• Who We Are

    City Parks Blog is a joint effort of the Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land and the City Parks Alliance to chronicle the news and issues of the urban park movement. Read more about us.
  • Urban Park Issues

  • Enter your email address to receive notifications of new City Parks Blog posts by email.

  • Archives

  • Urban Green Cover Ad

Returning the Boldness of the World’s Fair to a San Antonio Park

“…the fair is fun, southwest style, but what San Antonio does with the center-city site after October will be the real measure of Hemisfair’s success.”

Ada Louise Huxtable, Architecture Critic
New York Times, April 4, 1968

Hemisfair1The 1968 world’s fair is the beginning of this story. The fair was built on a 92-acre site on the southeastern edge of downtown San Antonio, acquired mainly through eminent domain. Many structures in what was considered a blighted area were demolished and moved to make room for the fair, with some more important historic sites spared and preserved.

From April to October in 1968, about six million visitors came to the city. In typical fair planning, once the fair was complete the city lacked a good transition plan. So they put a fence around it and the site sat unimproved for 47 years.

It was a fantastic location for the fair, on the River Walk and near the convention center. In fact, the fair changed perceptions about the struggling River Walk and the city that reinvigorated its draw as a tourist destination.  Continue reading

A Different Kind of Tragedy of the Commons (Part 2)

“The question is: How do you improve access to parks and open space but not trigger this shift in property values and land uses that completely transform a community?”

Jennifer Wolch, Dean of the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley

My last blog post included a look at Chicago’s new 606 trail and related discussions about gentrification and how the project will impact the neighborhoods it passes through. Beth White, Chicago Director for The Trust for Public Land, a sponsor of the project, says that the overall goal is “to give everyone a walk in the park and connect people to nature, each other, public transit, and bike trails.” She notes that the Bloomingdale Trail will reunite four ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods and that their 80,000 residents, nearly a third of them children, have been separated by the railway since it was built in 1910.

GF1 Continue reading

Philly Pumptrack Offers a New Twist on Cycling in Fairmount 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 engagement, the Philly Pumptrack has been named a Frontline Park.

The Pumptrack is located in historic Fairmount Park, the heart of Philadelphia’s park system.  Although it is well-loved and boasts a healthy number of visitors, the park’s design (or lack thereof) has created some issues with programming and accessibility.  Some areas have no amenities at all, and others become degraded due to misuse.  Where Fairmount wings into the West Parkside neighborhood, the area was used as an illegal dumping ground, and more than a playground would be required to attract local residents and community investment.  Continue reading

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

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 250 other followers