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September’s Frontline Park: The Warner Parks

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.

Morning light

This month’s Frontline Park is actually a twofer.  Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Edwin and Percy Warner Parks, collectively known as “The Warner Parks,” span 2684 acres just 9 miles from downtown Nashville. Over 500,000 people visit the Parks annually to utilize scenic roadways and overlooks, hiking and horse trails, cross country running courses, golf courses, athletic fields, and to attend the Iroquois Steeplechase.  The park also boasts a very popular nature center that offers a wide range of environmental education programs, school field trips, educator training workshops, outdoor recreation programs and other special activities for people of all ages.

Nature Hike

Over the past five years, the Friends of Warner Parks have purchased 448 acres of land (valued at approximately $20,000,000) to add to the Warner Parks.  Not only did this increase the size and capacity of the parks, but the land also contains the largest tract of old growth forest in an urban area.  Community support for obtaining the land was strong.  The Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County contributed $1,600,000 to this effort, but the bulk of the funds have come from donations by Nashville residents.  This outstanding preservation effort received the 2010 Governor’s Environmental Stewardship Award for Excellence in Natural Heritage Conservation, and 225 acres of the new parkland has been designated a State Natural Area.

To learn more about Warner Parks, please visit the Nashville Metro Board of Parks & Recreation.

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

Transforming Houston with Bayou Greenways

The following article is a guest blog post by Jen Powis, Advocacy Director, Houston Parks Board

Imagine Atlanta’s Beltline meeting Portland’s Master Bike Plan, and you’ll get a strong sense of what the completed Houston Bayou Greenways will look like over the next decade.  And that’s why there is so much excitement over what the City of Houston is doing for its urban parks.

Houston is a sprawling, cosmopolitan city of over 650 square miles and 2.3 million people.  But this November, if citizens approve $166 million parks bond, Houston will also have over 150 miles of connected biking and walking paths along nearly 2,000 acres of new parkland, completely separated from cars.

The bond dollars will help complete a system of connected parks throughout Houston known as the Bayou Greenways.  Bayou Greenways are linear public parks along the major bayous flowing towards the Gulf of Mexico that connect many of Houston’s signature parks like Herman Park and Eleanor Tinsley Park.  Much of the land along Houston’s bayous are either in the floodway or the floodplain, and thus not suitable for major development.  By leveraging this otherwise natural land for the development of a connected park system, we accomplish multiple goals for less than half the cost.  These lands are first and foremost parks: places to walk and bike, exercise or sit under a tree.  But they also provide wildlife habitat, help our water quality and flood control, and unite our communities with safe, off-street, and connected access to our existing bus lines and sharrows.

Houston currently has 75 miles of shared use paths and nearly 40,000 acres of parkland.  With the addition of another 2,000 acres of parks directly along the bayous, Houston is poised to have a one-of-a-kind, off-street trail system that re-envisions transportation while at the same time, completing an urban park system like no other.

100 Years Later
In 1912, one of Houston’s first visionary architects recommended to the city that it should take advantage of its natural ecology—the bayous, creeks and ditches that make Houston the swampy port city that it is today.  Since that time, countless individuals and stakeholders have slowly been crafting a system of parks that are connected along the major bayous that flow directly through the city center, making their way to the Gulf of Mexico and the Houston Ship Channel.

There are 10 major bayous in the Greater Houston area.  Many of those bayous currently have sections of trails, linear parks and other larger parks sprinkled throughout each corridor.  Because these linear parks and trails are not connected and continuous, the greenways lack the transformative impact they could potentially have on the area.

So far, the investment in existing trails and parks along our bayous conservatively exceeds $2.4 billion. The only remaining task is to connect them all.  The cost to complete the greenways, trails and new parks within the city limits is $205 million.  The bond would provide approximately $100 million to make those connections and private individuals and community groups have pledged to match the public dollars to complete the job in Houston.

Transformative and Beneficial
Parks play an anchor role in an urban environment, and with the Bayou Greenways completed, Houston will have one of the best systems around.  The health, environmental and economic benefits associated with a project like this are all aspects of a citizen’s quality of life.  They feed into whether a city can attract new talent, and keep its retirees.  It also feeds into larger business relocation decisions, as a company often wants to be associated with a city—like Houston—that was recently named the “coolest city” in America.

We were so sure that implementation of the Bayou Greenways Initiative would have positive economic, environmental, and physical and mental health benefits, that we commissioned a study by a well known professor at Texas A&M University.  Conservatively, the benefits that were assessed a dollar value demonstrate a returning annual benefit of $117 million a year.  That’s a pretty amazing return on investment and another example of why urban parks are so important in today’s fast paced world.   For Houston, there is unlikely to be any other investment that will transform its image from a “cement city” to one that embraces green.

For years, the City, the County, non-profits, and community organizations have been working on different segments of the Bayou Greenways, completing segment by segment and connecting park to park. It’s time to finish the job of uniting the bayous with greenways, trails and parks. That is why the Bayou Greenways Initiative was born.  And this November, it will finally be on its way to completion.

Cities Can Have Health Promoting Park Systems Through Beauty and Great Design

To promote physical activity and mental development, parks need great playgrounds. To make trails and walkways welcoming, parks need excellent horticulture. To lure tourists and other first-time visitors, parks need art, visual excitement‚ and high-quality workmanship. To make all users feel wanted, respected, safe, and oriented, parks need pleasing and effective signage. If all these elements are present, they add up to that memorable result—great design.

It may seem odd that design could be related to health, but it’s true: pleasing predictability encourages participation. If the basics are well provided, people will flock to the system and use it to the fullest.

An example of good park signage. Credit: Coleen Gentles

Signage may be the most overlooked amenity. Parks without signs are like elevators without buttons, libraries without book numbers, or restaurants without menus. At best, signless parks are confusing and frustrating; at worst they are intimidating and frightening. To cite only one example of many, at an unsigned fork on a national park trail in Arlington, Virginia, one path leads 18 miles to Mount Vernon, while the other crosses the Potomac River to Washington, D.C. More than two dozen years after the trail’s construction, there is still no guidance for the thousands of tourists each year who stand at that critical juncture, scratching their heads.

Good signage can do much more than just point the way. It can also provide distance measurements for walkers, runners‚ and cyclists; denote hours of operation or road closures; indicate the way to refreshments, restrooms‚ and emergency call boxes; relate historical and ecological information; convey rules and safety instruction; and even provide health tips and information about calories burned in a particular activity.

Another parklike space that benefits from good design is the urban schoolyard. Too often, schoolyards are poorly designed, maintained‚ and managed—simply slabs of asphalt surrounded by chain-link fences with a locked gate. For a few hours each school day, children use them to burn off steam, but the valuable land gets no activity after school and on weekends, even in neighborhoods desperate for park space. (In the worst cases, they are used as teacher parking lots.) In contrast, school systems and park departments in cities including Boston, Denver, Houston‚ New York, and Phoenix have cooperated in redesigning and rebuilding schoolyards into year-round play parks, serving students during school hours and the full community at other times. The best ones include trees, gardens‚ and performance stages as well as exercise gear and locations for exercise, games, climbing, jumping rope, and more.

Credit: Marni Horwitz

In an unusual public-private partnership, New York City is rebuilding derelict schoolyards for students and opening them to the full community outside school hours. A three-way program of the board of education, the department of parks and recreation, and The Trust for Public Land, the effort focuses on park-poor neighborhoods and is part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030, which aims to provide safe play places within a ten-minute walk of every child in New York City.

“It’s hard to imagine a space that provides more health benefit for more young people per square foot than a school playground,” said Mary Alice Lee, director of the New York City Playground Program for TPL. “Converting an expanse of cracked asphalt into a colorful, exciting space with a field, track, trees, performance stage, interactive garden, slides, climbers, hair-braiding area, and jump-rope area is revelatory for these kids. They just explode with activity and creativity.” And then, after school and on weekends, with the gates open, the children and families of the rest of the community get their chance, too.

The partnership, which began in 1996, is expected to create 256 playgrounds, resulting in nearly 200 acres of new city parkland by 2012. On average each playground costs $1 million and begins with an in-depth participatory design process that includes community members, representatives from after-school programs, students, parents, school administrators, teachers, and custodial staff. During a three-month student-design phase, TPL meets weekly with four classes at the school. Students learn how to do surveying, conduct sunlight studies, and interview community stakeholders, and they work with landscape architects and equipment manufacturers to choose play equipment that is age-appropriate and within budget. “The empowerment of the participatory design process, especially for children in underserved neighborhoods, is critical,” says Lee.

Of the renovated playgrounds, most are owned by the New York City Department of Education and maintained by school custodial staff; some are owned by the city parks department. The Trust for Public Land contracts with a local partner, such as a neighborhood organization, after-school group, or parent-teacher association to provide programming outside school hours. Frequently, the partner group works with the custodial staff to close and open the schoolyard on weekends and in the evening. Most of the schoolyards are open all day on weekends and during the summer and from 3 p.m. until dusk on weekdays. (In a few tougher neighborhoods‚ the hours are set at 3 p.m.–6 p.m. on weekdays, 10 a.m.–2 p.m. on Saturdays‚ and closed on Sundays.)

Interestingly, it is spontaneous play among students that has most increased following reconstruction of the playgrounds. While observations revealed a 25 percent increase in structured games and competitions, unstructured play jumped by a stunning 240 percent. This includes not only play on exercise equipment and running around, but also socializing and “hanging out.” Unstructured activity is valuable in helping even the least athletic children enjoy recreation and develop social skills and imagination.

In 2008, 19 percent of U.S. children between ages 6 and 19 were judged to be overweight. Providing an attractive, thoughtfully designed playground is an effective way to increase physical activity and combat childhood obesity. It is here that the New York playground program shows results. Based on a study of three renovated playgrounds in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Queens, the weekday visits (including after school) increased by an impressive average of 71 percent to just under 75,000 per site per year.

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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