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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.

Spring Sprucing “America’s Front Yard”: Finalists Announced for National Mall Redesign

East view of the Mall from the Washington Monument. Credit: Coleen Gentles

Eighteen months ago, the National Park Service (NPS) in conjunction with the Trust for the National Mall, created the 2010 National Mall Plan, a vision for the kinds of resource conditions, visitor experiences, and facilities that would best fulfill the purpose of the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Stretching west from the U.S. Capitol to the Potomac River, and north from the Thomas Jefferson Memorial to Constitution Avenue, the National Mall is primarily under the jurisdiction of NPS, but multiple governmental agencies and organizations also have ownership over lands and roads within and adjacent to the National Mall.  These other entities, the Architect of the Capitol, the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, the Department of Agriculture, the General Services Administration, the District of Columbia, and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, all provided critical input into the National Mall Plan.

A nine-month National Mall Design Competition targeted three focal sites for redesign, and in April, the Trust for the National Mall chose four finalists for each area from a pool of 58 entries.  Those finalists were on display for public comment, until a panel of eight judges consisting of landscape architects, academics, architects, critics, and historians, selected the three winning teams last week.  The three sites to be redesigned are:

  • Constitution Gardens, a natural area adjacent to the Reflecting Pool and World War II Memorial, which has suffered from poor drainage and underuse.
  • Washington Monument Grounds, including Sylvan Theater, an underutilized performance space near the National Monument.
  • Union Square, located directly west of the Capitol building, home to the Capitol reflecting pool and Grant memorial.

And the winners of the design competition are:

  • Rogers Marvel Architects & Peter Walker and Partners for Constitution Gardens near the Lincoln Memorial, whose designs include an overhauled water basin for model boats and ice skating, and a new restaurant pavilion to overlook the park.
  • OLIN & Weiss/Manfredi for the Washington Monument grounds, whose designs include a wooded canopy for Sylvan Theater, and a new pavilion with a cafe for the walkway to the nearby Tidal Basin.
  • Gustafson Guthrie Nichol & Davis Brody Bond for Union Square Union Square and the Capitol Reflecting Pool, whose designs remove the reflecting pond that lies parallel to the Capitol and adds a pond at the nearest grass panel on the Mall.  (This design plan will be forwarded to the Architect of the Capitol.)

The Trust for the National Mall, NPS’s not-for-profit fundraising and advocacy partner, will conduct a $350 million fundraising campaign over seven years to support the capital costs of revitalizing these three spaces.  The Trust will begin fundraising for its two projects, while the Architect of the Capitol will handle fundraising for Union Square.  The entire National Mall Plan should cost about $700 million.  The next phase of the competition will identify and evaluate costs ahead of implementation, with roughly half of the costs coming from the private sector.

West View from Washington Monument, with World War II Memorial in foreground, Lincoln Memorial in back, and Constitution Gardens on right. Credit: Coleen Gentles

The National Mall Plan aims to better accommodate the high level and diversity of use the National Mall receives.  With 25 million visitors each year, the National Mall is one of the most highly trafficked parks in the country.  As a result, it requires resilient design and a variety of visitor-serving facilities.

To this end, the National Mall Plan proposed enhanced circulation and access for pedestrians, a goal the NPS had already begun to support through park-wide investments in new signage.  It also proposed new performance space, food and beverage concessions, shaded seating areas, restrooms, and recreational opportunities and facilities.

The Plan recommends specific uses for each of the design competition sites, which are reflected in the designs of the finalists.  It prioritized improved food venues and enhanced pedestrian access at Constitution Gardens.  The redesigned Sylvan Theater will better accommodate local events, and additional facilities will offer food service, retail, and other visitor services.

Union Square was planned as a First Amendment demonstration and event space; however, in December, jurisdiction over the site was transferred from the National Park Service to the Architect of the Capitol due to security concerns.  It remains unclear whether the proposed plans and winning design for this location will be implemented.

The Mall’s scale and formality, combined with large-scale federal/institutional and roadway adjacencies, create a space that is most successful at showcasing monuments and memorials, and perhaps less effective at welcoming visitors and providing community space.  It provides few dedicated places to stop and linger: to have a picnic, play recreational sports (the Mall is particularly ill-configured for the kickball games it so often hosts), enjoy a cultural program, or rest between site-seeing destinations.

If properly executed with quality design, active programming, and able stewardship, the rehabilitation of these spaces will provide new destinations with food, seating, programming, and signature design.  These amenities can anchor and sustain the strong tourist economy and provide authentic and desirable gathering places for local and regional residents.  This constitutes a unique and untapped opportunity to integrated community spaces and national icons at the heart of the city.

This will be the Mall’s first major renovation in nearly 40 years.  Groundbreaking for the first project will take place by 2014, with the first ribbon-cutting expected by 2016, the Mall’s centennial anniversary.

View renderings of the winning designs here.

Cities with Health Promoting Park Systems Provide Mixed Uses and Adequate Programming

An excerpt from The Trust for Public Land’s report From Fitness Zones to the Medical Mile: How Urban Park Systems Can Best Promote Health and Wellness. We wrote a preview of this report in an earlier postIn this post, we look at a mixture of uses and a maximum amount of programming.

Mixing uses in parks has its challenges and requires good design, adequate signage, and clear rules. Trail use, for example, can create conflict between walkers, skaters, and fast cyclists. Many cities appropriately prohibit fast cycling on trails shared by pedestrians. On the other hand, hard pedaling and fast running provide more health benefit than casual spinning and jogging. Other than putting bikes on roadways, the only safe solution is to provide parallel treadways for fast and slow users—and to clearly mark the allowed uses by location or time of day. Then, too, the alternate trails need occasional enforcement.

Even if a park system offers varied spaces for physical activity, not everyone will know how to take advantage of them. Some users need to learn new skills, some need encouragement, some need an exercise regimen, some need social support. Even with all this, many require other assistance—partners, equipment, referees, timekeepers, music, safety paraphernalia, and more. In a word, programming. Good programming can increase park use many times over, make activity more enjoyable, and increase its benefits to health and fitness.

Credit: Phil Schermeister.

Traditional park  programming consists of league sports, exercise routines, children’s camps, and oldies-but-goodies such as ballroom dancing. More recent additions have been Jazzercise, tai kwon do, tai chi, rock climbing, and bicycle “roadeos.” But in response to changing technologies and new immigrant cultures, innovative ideas come along all the time. In Minneapolis, the park department offers open gym periods to play sepak takraw, a remarkable kick volleyball game brought to this country by Hmong immigrants from Cambodia. Raleigh, North Carolina, uses the reward of a free pedometer for diabetic children who sign up for special athletic programming that includes nutrition instruction. Seattle has launched monthly Women of the World swims at two pools at the request of Muslim women whose faith bars them from recreational activities with men. Women of all faiths are welcome, and the sessions are privately funded. Overseen by female lifeguards and held at pools without street-facing windows, the swims provide some women with exercise they otherwise would not get.

Of course, programming has a health impact only if people know about it, and that requires promotion and marketing through advertisements, program pamphlets, TV and radio public service announcements, flyers, email‚ and social networking services such as Twitter. Outreach is difficult in times of tight budgets, but creative park departments attempt to find private sector collaborators in fields such as health, media, banking, and public utilities to help them spread the word.

Finally, every new program and every new facility needs to be evaluated, particularly when dealing with health, since this approach is standard in the medical community. It is not enough to assume that an activity has a positive impact. The only real way to know is through monitoring and before-and-after measurement. Sometimes the research can be done by the park agency itself. But when this is prohibitively time-consuming or expensive, it may be possible to partner with a local university, college‚ or high school whose student researchers can observe usership and even measure such health indicators as body mass index, heart rate‚ or muscle strength.

Credit: Susan Lapides.

When it comes to programming, Cincinnati—the nation’s 56th-largest city—packs a wallop. On a per-capita basis, Cincinnati ranks in the U.S. top ten for its number of ball diamonds, recreation centers, swimming pools, tennis courts, basketball courts‚ and golf courses. More important for public health, the Cincinnati Recreation Commission’s programs attracted over 3.2 million participant-visits in 2009, some 691,000 of which were visits by youth. All this in a city of barely 330,000 residents—giving Cincinnati the highest per-capita recreation participation rate of all cities reporting information to The Trust for Public Land.

Among the hundreds of programs offered are youth and adult league sports ranging from soccer and basketball to track and field and kickball; senior programs such as golf, swimming, tennis‚ and the Senior Olympics; programs for the disabled, including wheelchair football and basketball; and such offerings for youth as afterschool programs, summer day camps, and bike outings. In addition to the formal programming, most of the recreation commission’s 29 recreation centers offer fitness centers and open gym hours. Residents can use the recreation centers and the city’s 26 pools for a yearly membership fee of $25, or $10 for seniors and youth.

The Cincinnati Park Board—a landowning and land management agency separate from the recreation commission—plays a part, too, by working to make Cincinnatians feel safer in their parks. In Burnet Woods, a place with a mixed reputation, the board thinned out invasive vegetation and installed a disc golf course through the forest. The sport, which is growing in popularity throughout the country, drew so many more people into Burnet Woods that the park became safer and more appealing even for visitors not there for the game.

Credit: Rich Reid.

Fitness zones are easy-to-use, accessible outdoor gyms designed to promote general  health within a park experience, creating a supportive social context for getting fit. Using only a gravity- and-resistance weight system, fitness zones require no electricity and employ their users’ body weight to engage different muscle groups. The exercise equipment is durable, vandal- and weather-resistant, and appropriate for people 13 years of age and older of all fitness levels.

Working under the leadership of The Trust for Public Land and with funding from health insurer Kaiser Permanente and the MetLife Foundation, the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation Department have installed 30 fitness zones across the region, including six in existing Los Angeles city parks.

Fitness zones are often placed in areas of high need, including communities with high rates of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. Some are located adjacent to playgrounds to encourage adults to exercise while keeping an eye on children. Others are placed near administrative offices to reduce safety worries.

The El Cariso Regional Park in Sylmar is one example of a successful fitness zone. It includes nine pieces of easy-to-use outdoor gym equipment along with bilingual health and fitness information panels.

“The bottom line is that fitness zones attract new users to parks,” says Dr. Deborah Cohen, a researcher with the RAND Corporation who carried out an exhaustive before- and-after study of the facilities in 12 parks. “We also know that fitness zones are used throughout the day, that fitness zone users increase the amount they exercise, and that they use the parks more frequently than other park users.”

Time for City Parks to Pull Their Weight

From Fitness Zones to the Medical Mile: How Urban Park Systems Can Best Promote Health and Wellness.

We’ve written before about the need for urban parks to do more for public health. A new report by the Center for City Park Excellence, From Fitness Zones to the Medical Mile: How Urban Park Systems Can Best Promote Health and Wellness, looks at how individual parks and entire city park systems help people be healthier and more fit.  The report details more than 75 innovative features and programs, including 14 case studies, that maximize a park’s ability to promote physical activity and improve mental health.

Today’s post, a reprint of an op-ed that appeared in yesterday’s The Philadelphia Daily News, serves as an overview of that report.  We will highlight specific best practices in a series of future posts.

———————————————————

When it comes to health and fitness, the U.S. is in crisis.

Forty-nine percent of Americans get less than the minimum recommended amount of physical activity, and 36 percent of U.S. adults engage in no leisure-time physical activity at all. These people are not all obese, of course, but lack of exercise is certainly a risk factor for being overweight, and we are the most overweight nation on earth. On average, an obese American racks up nearly $1,500 more a year in health-care costs than one of normal weight, for a national total of $147 billion in direct medical expenses.

It’s well-established that physical activity helps prevent obesity and related medical problems. And there’s mounting evidence that providing places for urbanites to exercise (parks, primarily) can improve health.

But the mere presence of a park doesn’t guarantee a healthier population. Thousands of acres of city parks are not, for one reason or another, serving the purpose of helping people become healthier. With a growing clamor from doctors, parents, overweight people and even those who just want to strengthen muscles, lungs, and hearts, it’s time for parks to be more than just pretty places. Individual parks, and entire city park systems, should be designed and programmed to help people be more fit.

The overriding principle for a park system to foster mental and physical well-being is that it must be well-used by the public. But many parks don’t make it easy to exercise. Some are too small, some too big and confusing, some too far away, some too frightening, or too unattractive and unimaginative. Some are mainly athletic complexes for special users – baseball, soccer or tennis players as far as the eye can see. Others are primarily natural areas with occasional trails, too boring for many competitive people.

In the starkest terms, most parks simply don’t offer enough choices for activity. The more facilities and spaces layered onto a park, the more use it can get from people with different interests and skills. A golf course can serve a couple of hundred people a day; add a running track around it and it can serve thousands. (The one encircling Memorial Park Golf Course in Houston hosts 10,000 runners a day and is said to be the most heavily used exercise trail in the country.)

A playground is a nice spot for kids to practice motor skills, but adding a fitness zone of adult exercise equipment lets grown-ups get into shape while watching the kids. A softball field is a great place for 18 players, while unstructured space nearby means twosomes and threesomes can kick a ball, toss a Frisbee, play catch, throw sticks to a dog, and much more. Forests are wonderful sanctuaries for wildlife and the occasional intrepid bushwhacker; woods with manicured trails, an occasional bench and grassy openings can attract many more users.

Even if parks didn’t provide all the urban benefits they are known for – improving the environment, attracting tourists, building community, enhancing property values – they’d still be critically important because of their potential contribution to public health and wellness. But platitudes about healthy parks aren’t enough. If park agencies are to truly justify all the land and tax money they use, they must actually serve their health functions as powerfully as do doctors, hospitals and health agencies.

In the mid-19th century, Frederick Law Olmsted and others called for the creation of parks as refuges from the unhealthful air and stresses of urban life. Today’s urban air quality may be improved, but Americans have found other ways to put their bodies and spirits in jeopardy. Parks continue to be among the best places to offer solace and solutions to public-health problems.

The Desire Paths of Brasilia

wikipedia

The capital of Brazil, Brasilia is a planned city with parks and open spaces  designed at the height of automotive thinking in the late 1950s.

The city was laid out by Lucio Costa and the buildings by famed and still-living centenarian architect Oscar Niemeyer. Many of the buildings are iconic and beautiful in their modern form, but the highways of the city horrificly cut off key public places. Discovering Urbanism provides a great analysis of the city’s equivalence to Washington’s National Mall in showing the “desire paths” of those pedestrians who do venture into this green space.

The analysis “reveals a complex network of activity very different from the plan.” The exercise says much about how planners and designers should consider where people want to go perhaps more than where they themselves want people to go.

It also raises an interesting question about Brasilia and other planned cities: despite the historic nature of this planned city, should modifications be made, such as removing the clover leafs? Or can compromises be reached. For instance, could the integrity of the design be preserved by closing down the clover leafs and on-ramps to cars and making them into people-oriented park features?

Discovering Urbanism

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