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Proceed Without Caution: Cities Add Parkland by Closing Streets and Roads to Cars

A thirteenth 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 cities who have added parkland by closing streets and roads to automobile traffic.

In every city there are hundreds of acres of streets and roadways potentially available as park and recreational facilities. While parks make up about 20 percent of New York City’s total area, streets make up about 30 percent. In Chicago, 26 percent of the land is devoted to streets compared to only 8 percent for parks. Converting some street capacity for recreational activity–either full-time or part-time–is a underrealized opportunity.

Atlanta closed three miles of roads in Piedmont Park in 1983. The park now attracts more than four million visitors a year. Credit: Piedmont Park Conservancy.

Wresting space away from automobiles is never easy, but if any opportunities constitute “low-hanging fruit” they are the hundreds of miles of roads within city parks. Naturally, all large parks need some streets for access to facilities as well as to allow motorists to get from one side to the other, but most city parks have a surfeit of auto corridors. The National Mall in Washington, D.C., formerly had four parallel drives running for about a mile between the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument. Not only was the green Mall thoroughly intersected every few dozen yards by asphalt, but the drives themselves were permanently clogged with tourists (and government workers) looking for parking spaces. In 1976, just in time for the national bicentennial celebration, Assistant Interior Secretary Nathaniel Reed decided to abolish the two central roads and replace them with pebble-covered walkways reminiscent of those in Paris parks. The aggregate amount of space–about 4 acres–was relatively small, but the impact on park usability, ambience, safety, and air quality was monumental. Similarly, in Atlanta, following a raft of crime and nuisance issues that were negatively affecting Piedmont Park, Parks Commissioner Ted Mastroianni and Mayor Maynard Jackson announced test weekend road closures. Despite protests, the results led to dramatic increases in other uses of the park, such as running, walking, and cycling, and, in 1983 the closures were made total and permanent. (Piedmont Park is today the most car-free major city park in the United States.)

Other examples abound (see below table). San Francisco’s longtime Sunday closure of 2 miles of John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park was extended in 2007 to Saturdays as well. The program, which makes available one of the only hard, flat, safe areas for children in the entire hilly city, according to the San Francisco Bike Coalition, effectively added about 12 acres of parkland without any acquisition or construction costs. Park usage during car-free hours is about double that of when cars are around. Even cities that are thoroughly oriented to cars are finding an enthusiastic constituent response to park road closures. Kansas City, Missouri, bans automobiles on beautiful Cliff Drive within Kessler Park from Friday noon until Monday morning during the summer. San Antonio permanently closed Brackenridge Park’s Wilderness Road and Parfun Way in 2004. And Los Angeles has permanently closed 10 miles of Via del Valle and Mt. Hollywood Drive in Griffith Park to protect wildlife, reduce the risk of fire, and provide a safe, quiet venue for walkers, runners, and cyclists.

It’s not just large parks. Many small parks which were disfigured by roads can be re-greened, too. New York City’s Washington Square, famous as a Greenwich Village movie set and also for street theater, rallies, and as a de facto quad for New York University, had been bisected by Fifth Avenue until 1964. Ironically, a proposal to expand that avenue into a freeway led to the uproar that made the park entirely car-free–and a much more successful space. In Washington, D.C., Thomas Circle had gradually been sliced down in size almost to the diameter of the statue of General George Henry Thomas and his horse, with traffic consuming the entire area. In 2007 the National Park Service and the District of Columbia reinstituted the original circle and rebuilt pedestrian walkways to allow people to use it. Earlier, a similar project re-unified 2.5-acre Logan Circle and helped ignite a renewal of its neighborhood.

In 2007, Houston got itself a park addition by trading away a street. It happened in Hidalgo Park, a venerable 12-acre greenspace in the city’s hard-bitten East End, near the Turning Basin on Buffalo Bayou where Houston started. When a small sliver between the park and the bayou came up for sale, the city secured federal funds to buy it through an obscure federal program called Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation. The sliver had two drawbacks: It was separated from Hildago Park by a street, plus there is a federal requirement that coastal funds be matched one-to-one by non-federal dollars. Park Director Joe Turner took a tour of the site and had a “Eureka!” moment–why not close the street, have it transferred from the Public Works Department to Parks and Recreation, and use its land value as the local match for the federal grant. The politics and geography happened to be perfect: There were no houses on the street, it had no through access, and the one industrial user at the far end had another plant entrance it could use. And since no one before Joe Turner had ever offered to use the value of a street as a local match, the federal bureaucrats were surprised enough to say yes. (They’ve since rethought it and forbidden the maneuver, but the Houston handshake was grandfathered in.) Today Hidalgo Park is a much-improved 14 acres with unbroken access to the channel and views of the stupendous ships coming up to the Turning Basin.

Closing and beautifying streets that are not in parks is more difficult. Many cities, including Boston, Santa Monica, and New Orleans have turned one of their key downtown streets into a car-free zone, although in nearly all cases the motivation is less for casual, free recreation and clean air than for upscale shopping and dining. Portland, Oregon, however, did pull off a famous and extraordinarily successful “road-to-park” conversion. It involved the 1974 elimination of four-lane Harbor Drive, an expressway along the Willamette River that had been rendered redundant by a new interstate highway. Most cities would have given in to the strenuous remonstrances of their traffic engineers and kept highways along both sides of their river, but under the leadership of Mayor (later Governor) Tom McCall the old roadway was dug up and replaced by 37-acre Waterfront Park. The park opened in 1978, exactly three-quarters of a century after the concept was first proposed by planner and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., in his plan for Portland. Built for about $8.5 million, the park in its very first year was credited with stimulating an estimated $385 million in retail, office, hotel, and residential development in the vicinity. Later named after the visionary governor, Tom McCall Waterfront Park has since become Portland’s focal point for all kinds of activities and festivals.

Baltimore's 14-mile Gwynns Falls Trail used about six miles of underused roads along a scenic stream valley that are now popular with bikers, runners and other non-car users. Credit: Maria Carola.

Some cities, including Baltimore, El Paso, Chicago, New York, and Miami, have recently begun experimenting with the idea of once-a-summer or once-a-month road closures on regular city streets, following the example of the “ciclovias” that have become immensely popular in Bogota, Colombia; Quito, Ecuador; and several other Latin American cities. Called such things as “Summer Streets,” “Scenic Sundays,” “Walk and Roll,” and “Bike Days Miami,” the events often take place on cities’ most park-like streets (Park Avenue in New York, Scenic Drive in El Paso) and bring forth tens of thousands of people in an electrifying, community atmosphere in a domain normally dominated by cars. (The events are often initially organized and promoted by bicyclists but soon become so congested that they evolve into street festivals.)

Cities can permanently convert streets into park-like “Woonerfs,” a Dutch concept for neighborhood ways where pedestrians, bicyclists, and children are given priority over cars. (The name translates to “Home Zone,” which is what it is called in Great Britain.) While the concept has yet to fully establish itself in the United States, variants have surfaced. On downtown Asheville, North Carolina’s, Wall Street, the city installed brick pavers, bollards, benches, and lights so intertwined that they become an obstacle course that greatly reduces automobile speeds. Seattle is doing similar traffic calming in certain neighborhoods and is also adding numerous pervious areas and water-capturing features to add ecological benefits to these “street-parks.”

Park Roads that Have Been Closed to Automobiles, Selected Parks

Park City Road Name Miles Closure
Time
Year First Closed
Central Park New York Central Park Dr. 6 P 1966
Golden Gate Park San Francisco John F. Kennedy Dr. 2 P 1967
Prospect Park Brooklyn, N.Y. Prospect Park Dr. 3.5 P 1966
Gwynns Falls Trail Baltimore Ellicott Dr./Wetheredsville Rd. 6 F 1972
The National Mall Washington, D.C. Washington Dr. & Adams Dr. 2 F 1976
Rock Creek Park Washington, D.C. Beach Dr. 4 P 1981
Fairmount Park Philadelphia Martin Luther King Dr. 4 P 1982
Piedmont Park Atlanta Piedmont Park Dr. 2.9 F 1983
Washington Park Denver Marion Pkwy/Humboldt Dr. 2 F 1985
Overton Park Memphis Interior Rd. 2 F 1987
Griffith Park Los Angeles Mt. Hollywood Dr. 10 F 1991
Memorial Park Houston Picnic Loop 1.2 P 1994
Garden of the Gods Colorado Springs Gateway Rd. 0.25 F 1996
Brackenridge Park San Antonio Wilderness Rd. 1 F 2004
Fair Park Dallas First Ave. 0.25 F 2004
Pope Park Hartford, Conn. Pope Park Dr. 0.2 F 2005
Franklin Mnts St. Pk El Paso Scenic Dr. 2.6 P 2008
Kessler Park Kansas City, Mo. Cliff Drive 2.6 P 2008
Hampton Park Charleston, S.C. Mary Murray Dr. 1.5 P N.A.
F – Full-time; P – Part-time; N.A. – Not Available      
Source: Center for City Park Excellence, The Trust for Public Land, 2008      
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2 Responses

  1. There is an error in your article dated April 2012 on Park Closings.

    in the section on dates when the parks were closed to traffic, you gave the date of 1983 for Piedmont Park, Atlanta, GA

    The Park roads were closed in 1977 on a weekend basis. They were closed entirely in 1983.

    I enjoyed your article and the work you do.

    Sincerely,

    Ted Mastroianni
    Commissioner/Director of Altanta, GA Parks, Libraries and Cultural Affairs Department 1975-1979

    .

  2. Peter, do you have time to meet sometime?

    Teddy

    Sent from my iPhone

    Ted Mastroianni 202-445-6348 Publicpolicystrategies.com Ted.mastroianni@gmail.com

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