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Room and a View: Rutherford Platt’s Reclaiming American Cities

By Peter Harnik

A city is much more than merely a physical entity. But for our purposes, as park lovers, let’s stay in that place for now: the physical city as the sum of its physical parts. What is the proportion of structures and open space that we seek? And of the open space, how much is for pure utility (fast-moving streets) and how much for social intercourse (sidewalks, plazas, boulevards and parks)? How do we get things cooking economically while keeping the kitchen tolerable? Too many buildings means too little breathing room—like a smoky wood stove choked with oxygen-starved logs. Too much open space means not enough humanity—the stove with just a few twigs, unable to heat up.Reclaiming American Cities Cover

Getting this balance right is remarkably difficult. A look back at the wrenching changes that have wracked our cities over the past century—booms, busts, blights, renewals, fads—reveals that neither government nor the private sector uniformly understands what makes for excellent urbanity. And, frankly, the conflicting pressures from different flavors of citizen activists hasn’t helped.

One problem is that advocates for conservation and advocates for housing barely interact. This is due to both philosophy and language. The two sides tend to disagree about what needs fixing most—environmental pollution or poverty—and they also literally cannot understand each other. The acronyms, descriptions and explanations, the methods for solving problems, particularly the government and private programs that are available, are unintelligible to the uninitiated in each camp. One side talks only about “housing the poor,” the other only about “saving nature,” and the gulf remains unbridgeable. We need a new paradigm: making cities great places to live, for rich and poor alike.

Rutherford Platt has started us in this direction. Reclaiming American Cities: The Struggle for People, Place, and Nature Since 1900 (University of Massachusetts Press) is perhaps the only historical narrative that seeks to gather up the disparate physical urban threads—housing, transportation and parkland—in a complete package that reveals the contradictions and blind spots (as well as brilliant insights) that have guided our lurching city building movement for the past century.

This book is not about parks, per se. It is about what Platt sees as the 20th century’s three waves of urban planning styles—“patrician” (top-down and inspirational, a la Burnham, which he says is bad), “technocratic” (top-down and scientific, a la master builder Robert Moses, also bad) and “humane” (small-scale and locally-based, a la urban gardening guru Will Allen, which he likes). Platt is strongly infused with a Jane Jacobs mentality, although he is probably more pro-planning than she was. Though not solely about parks, I read it of course with park-oriented eyes.

Platt, himself, is an unusual collection of disparate parts—a geographer, lawyer and historian, and also an optimistic liberal. But I must jump immediately to the revelation that sticks most vividly in my mind: the delicious irony that Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan for Chicago would have resulted in the destruction of Jane Addams’s Hull House.

Burnham was the leading exponent of the parks-oriented City Beautiful movement. Addams was the leading exponent of the anti-poverty-oriented Settlement House movement. Both were national figures of the highest order, and their offices were both in Chicago, scarcely two miles apart. This almost poetic confrontation provides Platt with a neat opportunity to teach about the two political viewpoints and the many ensuing movements and programs that grew from them over the decades, including “Radiant City,” “Garden City,” parkways and boulevards, “Model Cities,” “urban renewal,” “urban removal,” housing vouchers and a whole lot more. (He also uses the Chicago locale to weave in a discussion of the battles over “nearby wilderness” by telling of the epic struggle over the once-wild Indiana Dunes southeast of the city.)

Minor spoiler alert: Burnham’s grand plan was not fully realized, so Hull House was not razed. However, half a century later, a vast highway-and-renewal scheme with Burnhamesque hubris, took out the entire impoverished Halsted neighborhood that Hull House had been serving. Hull House itself was preserved as a historic landmark.

How many conservationists talk about poverty, race and housing? How many housers and poverty activists talk about urban wilderness and natural refuges? This is a conversation that needs to happen, and Reclaiming American Cities provides an excellent study guide for just this in-depth discussion, both within and between these groups. Of all general-purpose urban histories, it provides the best elucidation of the role that parks play (and don’t play) in the swirl of forces that constitute the urban conversation.

Peter Harnik is director of The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence and author of Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities.

Parks: In a Golden Age…Without Two Nickels?

Dallas1It has been a good couple of weeks for news about city parks. Many of them have been featured in the press with a focus on the value they bring to cities.

Klyde Warren Park, a 5.2-acre deck park built over a recessed freeway in Texas, was awarded the 2014 ULI Urban Open Space Award for bridging the downtown Dallas cultural district with burgeoning mixed-use neighborhoods, “…reshaping the city and catalyzing economic development.” Klyde Warren Park is expected to generate $312.7 million in economic development and $12.7 million in tax revenue for the city of Dallas.

At the Philly Parks Future Forum, park experts from five city agencies – Seattle, New York, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Chicago – gathered to talk about characteristics of good city parks departments. Presented by the City Parks Alliance, the forum was focused on how city parks are one of the greatest assets to the country and how they are progressing nationally.  San Francisco Recreation & Park’s General Manager, Phil Ginsberg, spoke about his city finally coming out of the recession with modest growth in their budget, saying, “The ROI for parks solving urban issues is high.”  And on the issue of equity, Jayne Miller, Superintendent for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, said, “We know parks do more for cities to address the great divide – we reach everybody with our parks.”  Continue reading

RiverFit: Memphis Park Gets a Big Boost

Earlier this month, Memphis opened “RiverFit”, a pop-up fitness area and trail along the Mississippi River bank. The project’s public and private-sector partners hope the temporary installation will catalyze health-focused park efforts in Memphis, a city routinely counted among the most obese in the country.

The Grizzlies Riverfront Fitness Trail + Pop-Up Park, as the project is officially known, stretches one mile along the western edge of Tom Lee Park in downtown Memphis. The revamped green space features six workout stations, two regulation-size sand volleyball courts, and a 6-on-6 soccer field. The installation, which will remain through the end of November, has inspired boot camps, Fit Kids Club, company “recess,” and volleyball matches between non-profit organizations.

Memphis RiverFit Bootcamp (photo courtesy Doug Carpenter & Associates)

Sponsored by the Memphis Grizzlies NBA team and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, RiverFit was developed in partnership with the non-profit Riverfront Development Corporation and the City of Memphis. “For the Grizzlies, fitness is core to who we are, what we do, how we live,” said Diane Terrell, executive director of the Memphis Grizzlies Charitable Foundation and Community Investment team. “As a professional sports organization—and the only one in Memphis—we have a special obligation to not only promote fitness but to enable it as well.”

Calvin Anderson, senior vice president and chief of staff for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, said the temporary fitness park represented a chance to fix the obesity epidemic plaguing the Mid-South.

“We didn’t get to our status overnight and we won’t get out of it overnight, but you have to start and this is a great opportunity,” Anderson said.

Memphis RiverFit Volleyball (photo courtesy Doug Carpenter & Associates)The backers hope this project will start a conversation about more permanent fitness equipment options for other parks across Memphis. “With this and other projects, the Grizzlies have firmly committed to help build a culture of health and fitness in Memphis, making it an integral part of who we are and how we live,” said Terrell.

“The best parks are the ones people want to use—do use—and use frequently,” added Terrell. “I think of RiverFit as a public conversation starter (for) what we as a community want from our urban green spaces in general and Tom Lee Park in particular. It’s my hope that a lot of people will weigh in on this conversation by using the park.”

Parks, Philanthropy, and Equity: New York’s Temporary Truce

A few months ago, Mayor de Blasio and the New York City Council passed a budget that adds $15.5 million to the Parks Department budget.  The money, for the most part, is targeted to small neighborhood parks for maintenance and capital projects.

Photo courtesy of New Yorkers for Parks

Photo courtesy of New Yorkers for Parks

The budget includes $5 million for hiring 75 additional parks enforcement patrol officers; $8.75 million for gardeners and maintenance workers; and $750,000 toward a new parks equity fund for neighborhood parks.  In addition to increased funding levels, the FY15 budget creates flexibility by allocating $80 million in discretionary capital funding for “neighborhood parks.”

“Addressing park inequities begins with the public budget,” said Tupper Thomas, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, an advocacy group, who called the increase “a great start.”  “The Council has delivered on its commitment to neighborhood parks.”

Photo courtesy of New Yorkers for Parks

Photo courtesy of New Yorkers for Parks

If you Google the words ‘parks’ and ‘equity’ as I did recently you’d think that the city of New York was the only one in the country struggling with this issue.  A plethora of links pop up from every parks and equity advocate and pundit in the city.  The issue, which grew and took hold during the city’s mayoral elections, stemmed from discussions on the role of conservancies and philanthropy in supporting city parks – and whether that private support has “dampened” political will for championing public funding.  Others in the city see parks philanthropy driving more inequity in the provision and maintenance of the city’s parks. And yet others say that there are other factors involved including the decisions of individual council members.

Photo courtesy of New York City Parks & Recreation

Photo courtesy of New York City Parks & Recreation

This spring’s budget discussions became a touchstone for the debate on equity in parks – and more accurately on the funding needs of operating and maintaining the city’s parks.  The “uneasy relationship” between philanthropy and inequality with regard to parks was described by Bernard Soskis in The New Yorker last winter, as a debate that made the seemingly well-heeled conservancies the whipping dog for the city’s park inadequacies.

By the time Mayor de Blasio took office the conversation began to shift toward the city’s responsibility and most agreed that a more robust city budget was the best answer to the problem of inequitable parks funding.  In his opening comments at a recent public hearing on park equity, Mark D. Levine, who is chairman of the Council Committee on Parks and Recreation, noted that in the 1960s, 1.5 percent of the city’s budget went to parks. That dropped to 0.86 percent in the 1980s, and then to 0.52 percent by 2000.

And, Tupper Thomas speaking at that same hearing pointed out, “Government has to take the first step. Government created the equity issue by not funding the parks…it’s not really the private sector’s responsibility to manage the parks of New York; it’s the taxpayer’s.”

This year’s budget increase is not the last word on this topic.  And many other cities around the country, even if the discussion has not bubbled up to national news, are facing a similar challenge when encouraging private support for parks that replaces diminishing public funding.

All this discussion – in New York and in other cities around the country – seems to herald a new era of focus on parks, funding and governance strategy.  For years advocates have beat the drum regarding an increase in city parks funding; in many cities the private sector has stepped up.  Maybe now with a more engaged constituency – who put their own funds on the line – we’ll see more increases in public sector funding.  But the reality is that we are not likely to see public funding ever reach the levels of the 1960s and 1970s.

NYblog4

Photo courtesy of Minneapolis Parks Foundation

While New York debates the role of conservancies and governance in shaping the distribution of parks funding, Minneapolis is also debating the equity question – but not so much who’s to blame as how to solve the problem.  The city is considering a ‘racial’ equity filter for allocating public funding.  In that city park user counts show large gaps in usage for some communities of color. The Met Council has a role in distributing about $30 million a year for parks.  How a racial equity plan would work is unclear.  The context for the discussions is the council’s emerging Thrive 2040 long-range plan, which stresses demographic change not only in race and ethnicity but in other forms, notably aging. The plan addresses not only parks but other issues such as land use, transportation and housing.

Photo courtesy of Seattle Greenways

Photo courtesy of Seattle Greenways

Seattleites – facing a $270 million maintenance backlog – are addressing the funding equity issue with Seattle Proposition 1 (Seattle Parks for All), which passed in early August.  Seattle will establish a separate taxing district, with its own dedicated funding, that will be spent on supporting the maintenance, upkeep and operations of the city’s more than 6,000 acres of parkland.  The District replaces an expiring parks levy.

Balancing the public-private funding stream in an equitable – and community-engaging – way is the new challenge for city park departments and their advocates.  What exactly is the role of private partners and how do we define this in goal-setting, agreements, and day-to-day working relationships?  And, what are better ways of engaging park users and the broader community in framing this new governance strategy?  Maybe if the rules of the game become clearer then it will be easier to focus on maintaining public commitment as the primary driver for park funding strategies.

KBlahaKathy Blaha writes about parks and other urban green spaces, and the role of public-private partnerships in their development and management. When she’s not writing for the blog, she consults on advancing park projects and sustainable land use solutions.

Community-Led Park Partnerships: It’s Not Just the Money

The Cully neighborhood is considered the most “parks-deficient” neighborhood in Portland. Citywide, 40 percent of residents live within a quarter-mile of a park. In Cully, only 24 percent do, with almost 23 percent of neighborhood children living in poverty.

Cully 1For over twenty years, Cully residents set their sights on the conversion of a 25-acre grassy field in the neighborhood, well-located and large enough for a range of community activities – even if it happened to be the site of a former landfill.

Tony DeFalco, Coordinator for Let Us Build Cully Park! (LUBCP!) recalls, “The community wanted it badly enough to figure out a way to build it. You had 25 acres, active methane collection and multiple partners involved in managing the site. We knew we needed to raise capital to organize a working coalition.”

Verde, a non-profit dedicated to building wealth in low-income communities, has been working with residents of Cully Park but as early as 1996, residents and the Cully Association of Neighbors negotiated with the mayor for a parks master plan. In 2010, Verde spearheaded development of LUBCP!, which was formed with the help of a $150,000 grant from the Northwest Health Foundation. Their coalition included 16 other organizations to maintain the community’s presence with municipal, environmental, and public health agencies through the redevelopment process for the site. Continue reading

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