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August’s Frontline Park: Emerald View Park

Each month, City Parks Alliance recognizes a “Frontline Park” to promote and highlight inspiring examples of urban park excellence, innovation, and stewardship across the country. The program also seeks to highlight examples of the challenges facing our cities’ parks as a result of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures, and urban neighborhood decay.

Overlooking Pittsburgh

Emerald View Park, Pittsburgh’s newest regional park, is a model of steep hillside conservation. When completed, the Park will result in 280 acres of playgrounds, playing fields, and landscaped lawns connected by 19 miles of wooded trails in a healthy forest wrapping around Pittsburgh’s most visited neighborhood. It will also provide bicycle and pedestrian connections to downtown Pittsburgh and regional trail systems. Over the last 150 years, the land has been denuded, mined, settled (and vacated), and dumped upon. The Mount Washington Community Development Corporation (MWCDC) and the City of Pittsburgh have met this challenge head on, and in the last five years have restored nearly 6 acres of view corridor and native hillside habitat, planted over 4,200 native trees and shrubs, removed 160,000 pounds of dumpsite debris, engaged nearly 6,000 hours of volunteer service and 4,000 hours of youth workforce development, purchased an additional 28 acres of land for permanent greenspace, completed a 19-mile trail plan, constructed the first new mile of trail, and enabled $3.6 million in investments to further the Emerald View Park initiative.

Trail crew

1.4 million visitors a year come to the unfinished park to enjoy sweeping views of Pittsburgh and her rivers and bridges, so it’s clear that the economic development potential of Emerald View is significant. However, through a partnership with the A. Phillip Randolph Institute, Student Conservation Association, and GTECH Strategies, the MWCDC is ensuring that these benefits are leveraged and experienced equitably. They are training and hiring young at-risk adults to construct the park’s trail system and to restore healthy forests. By providing green jobs training resulting in actual employment, this program is helping to build confidence, skills, and abilities for at-risk young adults, increasing the likelihood that they will ultimately compete successfully in today’s job market.

Emerald View Park is being featured on CPA’s website, www.cityparksalliance.org, during the month of August.

The “Frontline Parks” program is made possible with generous support from DuMor, Inc. and PlayCore.

Cities with Health Promoting Park Systems Reduce Stress by Calming Traffic and Emotions

As beautiful, peaceful islands of greenery, parks can help reduce stress and promote mental health. But this is the case only if parks provide a safe and welcoming environment. An empty, frightening park, or one overrun with activity that requires constant vigilance, can increase stress and damage mental health. This is a complex issue. On the one hand, parks need active public use to provide the safety of “eyes and ears”; but well-used parks need rules and enforcement to ward off stress from overcrowding and inappropriate behavior.

San Antonio Bike Patrol.

Activities that may provoke stress include panhandling, behaving raucously (including playing loud music), riding bicycles at high speed on crowded trails, and, of course, leaving trash and litter from picnics. Such actions need to be controlled by setting clear rules and then enforcing them. Just because parks are green spaces doesn’t mean they can serve as urban jungles. Despite agency cutbacks it is essential that there be some kind of uniformed presence to allay park users’ concerns—if not police, then uniformed maintenance workers, or perhaps even an “orange hat” group of volunteers who patrol in pairs and carry communication radios. For every person who may be annoyed by the “petty” enforcement of park rules, many more will be grateful knowing that civilized, thoughtful behavior is being enforced. Research shows that this is particularly true among lower-income and minority park visitors.

A special stress factor is automobile traffic, particularly for parents with children. An excess of park roads and parking areas not only reduces field space and the number of trees in a park, it also adds unhealthy noise and smog and may create real and perceived dangers from vehicles. Park managers who recognize the problem have instituted slow speed limits, speed humps, or circuitous routings—all designed to calm traffic. But some cities permit or even encourage fast, unimpeded traffic and even high-speed commuting through their parks. (Perhaps the most outlandish case was in Detroit, where for several years Belle Isle Park—designed by world-famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted as a pristine getaway—was annually the site of a Grand Prix auto race.)

Automobiles also increase stress in parks by pushing many bicyclists and most roller skaters off roads and onto pedestrian pathways. This can convert a pleasant walking experience into an annoying or even frightening one and decrease the total number of park users.

Credit: Seattle P-Patch Program

A completely different parklike space that can reduce stress and promote health is the community garden. Community gardens have been around for more than a century, but only in recent decades have city park departments comprehensively moved into this field. Many departments have designated garden areas within existing parks. A few have acquired established gardens and officially added them to the park system. The resultant spaces benefit public health in numerous ways: by promoting physical activity, social connections, and mental relaxation; by fostering feelings of self-worth and self-reliance; and by producing healthful food—of particular importance in low-income neighborhoods, where residents may have less access to fresh produce.

At the far unhealthy end of the spectrum, both mentally and physically, is outright violence in a park—either through injury from assault or through reduced park use from fear of an attack. Occasionally‚ a park gets a reputation for danger that is worse than the reality, such as when a homicide is committed elsewhere but the body is found in the park. But making parks feel safe is a complicated interplay between culture, rules, enforcement, design‚ and programming, one that also involves socioeconomic factors in the surrounding neighborhoods. Although much about crime and violence is not yet understood, better-used parks are generally safer, particularly if some of the users are engaged in organized programs.

Importantly, not everyone perceives parks in the same way. Residents of wealthier neighborhoods, where danger and personal safety are not overwhelming concerns, frequently prefer leafy, natural parks. Residents of poorer neighborhoods often shun forested areas and prefer open areas with lots of activity. There, enlivening parks is a high priority—from sports leagues to festivals, cultural events to cleanup activities, tree planting and vine pulling to outdoor classrooms and exercise cooperatives, “screen-on-the-green” movie nights to volunteer safety patrols. High-capacity park departments may be able to organize many activities without help; others should at a minimum have an outstanding volunteer coordinator to encourage and support partnership efforts to make events happen.

One effective way of increasing park use in dangerous areas is through “park-pooling”—group travel from neighborhoods to parks. Pennsylvania State University Professor Geoffrey Godbey interviewed a group of black women in Cleveland who walked together to a park, initially joined by a police escort. They told Godbey that they liked to see police, although as more women joined the group the escort eventually was not needed. In New York’s Central Park, there is an established meet-up time and location for females who wish to jog together for safety.

Credit: Friends of Patterson Park

Though Patterson Park is now considered the most successful park in Baltimore, this was not always the case. There was a time in the 1970s and 1980s when the city came close to losing the park and, with it, the surrounding Patterson Park neighborhood. Demographic changes to the neighborhood, crime, vandalism‚ and drug dealing began tipping the 135-acre park from amenity to liability. Structures were damaged and vegetation was killed; arson destroyed the beloved Music Pavilion. The nadir came in 1985, when a youth was severely beaten in the park in a widely publicized racial incident.

The first few save-the-neighborhood efforts sputtered and died. Finally, in 1993, community leaders produced a plan that included a vision for improving the park. Under guidance from a University of Maryland urban studies professor and funded by a federal grant, a student spent two years inventorying all the park’s physical features, measuring erosion, and also organizing a park festival and an ongoing friends group. At the same time, a visitor survey threw up two red flags: Patterson Park’s users were overwhelmingly male, and almost half of the community’s residents never went there at all. It became clear that any effort to maximize the park’s value—including social and health benefits—depended on attracting new users, especially women and girls.

What turned the tide was the Friends of Patterson Park, which quickly grew in effectiveness, in part because it received staff support from two local organizations working on housing and senior services. The Friends began by tackling infrastructure improvements—raising private funds and lobbying public agencies to renovate the park’s iconic pagoda, install new perimeter ighting, and reconstruct playing fields and two ark entrances.

But the real turnaround was due to programming. Thanks to the Friends, the park gradually became the favored site for a wide variety of family festivals and events, including such longtime local favorites as the Turtle Derby (in its 70th year), Preakness Frog Hop, Doll Show, and Fishing Rodeo. Early years saw a canine extravaganza called Bark in the Park and a monthly Art Market Fair. Newer events include the Great Halloween Lantern Parade, the BikeJam Race and Festival, and the eye-popping Kinetic Sculpture Race of homemade human-powered vehicles.

Summer now brings concerts every other Sunday night, Shakespeare in the Park, outdoor movies, and four large cultural gatherings—Polish, Ukrainian, Hispanic, and African. Youth soccer leagues are ever present. Occasionally there are even more unique happenings, like 1999’s Synchronized Swimming Water Ballet by an ethnically and physically diverse cast of neighborhood residents ages 8 to 52.

“One of our goals was to do as much outreach as possible in the parts of the neighborhood that were less connected to the park,” said Kini Collins, former events coordinator for the Friends. “The main thing was to have fun!” Along with the fun, Patterson Park is delivering improved health for its neighbors and other Baltimore residents. Two health-related items on the Friends’ wish list are a children’s farm to teach about gardening and nutrition and a collaboration with nearby Johns Hopkins School of Public Health to capture specific health data for children and other park users.

Want to know more ways urban park systems can best promote health and wellness?  Read this publication from The Trust for Public Land.

Turning Brownfields into Parks

The below article excerpt, coauthored by Peter Harnik and Ryan Donahue, was originally published in the December 2011 issue of  Planning magazine. The full article is available here.

Back in 1975, the rusted pipes and immense corroded tanks of Seattle’s Gasworks Park seemed bizarre and incongruous against its verdant lawns. If old factory brownfields were repellent, and green parks were alluring, how could the two ever mate? But the imaginative flash by landscape architect Richard Haag broke that mold, and the reuse of that polluted property gave rise to an icon.

Seattle’s revolutionary Gas Works Park. Photo Credit flickr user Wildcat Dunny.

More than three decades later and 2,400 miles away a new icon is emerging in the city of Houston, also on a former brownfield. Twelve-acre Discovery Green is not only restoring ecological life to a blighted area but is also stimulating the kind of downtown redevelopment the city hasn’t seen in over half a century. Thirteen months after the park opened in 2008, apartments started renting at One Park Place, a luxury building across the street—the first downtown high-rise constructed in the city since the 1950s. This summer a 28,000-square-foot grocery store opened, another downtown event not witnessed during most residents’ lifetimes.

But the road from Gasworks Park to Discovery Green has been a bumpy one. Despite the existence of hundreds of thousands of urban brownfields — patches of earth contaminated by previous uses – the vast majority have not become parks. In a more common plotline, the demise of an urban factory results in a fenced property that sits vacant for decades and, if lucky, gets rebuilt as some other structure.

When it comes to brownfields, the typical focus is on industrial and commercial reuse of the battered properties. The Gas Works model is different, and its value is now being proved in Houston. Discovery Green’s $182 million cost has already been far surpassed by the $500 million of private development in its orbit.

Discovery Green has turned a brownfield into an economic catalyst for downtown Houston. Photo Credit David A. Brown.

This concept – brownfield parks spurring workplaces and residences around the periphery – could become very big in the coming decades. In a few cases it has already worked. Minneapolis, focusing on revitalization of its Mississippi Central Riverfront, removed toxins left from its milling and shipping industries to create Mill Ruins Park. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has calculated that its $55 million investment in parks in the brownfield-laden area, along with $150 million in other public improvements, has leveraged $1.2 billion in private investment.

The result: 8,300 jobs preserved and another 1,300 created. The riverfront now boasts 3,000 new residential units, as well as expanded commercial and entertainment space.

A long and winding path

The large number of orphan brownfields is partly an unintended consequence of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), colloquially known as Superfund. The law gave the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency the authority to respond directly to hazardous waste releases and to force cleanups according to a “strict, retroactive, joint and several” liability system. This structure meant that even parties with peripheral involvement in a site could be burdened with cleanup costs.

While the legislation helped clean up a few of the most egregious brownfield sites, it left the bulk of them unused.

Only brownfield properties with extraordinary economic potential—minor contamination combined with a prime location, categorized as Tier I—overcame developers’ liability concerns without government assistance. As interest in downtown revitalization grew in the 1990s, and as developers’ complaints about harsh brownfield laws sharpened, EPA began to revise its legal and financial framework, moving more hard-to-remedy Tier II and Tier III properties towards productive uses.

The first step, in 1994, was the Brownfields Economic Redevelopment Initiative, which offered grants of up to $200,000 to communities to facilitate their conversion to economic productivity. A greater change came in 2002 with the Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act, which exempted prospective owners from liability and set up a more transparent system for current owners to undertake site inquiry. The law also authorized $200 million for citywide assessments, site planning, remediation, and revolving loans. It also appropriated funds to establish state programs.

To date, the EPA has provided more than $850 million through 1,895 assessment grants, 279 revolving loan funds, and 752 cleanup grants.

Actions at the state level may be more significant. Many states now allow voluntary cleanup programs based on the proposed use of a site. Upon completion and approval of what is known as a “risk-based corrective action,” the landowner receives a “covenant not to sue” or a “no further action” letter, guaranteeing that the state will refrain from future legal action over past contamination.

The new laws, combined with the economic repercussions from the 2008 real estate collapse, appear to be freeing up some of the value that has been frozen in Tiers II and III brownfields for years. Particularly significant is the fact that remediation for parks is generally less stringent and less expensive than remediation for housing. (There are, however, some skeptics who claim that state voluntary cleanup programs made too many concessions to developers, and that places children play should not be held to a lesser standard than residential areas.)

A surprise

Today, even some Tier I properties that formerly would have been redeveloped as housing and offices are being turned into parks. This is win-win for the EPA, whose mission includes both remediation of pollution and reduction of land consumption on the urban fringe. (A 2001 study by researchers at the EPA and George Washington University found that, on average, for each acre of urban brownfield land redeveloped, 4.5 acres of outlying green space are preserved.)

There is plenty of data to substantiate the power of parks. In his book, The Proximate Principle: The Impact of Parks, Open Space and Water Features on Residential Property Values and the Property Tax Base, Texas A&M University professor John Crompton cites 25 studies that record increased property values around the perimeter of parks. In some cases, the economic impact can be measured as far as 2,000 feet away. Removing industrial blight has other impacts: EPA has documented property value improvements of two to three percent within a one-mile radius of a cleaned up brownfield, even without turning it into a park.

Best is doing both. One study projected that cleaning a brownfield in the Lincoln neighborhood of Kenosha, Wisconsin, would result in a 1.7 to 6.2 percent rise in property values, but cleaning it and then turning it into a park would boost home values by 3.4 percent to 10 percent.

The value of brownfields-to-parks transformations is potentially huge, but these projects are not yet entirely self-sufficient. It is still difficult to secure funding for the early stages of brownfield development—planning, site investigation, and remediation—so those doing the conversions continue to rely on the support of EPA, states, and in some cases, cities themselves (which can sometimes help out with financial incentives or tax breaks).

Nonprofit organizations such as The Trust for Public Land, Groundwork USA, and the Center for Creative Land Recycling sometimes also catalyze projects, by engaging the community and working to fill funding gaps. Trust for Public Land vice president Ernest Cook noted that his nonprofit works to secure funding “based on the idea that parks provide myriad social, environmental, and economic benefits to the community.”

Continue to the full article, with case studies from Newark, Columbus, and Houston. 

Healthier Parks Through Partnering with Public Agencies and Private Providers

Creating a health-promoting park system requires greater expertise and resources than any park agency can provide alone. What’s needed are partnerships with other public agencies, as well as with private foundations, corporations, citizens’ groups, and volunteers.

Partnerships can be immensely powerful by leveraging the strengths of one partner with those of another—financial capacity with legal authority, for instance, or communication outreach capability with large numbers of participants.

But for every triumphant alliance, there seems to be another partnership that ends badly. The key to a happy partnership is a mutual commitment to an overarching goal larger than the missions of the individual entities. If narrow goals take precedence—boosting income or donations, improving name recognition, or generating individual publicity—the alliance is almost certain to fail. Leverage is not possible when a partner is working primarily for its own interests rather than for the larger cause.

When the larger cause is advancing health, park systems and recreation programs offer one set of skills. But there are also other agencies that share the goal and have their own set of skills to bring.

These include:

  • Health departments. Health agencies possess vast knowledge, expertise, data analysis, and other capabilities that can make them ideal partners.
  • Water or sewer departments. These agencies often own significant quantities of land to protect drinking water aquifers and manage stormwater runoff. Depending on legal requirements and limitations, a partnership might make some of these lands available for  healthful recreation.
  • Public works or transportation departments. These agencies control the other big parcels of urban public land—streets, sidewalks, and bridges—and can serve as key collaborators in all kinds of physical activities—runs, walks, bike rides, and much more. The link between parks and streets should be seamless, but it takes a thoughtful partnership to make it happen.
  • Transit agencies. Good transit is the key to getting lots of people to and through major urban parks without overwhelming them with cars and the need for parking. Advertising space on transit and in transit stations is a good place to promote parks and park activities. Conversely, park users can become a new source of transit riders.

Private companies, individuals, foundations, and nonprofits that could serve as partners include:

  • Health insurers and their foundations. Health insurers have a special interest in keeping their members and the wider public healthy, and they often choose to fund programs that promote public health. Examples include support for fitness zones and trails by the foundations of insurers Kaiser Permanente and MetLife.
  • Hospitals and clinics. Frontline health care providers may be among the largest economic entities in a community. Like health insurers, they often look for ways to promote health in the community. Although there are numerous physical, practical, and legal constraints to partnerships, there are also opportunities for collaboration.
  • Doctors and nurses. What could be more natural than a prescription for physical activity? That’s what happens in Portland, Oregon’s voluntary pilot Active Youth Prescription Program. Overweight children ages 6 to 12 are given a doctor’s prescription to simultaneously reduce “screen time” and engage in programs at a city recreation center where staff are trained to provide them with support and encouragement.
  • Disease-fighting charities and recreation promoting organizations such as bike and running clubs. This is another natural collaboration. Such organizations can supply members and donors to partnerships, while park agencies can supply land, facilities, and trained leadership.
  • Sporting goods and sportswear companies. These include manufacturers and retailers of sneakers, bikes, skates, playground equipment, ski jackets, soccer balls, and so much more. Partnerships with these companies—particularly when they are hometown firms— represent an obvious alignment of interests.
  • Friends of parks groups. These, of course, are the classic partners in most cities. While few friends groups can bring any money to the table, they are an excellent source of volunteers, public outreach, advocacy, information, local connections, and other value to a park agency.

    New York’s “Shape Up” Program. Credit: NYC Department of Parks and Recreation

With eight million residents, New York has recreational programming needs that would overwhelm the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation on its own. The department therefore has an ambitious partnership with a large number of public agencies and private organizations.

Perhaps most significant is “Shape Up, New York,” a fitness initiative that encourages healthy lifestyles and improved self-esteem through noncompetitive exercise. Funded by the health department and managed by the parks department, Shape Up sessions are staffed by professionals in personal fitness, yoga, cardio kickboxing, and step aerobics and offered both in parks and at New York City Housing Authority facilities. Added to after-school programs, Shape Up provides an enjoyable, low-stress approach that can help ease even sedentary youngsters into a workable exercise regimen.

Another joint effort with the health department offers a 16-week course for diabetics at a Bronx recreation center that incorporates health instruction with an exercise regimen. A third, in conjunction with the city’s Commission on Women’s Issues, is “Step Out, New York City,” a program of organized community walks in which participants receive pedometers to track their daily steps.

New York Parks and Recreation also hosts and heavily markets four free seasonal festivals that are supported by companies including Red Bull, the Olympic Regional Development Authority, and the Mountain Creek ski facility. January’s Winter Jam encourages residents to try crosscountry skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding, sledding, rock climbing‚ and hockey. The goal, according to Marketing Director Christine Dabrow, is to try new things in the outdoors, hoping that “something will spark.”

The Medical Mile, Little Rock. Credit: Little Rock Parks and Recreation

Many doctors prescribe exercise for their patients. In Little Rock, Dr. Robert Lambert and his colleagues at Heart Clinic Arkansas prescribed a path.

The result is the Medical Mile, the centerpiece of Little Rock’s Arkansas River Trail. Located in Riverfront Park and adjacent to the Bill Clinton Presidential Library, the facility offers a healthful opportunity for running, skating, walking‚ and cycling while also serving as an educational museum of information and inspiration about wellness. Among many exhibits, there is a 1,300- foot, three-dimensional mural wall, a wellness promenade‚ and a body-mind-spirit entry plaza. The themes of exercise, smoking cessation‚ and better nutrition were developed by a project partner, the Arkansas Department of Health.

The heart clinic’s involvement was catalytic to the project’s success. In December 2003, clinic physicians unanimously voted to undertake a two-year, $350,000 fundraising effort to assist the parks and recreation department in making it happen. After reaching that goal in only three months, they expanded the concept and increased the budget to $2.1 million—a goal they also met. The physicians’ success demonstrates that the medical community can go beyond traditional park donors to tap the generosity of all residents.

In dedicating the facility, Mayor Jim Dailey said, “From the perspective of the City of Little Rock, the trail is an economic, health, and environmental conservation stimulator.” Diana Allen of the National Park Service—another project partner—has called Little Rock “a cradle of innovation with health care and recreation partnerships.”

Want to know more ways urban park systems can best promote health and wellness?  Read this publication from The Trust for Public Land.

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