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Going From “Parkway” to “Park”

A third excerpt from the recently released book published by Island Press called Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities. In this post, we look at some examples of boulevards and parkways used as parks.

Boston Women's Memorial along Commonwealth Avenue. Credit: Swampyank (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

When the parkway was first invented by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvin Vaux in the 1860s, it was much more a “park” and less a “way” than it is today. Of course, that was before the automobile. Eastern Parkway and Ocean Parkway, both in Brooklyn, New York, were wide boulevards with a center carriageway, narrow access roadways on each margin, and two attractive, maple-, oak-, ash- and shrub-filled median malls for promenading, sitting, seeing, and being seen. The malls had a cinder equestrian trail. In 1894, the walkway on Ocean Parkway was split to form a bicycle path–the nation’s first. There is also memorable paving-work and even chess tables.

The concept was enticing for reasons of both beauty and economics: parkways were not only pleasing to users but also provided a maximum amount of park edge upon which developers could construct homes. Many cities, from Buffalo to Chicago to Kansas City to Denver eagerly followed suit. Over time, though, most urban parkways and boulevards have been chipped away by transportation engineers and modified by new regulations and insurance requirements so that they do more for cars and less for people.

Some, like the Grand Concourse in New York, essentially lost all vestiges of their original human element. Lanes were widened and speed limits raised. Trees were severely pruned or removed and not replanted; muscular guardrails were installed; and intrusive directional and regulatory signs erected. Meanwhile, on some older boulevards benches have been removed; on new ones they were never even contemplated. By the time of the automobile era, almost every aspect of parkway design was for windshield pleasure, not actual use.

According to researchers at the University of Minnesota, making parkways into something more than just pretty roads requires that they be treated as places. “Parkways become places,” they write, “by creating outdoor rooms that are shared by a broad community, not just the automobile….The integration of sidewalks, bike paths, adjacent civic institutions, and other important cultural amenities with the road support the image of place. The orientation of buildings to the street also strongly influences the character of parkways.”

Back in the nineteenth century, Eastern Parkway and Ocean Parkway served many different users, and even today they accommodate far more than just drivers. The 6-mile-long, 210-foot-wide Ocean Parkway contains about 110 acres of non-car space. Kansas City’s Ward Parkway has spectacular fountains with benches, community-tended flower gardens, and Mirror Pool, which is used for ice skating in mid-winter. Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue features a center walkway that has benches, public art, and monuments, along with majestic shade trees, bushes, and gardens.  In contrast, the median on Pennsylvania Avenue in southeast Washington, D.C., contains only small cherry trees and is designed solely as visual relief for drivers – it has no walkway, seating, or any other pedestrian-oriented amenity.

Beyond squeezing more value out of existing parkways and boulevards, it may be possible to create new ones. Most cities have one or more streets that are extraordinarily and unnecessarily wide and that could be reconstructed as parkways with planted medians. This might be particularly effective in an old industrial area that formerly handled trucks or railcars but is now transforming into a residential or office district. Even urban highways are fair game for reconsideration. In many cities, the widest “streets” are the interstates that were bulldozed through preexisting neighborhoods and are now being reevaluated. Unlike expressways, which serve as noisy, blighting barriers in cities, parkways are known to add substantial value to nearby residences, often resulting in enough additional tax revenue to cover the cost of their creation and maintenance.

Minneapolis is now in the forefront of the parkway retrofit movement. While the city and the Park Board are justifiably proud of the Grand Rounds, that famous route is in fact also a bit of an embarrassment due to a 3-mile gap through the northeast quadrant of the city. The gap, and the decline of the area, has lasted for more than a century while real estate values (and social capital) in other sections of the city have flourished. After drawing up plans yet failing to fill the missing link in 1910, 1918, 1930, and 1939, the effort went dormant until 2007 when the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board listed it among the top priorities in its comprehensive plan. A route has been selected that mostly involves using and redesigning existing roadways. There are formidable land acquisition challenges and a projected price tag in excess of $100 million, but the Park Board, under the slogan “Keeping the Promise,” seems determined to achieve success. If and when it does, it will serve as an influential example that great parkways and boulevards are not only a memento from the past but can link recreation with transportation in the 21st century, too.

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One Response

  1. Massachusetts was the first state with a metropolitan scale parkway system and by 2004 the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) recognized that it needed to act to reverse a trend of mounting erosion to that system. In 2005 DCR posted its Historic Parkways Preservation Treatment Guidelines at http://www.mass.gov/dcr/histpark.htm

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