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Paradise Built on a Parking Lot

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.

Santa Monica, CA
Built on the site previously occupied by the RAND Corporation’s headquarters and more recently a surface parking lot, Tongva Park and Ken Genser Square (once collectively known as the Civic Center Parks) encompass 7 acres in the heart of Santa Monica. The completion of these parks represents the first step toward completing a plan for the 67-acre civic center area, which re-envisioned the area as a vibrant neighborhood with improved linkages to the Santa Monica Pier, Palisades Park, downtown Santa Monica and Santa Monica State Beach.  Continue reading

November’s Frontline 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.

St. Louis, MO
ForestparkBalloonsINTForest Park, which opened in 1876, is a sprawling green space in the heart of St. Louis.  At 1,371 acres, it is one of the largest urban parks in the country, and more than 13 million visitors per year come to the park to play sports, ride bikes, run, fish, practice archery, or to attend one of the many special events the park hosts, such as the Great Forest Park Balloon Race.  With so many people using the park, traffic quickly became a big concern for the organizations tasked with maintaining and running the park. Continue reading

May’s Frontline 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.

Boston, MA

Image Courtesy of Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy

Image Courtesy of Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy

The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway is a 15 acre, 1.5 mile long stretch of parks in the heart of Boston created as part of the mitigation plan for the massive public works project known as the “Big Dig.”  Developed and constructed by the State of Massachusetts, the project reworked both road and public transit systems in downtown Boston, adding bridges, two tunnel systems, multiple interchanges, and restoring a city street network.  The state worked with local neighborhoods to develop and implement plans for the 15 acres of parks, which are grouped by the neighborhoods they are adjacent to – North End Parks, Wharf District Parks, Fort Point Channel Parks, Dewey Square Park and Chinatown Park each has their own character and features.

Image Courtesy of Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy

Image Courtesy of Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy

Operation, programming, and maintenance for the Greenway are handled by the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, a model example of the type of public-private partnership emerging in cities across the United States.  Funding sources include private donations, grants, and earned income, as well as public funding for maintenance and operation.  The Greenway faces some unique maintenance challenges due to the fact that it is essentially a very long, large roof garden covering an interstate, which means that it has minimal soil depth.  Despite this challenge, the Greenway is one of the few organically maintained urban parks in the United States.  Some site furnishings in the park were manufactured by DuMor, Inc.

The Greenway has quickly become a hub for activity in Boston, hosting more than 350 events in 2012 alone, in addition to regular attractions like the Mobile Food program (food trucks and trikes), a seasonal carousel, and interactive water features that attract millions of visitors each year.

For more information on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, please visit:

Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy

MassDOT

City of Boston Parks & Recreation Department

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 Proximity, Accessibility, and Co-Location

The closer the park and the easier to get to, the more likely it will be used. Conversely, people who live far from parks are apt to utilize them less.

These obvious truths have implications for public health, but recognizing the problem does not automatically offer simple solutions for mayors, city councils, park directors, or urban planners. Creating new parks in a crowded, built-out city is a slow, arduous, and often expensive task. It can be done—it is being done in almost every city in the country—but it is not the only way to bring people and green space together. Much can be done outside the park fence, in the neighborhood, where the normal processes of urban construction, rehabilitation, and change occur at a faster pace.

Sometimes easiest to fix is the problem of accessibility. Some parks are underused simply because they are too hard to get to. Users may be blocked by steps, fences, walls, cliffs, railroad tracks, highways, waterways, or an unbroachable row of private residences. Some parks require a long jaunt to the other side just to gain entry. Others are literally visible from a home but unreachable by children without a chaperoned car ride.

Park access might be improved by constructing a ramp or pedestrian bridge in a key location, or by installing a traffic signal on a busy road. While such fixes might cost from $50,000 to several million dollars, that is a small price compared with what is routinely spent on highways and parking lots and would be more than offset by savings in health costs resulting from more frequent park use.

People are more likely to use parks that are close to places where they spend time: restaurants, shopping districts, libraries, gyms, and other meeting areas. In some cases parks can be sited close to such destinations. In other instances businesses and attractions can be allowed or encouraged to locate near existing parks. A mistaken Victorian sensibility sometimes holds that the “purity” of parks should not intersect with the “untidiness” of commercial areas. In fact, people like that proximity. They welcome the opportunity to buy picnic food or an ice cream cone to eat on a nearby park lawn or bench—and if that sojourn can be combined with a brisk walk, jog, or basketball game, so much the better.

Or, a large downtown destination park might be considered for a bike station, like the one offered at Chicago’s Millennium Park. There, for a membership fee, park users have access to one of 300 secure bike spaces along with lockers, showers, and a repair shop. For tourists, there are rental bikes. Completed in 2004 for $3.2 million, the facility today is so popular that it has a waiting list.

Best of all is the provision of plenty of housing near parks. This is an old concept with a new name: park-oriented development. From Lincoln Park in Chicago to Riverside Park in New York to Lake Harriet in Minneapolis, the parks surrounded by lots of people are the ones that can provide the greatest total amount of health benefits. But often U.S. cities are zoned so as to prevent that outcome. Some communities are averse to the look of taller buildings around parks; others may even think that the fewer people in the park, the better.

If denser development is not possible, park use can also be increased by improving accessibility through walking, bicycling, and public transit. (Automobile access is less desirable because it requires acres of parking and eliminates the health benefit of walking and cycling.) Ample park entrances, great sidewalks, and bike lanes on connecting streets; pedestrian-friendly perimeter roads with plenty of traffic signals and crosswalks; and easy grades and smooth trails for elderly and wheelchair-bound visitors: all these contribute to great access. In large parks, high-use destinations such as playgrounds, basketball courts, and swimming pools should be sited near the edge of the park, not deep in the interior.

"Catchment Circle." The area of a circle grows by the square of the radius. If a park is easy to reach by bicycle, 16 times as many people can get to it in the same amount of time it takes to walk from a mile away. Illustration: Helene Sherlock.

Bicycle access extends the “reach” of a park 16-fold over walking. This is because cycling is about four times faster than walking, and the “catchment circle”—the surrounding area from which park users can be drawn—increases by the square of the distance from the park (see diagram on right). Thus, improving bicycle access is an important way to get more people to the park (not to mention the health benefit from pedaling there and back).

Good public transit improves park access even more. It is no coincidence that eight of the ten most heavily used parks in American cities offer subway or light-rail access within one-quarter mile, and all of them have bus service that comes even closer. In New York City major parks almost invariably have subway service. Other parks well served by subway and rail include Boston Common, Forest Park in St. Louis, Millennium and Grant parks in Chicago, and the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

As new transit lines are built, it’s sometimes possible to align them with parks. Seattle’s new streetcar line terminates at 12-acre South Lake Union Park. The city is working to increase housing and commercial density in this near-downtown location, and the alignment of park and transit is particularly helpful in reaching the goal. “Especially at lunchtime,” says former Seattle Parks Foundation Director Karen Daubert, “you can see the crowds walking off the streetcar right into South Lake Union Park. It’s the perfect connection to this waterfront refuge.”

For larger parks, internal transit can also promote access. At 130-acre Washington Park in Portland, Oregon—home to the popular Rose and Japanese gardens—special Tri-Met buses not only connect to the nearest light-rail station but also make eight stops inside the park. The service is inexpensive (or free with a transfer), runs every 15 minutes, and is aggressively advertised by the park department, Tri-Met‚ and event promoters. The route gets about 500 riders per day on weekends and 420 on weekdays. From a health perspective, taking transit results in far more walking than accessing the park in a private automobile.

Here are a few examples of the ideas presented above:

Piedmont Park, Atlanta. Health-promoting park systems appreciate density. Credit: Ashley Szczepanski.

In recent years, Atlanta’s Piedmont Park has shown a marked growth in users. There are several reasons for this, including policies that have reduced auto traffic in the park, the rehabilitation of facilities, better signage‚ and additional programming. But also significant is the fact that more people now live in areas bordering or near the park. Unlike many other urban places, the Piedmont Park neighborhood is densifying, and the park itself is serving as a significant lure for development.

Between 2000 and 2009 alone, the City of Atlanta approved building permits for 16 new multi-unit rental and condominium apartment buildings within a half-mile of Piedmont Park, and the neighborhood gained nearly 100 single-family homes. All told, the park neighborhood gained 1,880 units, or about 4,500 people, over the decade. These people are the heaviest users of the park facilities. They compound their health benefit by often walking or running to the park rather than driving there.

“Piedmont Park is one of the single biggest assets we have in the neighborhood,” said Ginny Kennedy, director of urban design for the Midtown Alliance. “In everything we do, we encourage and try to reinforce access and visibility to the park.”

Perhaps most significant, the Midtown Alliance—whose goal is to make midtown Atlanta an “exceptional place to live, work, learn, shop, and play”—spearheaded the area’s 2001 rezoning. The changes enabled many more people to live and work near Piedmont Park and benefit from its health-promoting effects.

Midtown Greenway, Minneapolis. Health-promoting park systems locate parks and trails so as to benefit from other uses. Credit: Freewheel Bike Center.

Since its opening in 2000, Minneapolis’s Midtown Greenway has quickly become one of the best-used bike routes in the country, largely because it combines a park-like experience with true functionality. The mostly below-grade former rail line is quiet to ride, bordered with green, and unbroken by street intersections. Yet its almost six-mile length parallels a major commercial street only one block away, offering easy access to grocery and hardware stores, restaurants, video rentals‚ and pharmacies. “Fast, safe, and pleasant” is how Midtown Greenway Coalition Director Tim Springer describes the linear park—but it is also convenient. Instead of returning home from a bike ride and climbing into the car for errands, many Midtown Greenway users are able to multitask. The greenway leads them to their needs, and their needs lead them to the greenway.

The city has consciously helped. When a massive old Sears warehouse was converted into the Midtown Global Market, officials built a connection from the greenway and also landed a federal loan to create the Freewheel Bike Center‚ which provides storage, repair, rentals‚ and sales. Next door is a coffee shop. Nearby, the new Sheraton hotel has an outdoor patio overlooking the trail (and directs guests to rent bikes from Freewheel). The greenway also intersects with transit along the Hiawatha light-rail line, giving some Minneapolitans a car-free commute with morning and evening exercise to boot. All in all, the collocation of the park with diverse destinations has made this not only a greenway, but a “healthway.”

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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