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Some news from around…

  • Two different ways to design and program public space: 1) “Street Pianos” are coming to New York, and will be prominently placed in a number of parks. The pianos have been successful in London, São Paulo and other cities. (Village Voice); and 2) from Toronto, color and art comes in the form of painted “nature-inspired picnic tables” in 27 parks throughout the downtown core.
  • Massive redevelopment planned for Washington D.C.’s Southwest Waterfront. Parks and piers will feature prominently. (Washington Post)
  • The Urbanophile brings us this fabulous tour of St. Louis which highlights Gateway Arch and CityGarden.
  • Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square continues to suffer from underfunding. According to the Inquirer, New York’s four acre Bryant Park raises $8 million each year, while 6 acre Rittenhouse square “gets by on a $410,000 operating budget.” (Philadelphia Inquirer)

The Death and Life of Buffalo’s Parks

Buffalo city hall and square.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, in the United States there are very few big cities that are actually shrinking. In fact, they have grown very much in land area and in only a few cases have these regions actually lost population (and only slightly when they do). Both Kaid Benfield of NRDC and Aaron Renn of the Urbanophile have insightful pieces essentially making this point — using the Buffalo region as an example, where land area has increased threefold yet population has remained virtually steady since 1950.

Aaron Renn makes a great overall point about this spreading out of resources:

Statistics aside, all of these additional obligations in time and money make us poorer…… Over the last 60 years, we’ve been too busy trying to keep up with basic infrastructure maintenance to invest much in our future. Individually, people have less to spend on housing, food, transportation, health care, entertainment, etc. There are fewer public resources available for schools, parks, cultural institutions, and other public services.

In Buffalo city, the park system today is one of the most underfunded in the nation. (This is not fault of the parks – the system was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who himself said it was “the best designed city in the country, if not the world.”) Maintaining the system has been a proverbial hot potato in the last few years, with Erie County taking over the city’s parks and then handing back maintenance to the city. The Olmsted Parks Conservancy is, however, making strides to revitalize some key parks.

If Buffalo’s parks are ever to be again the best in the world, as Olmsted believed, having more people living around them and less people continually moving farther out in the metro area would certainly help. This brings us to a quote from Kaid’s post:

If the solutions [in places like Buffalo] do not include stopping sprawl on the fringe, nothing done on the ground in the central city will help.  Indeed, if potentially revitalized land is converted to other uses, it may even aggravate sprawl and worsen the problem, especially since there are national demographic and market changes under way that point to increasing demand for urban environments in the coming decades.

This is why any efforts to revitalize and reinvest in the city’s parks [instead of continuing to build infrastructure to support sprawl] can push those market changes and get people to move back into this great older American city, and help return the favor through a more compact tax base.

Is There Room for Wildlife in City Parks?

ASLA’s The Dirt recently covered the 2010 Dumbarton Oaks Garden and Landscape Study Symposium. This year’s focus was “Designing Wildlife Habitats,” which looked at ways to preserve biodiversity in rural and urban environments. America’s cities are an appropriate laboratory for such a movement, given that many city-dwellers’ encounters with wildlife are limited to rats, raccoons and pigeons.

The inherent traits of the urban environment: warmer and drier air, poor nutrient cycling and high levels of pollution hinder efforts to attract and sustain wildlife populations. The forest fragmentation that accompanies urban development displaces species which require large swaths of contiguous habitat, including many mammals and forest interior songbirds. Even where large preserves exist, suitable habitats must be connected by park corridors to other wild places to maintain wildlife  populations. On the other hand, a park system of smaller, scattered parks close to neighborhoods is more accessible to humans than one of a few, large, concentrated parks. Additionally, many of the features of parks which attract wildlife, like multi-level vegetative canopy and tall, unmowed grass, are incompatible with park amenities like athletic fields, playgrounds, and manicured gardens.

In spite of these challenges, access to wildlife has significant benefits for park users. Spending just a few minutes in a natural setting is correlated with improved cognitive function and emotional outlook. Additional research suggests that bird watching improves mood, promotes social cohesion, and can slow or reverse the onset of Alzheimer’s. Park designers need not pit the needs of ecosystems against the needs of users; ecosystem integrity is an important amenity for many park-goers.

Wetlands at Jamaica Bay, New York City (Wikipedia)

Urban nature preserves, like Jamaica Bay in New York and oil-threatened Bayou Sauvage in New Orleans are wild treasures. But even small designed parks can provide important wildlife habitat while supporting recreational use, through park connectivity like in Boston and Minneapolis, or careful plant selection, like in Chicago’s green roofs or Washington D.C.’s butterfly garden. The connection with our natural heritage is a cherished privilege for city dwellers; one which merits inclusion in our vision for livable cities.

Fit Cities Have Parks, Safe Biking and Walking

Dupont Circle in DC. Source: PPS

The American College of Sports Medicine is out with its annual list of the United States’ fittest cities. The top five are: 1) Washington, D.C.; 2) Boston; 3) Minneapolis; 4) Seattle and 5) Portland, Oregon.

The ratings are based on 30 factors ranging from disease rates, mortality, physical attributes and lifestyle, fruit and vegetable consumption and physical infrastructures from parks to walking and biking facilities.

Whatever the weighting involved for these factors, it is clear that cities with great parks and recreational facilities, walkability and bike infrastructure rank high on this list. Providing these amenities (“necessities” is perhaps what we should say) actually helps improve the other factors of exercise, consumption of fruits and vegetables (e.g. more farmers’ markets) and disease rates, as research has suggested (and referenced in the recent “Let’s Move” Task Force action plan).

The formula is fairly simple: cities looking for a more fit populace should invest in parks, safe bike lanes and trails, and a built environment that fosters walkability (great streets, compact development, quality transit, etc.).

Some news from around…

  • In Boston, the iconic Christian Science Center and Plaza plans for redesign on a human scale, adding a pedestrian bridge to the massive reflecting pool and adding trees and benches (Boston Globe).
  • The Urbanophile covers People for Urban Progress (PUP), an Indianapolis nonprofit which is repurposing city materials to repair and improve the park system.
  • The Brooklyn Eagle reports that Brooklyn Bridge Park’s second phase will open in June. The redesigned Pier 6 will boast a world class playground with breathtaking views of lower Manhattan. Meanwhile, Liberty Island will be open to picnickers on Thursday nights this summer (New York Times).
  • Many thanks to Streetsblog for sharing this fabulous video on San Francisco’s “Pavement to Parks” program.
  • In a struggling economy, parks are less able to provide jobs for urban teens (Wall Street Journal).
  • Who are parks and public spaces for? The Washington Post discusses the competing interesting of dog owners, young professionals, and stroller-wielding families.
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