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Parks as Community Development

Parks equal “conservation,” right? Not always.

In cities, the more accurate word is often “development.” Rather than being a pristine swath of nature, the underlying property was something that had been previously built upon. Rather than being conserved and protected, the land was scraped, cleaned and sculpted. Rather than being saved and preserved, the trees and horticulture were chosen and planted.

For this reason, a small but significant percentage of city parks are being paid for out of a federal funding source known as the Community Development Block Grant program, or CDBG.

CDBG is not well known among conservationists and park people, but it is a huge engine of federal revenue sharing for cities. Administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), it is the premier source of direct aid for lower-income city neighborhoods. At its zenith (in 2002) it distributed more than $5 billion per year to more than 1,200 so-called “entitlement communities.”

As “entitlement” implies, CDBG spending must benefit people of low and moderate income, and it is most commonly associated with affordable housing projects. But HUD lists 25 eligible activities and reports that about one-third of the money ends up going for public facility improvements, including parks. “One of the great hallmarks of the CDBG program,” according to Marion McFadden, deputy assistant secretary for grant programs, “is local discretion.”

CDBG Funding for Parks & Recreation, 2005 - 2013

CDBG Funding for Parks & Recreation, 2005 – 2013. Click to enlarge.

Between 2005 and 2013, more than $864 million in CDBG funding was spent on parks and recreation, an average of just over $96 million a year. While that’s a small percentage of the $6-billion-plus spent annually by big-city park agencies, it is much more federal money than comes in to city parks from conservation programs through the U.S. Department of the Interior.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that there has been a steady decline in CDBG funding, from $4.84 billion in 2005 to $3.56 billion in 2013. As one of the premier “domestic discretionary” programs on Capitol Hill, CDBG is a fat target for budget cutters, particularly since many cities are jurisdictions that are less than bipartisan.

Remarkably, park spending from CDBG has held up over the nine years, meaning that the percent going for parks has in fact increased sharply (see table). Combining the money with other funds, cities have built everything from recreation centers to neighborhood parks and skating zones to splash parks. Of the country’s 100 largest cities, 57 have used at least some CDBG money for parks in the past five years. Los Angeles spent more than $6.8 million in CDBG on improvements to athletic fields and parks. St. Paul invested $2.5 million into playgrounds. Atlanta used $6.1 million to improve a dozen parks and replace 18 playgrounds.

Major cities using the greatest share of CDBG funding on parks, 2008-2012. Click to enlarge.

Major cities using the greatest share of CDBG funding on parks, 2008-2012. Click to enlarge.

New York City used $580,000 in CDBG money to operate 11 mini pools in 2014. The city also granted more than $1.9 million to nonprofit organizations working to improve parks, build community gardens, and lead recreation activities. Seattle goes even farther, annually allocating $800,000 in CDBG funds into a parks improvement program that helped 20 parks in 2014 alone.

The situation in New Orleans is unique. Beyond its traditional CDBG distribution, the city also receives CDBG Disaster Relief funds to help with Hurricane Katrina recovery. Through this, over the past five years, New Orleans has allotted more than $60 million toward new parks and bike paths, added tree canopy, and improved existing parks. “Good recovery starts with good investment,” says William Gilchrist, New Orleans’s director of place-based planning, “and parks are a good investment.”

In Newark, New Jersey, The Trust for Public Land partnered with the city, Essex County, and the Ironbound Community Corporation to develop the Newark Riverfront Park. Located on a brownfield next to the Passaic River, the park added much-needed greenspace while linking residents for the first time to the water. $2.6 million of the city’s CDBG funds were combined with $4 million in other public money and $2.7 million in private money, and the project’s first phase was completed in 2013.

While CDBG is still a relatively modest funding source for city parks as a whole, its low-income requirement makes it special. These, after all, are areas that arguably have the highest need for quality recreation space. They typically lack the opportunity for special taxing districts or the private philanthropy of wealthy neighbors. Thus, CDBG is emerging as a powerful tool for providing quality park space to those who need it most.

This analysis was written by Peter Harnik and Kyle Barnhart. Harnik is director of the Center for City Park Excellence at The Trust for Public Land. Barnhart is a former intern at the center.

This article also appears on American City and County’s Viewpoints blog and is available for download from The Trust for Public Land.

Greater and Greener: A Victory Lap in San Francisco’s Parks

GGPost1It was a kind of Bay Area parks ‘lovefest’ that evoked images of another set of park lovers from the 1960s. But this time the peace loving vibe was coming from civic leaders and park professionals attending  City Parks Alliance’s international urban parks conference, Greater and Greener: Innovative Parks, Vibrant Cities, a few weeks ago in sunny San Francisco – a city with more public open space than any metro area in the country.

One thousand global park leaders, city planning and design professionals, and urban park advocates from more than 200 cities and 17 countries shared stories, photographs, lessons, data and some good humor about how parks change and enhance our urban quality of life.

GGPost2The diversity of participants made for a vibrant and robust conversation about parks and their link to just about everything in our lives that has value – health, recreation, learning, clean water, play, education, economic development, social cohesion, urban resilience, and on and on. By making parks broadly relevant, the conference attracted and engaged leaders from health, science, technology, and other fields to collectively re-imagine parks in a new context of economic, environmental and social opportunities.

In addition to the 150 speakers leading workshop sessions inside classrooms, the conference also offered more than 80 expert-led tours of parks, mobile workshops and special events that featured San Francisco’s beautifully groomed parks and community facilities. Continue reading

Economic Value of San Francisco Parks Approaches $1 Billion Annually

San Francisco’s park system plays a particularly outsized role in the City’s economy and is worth almost $1 billion a year, according to a recent report.

The report, by The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence in partnership with the San Francisco Parks Alliance, said the value of San Francisco’s parks is $959 million a year.

The report incorporates data from San Francisco’s entire park and recreation system: everything from destination icons like Crissy Field and Coit Tower, to trails, natural areas, neighborhoods and community parks, and even hardscape downtown squares. Seven major factors are analyzed and enumerated in the report: property value attributable to parks, revenues from park-related tourism, the value citizens derive from direct use of free or very low cost park resources (called “direct use”), health benefits resulting from active recreation in parks, community cohesion from gathering together in parks, clean water and clean air. Continue reading

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

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