than bipartisan.

Remarkably, park spending from CDBG has held up over the nine years, meaning that the percent going for parks has in fact increased sharply (see table). Combining the money with other funds, cities have built everything from recreation centers to neighborhood parks and skating zones to splash parks. Of the country’s 100 largest cities, 57 have used at least some CDBG money for parks in the past five years. Los Angeles spent more than $6.8 million in CDBG on improvements to athletic fields and parks. St. Paul invested $2.5 million into playgrounds. Atlanta used $6.1 million to improve a dozen parks and replace 18 playgrounds.

Major cities using the greatest share of CDBG funding on parks, 2008-2012. Click to enlarge.

Major cities using the greatest share of CDBG funding on parks, 2008-2012. Click to enlarge.

New York City used $580,000 in CDBG money to operate 11 mini pools in 2014. The city also granted more than $1.9 million to nonprofit organizations working to improve parks, build community gardens, and lead recreation activities. Seattle goes even farther, annually allocating $800,000 in CDBG funds into a parks improvement program that helped 20 parks in 2014 alone.

The situation in New Orleans is unique. Beyond its traditional CDBG distribution, the city also receives CDBG Disaster Relief funds to help with Hurricane Katrina recovery. Through this, over the past five years, New Orleans has allotted more than $60 million toward new parks and bike paths, added tree canopy, and improved existing parks. “Good recovery starts with good investment,” says William Gilchrist, New Orleans’s director of place-based planning, “and parks are a good investment.”

In Newark, New Jersey, The Trust for Public Land partnered with the city, Essex County, and the Ironbound Community Corporation to develop the Newark Riverfront Park. Located on a brownfield next to the Passaic River, the park added much-needed greenspace while linking residents for the first time to the water. $2.6 million of the city’s CDBG funds were combined with $4 million in other public money and $2.7 million in private money, and the project’s first phase was completed in 2013.

While CDBG is still a relatively modest funding source for city parks as a whole, its low-income requirement makes it special. These, after all, are areas that arguably have the highest need for quality recreation space. They typically lack the opportunity for special taxing districts or the private philanthropy of wealthy neighbors. Thus, CDBG is emerging as a powerful tool for providing quality park space to those who need it most.

This analysis was written by Peter Harnik and Kyle Barnhart. Harnik is director of the Center for City Park Excellence at The Trust for Public Land. Barnhart is a former intern at the center.

This article also appears on American City and County’s Viewpoints blog and is available for download from The Trust for Public Land.

A Different Kind of Tragedy of the Commons?

606lineThe new 606 is open in Chicago – a mix of 2.7 miles of elevated trail with four ground-level parks along the route. Amidst the excitement of this new linear park, which will bridge four neighborhoods historically underserved by parks, is the familiar cautionary tale about its potential gentrifying impact. Like New York’s High Line, the badly needed park amenity is being viewed partly in light of its negative effects on the neighborhood it was designed to serve. (The New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl said about the High Line, “As a catalyst of neighborhood change, the High Line has been to usual gentrification what a bomb is to bottle rockets.”)

But the issue of the impact of a new park on property values – and the resulting displacement of longtime residents by the rising cost of housing – is worth a thoughtful analysis. Are we blaming parks for increasing property values, or might that be better explained as the result of the state of the housing market and public policy?  Continue reading

A New Look for Denver’s Oldest Park

Each month, City Parks Alliance names one “Frontline Park” as a standout example of urban park excellence, innovation and stewardship from across the country. The program identifies city parks that find innovative ways to meet the unique challenges faced as a result of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures and urban neighborhood decay. In recognition of its partnerships and community capacity building, Mestizo-Curtis Park has been named a Frontline Park.

Built in 1868, Mestizo-Curtis Park is the oldest park in the city of Denver, boasting mature trees, aged red sandstone paths, and some of the best views of the city’s skyline.  Located in a district close to downtown and other commercial corridors, the park has grown and changed with Denver, hosting everything from the city’s first playground to massive political rallies.  In 1998, the word Mestizo (“a mix of cultures”) was added to the name in order to better reflect the diversity of the surrounding neighborhood.

Continue reading

Greater and Greener: A Victory Lap in San Francisco’s Parks

GGPost1It was a kind of Bay Area parks ‘lovefest’ that evoked images of another set of park lovers from the 1960s. But this time the peace loving vibe was coming from civic leaders and park professionals attending  City Parks Alliance’s international urban parks conference, Greater and Greener: Innovative Parks, Vibrant Cities, a few weeks ago in sunny San Francisco – a city with more public open space than any metro area in the country.

One thousand global park leaders, city planning and design professionals, and urban park advocates from more than 200 cities and 17 countries shared stories, photographs, lessons, data and some good humor about how parks change and enhance our urban quality of life.

GGPost2The diversity of participants made for a vibrant and robust conversation about parks and their link to just about everything in our lives that has value – health, recreation, learning, clean water, play, education, economic development, social cohesion, urban resilience, and on and on. By making parks broadly relevant, the conference attracted and engaged leaders from health, science, technology, and other fields to collectively re-imagine parks in a new context of economic, environmental and social opportunities.

In addition to the 150 speakers leading workshop sessions inside classrooms, the conference also offered more than 80 expert-led tours of parks, mobile workshops and special events that featured San Francisco’s beautifully groomed parks and community facilities. Continue reading

City Park Spending, Playgrounds, and Dog Parks are on the Rise

Off-leash dog parks lead the pack in new urban parks, growing 20% over the past five years and 6% in 2014, according to The Trust for Public Land’s most recent data on city park systems across the country.

The 2015 City Parks Facts report is the nation’s most complete compilation of data about parks in the nation’s largest 100 cities. The Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit that works to create parks and protect open space, releases the report annually through its Center for City Park Excellence.  Continue reading

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