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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.

Cities with Health Promoting Park Systems Reduce Stress by Calming Traffic and Emotions

As beautiful, peaceful islands of greenery, parks can help reduce stress and promote mental health. But this is the case only if parks provide a safe and welcoming environment. An empty, frightening park, or one overrun with activity that requires constant vigilance, can increase stress and damage mental health. This is a complex issue. On the one hand, parks need active public use to provide the safety of “eyes and ears”; but well-used parks need rules and enforcement to ward off stress from overcrowding and inappropriate behavior.

San Antonio Bike Patrol.

Activities that may provoke stress include panhandling, behaving raucously (including playing loud music), riding bicycles at high speed on crowded trails, and, of course, leaving trash and litter from picnics. Such actions need to be controlled by setting clear rules and then enforcing them. Just because parks are green spaces doesn’t mean they can serve as urban jungles. Despite agency cutbacks it is essential that there be some kind of uniformed presence to allay park users’ concerns—if not police, then uniformed maintenance workers, or perhaps even an “orange hat” group of volunteers who patrol in pairs and carry communication radios. For every person who may be annoyed by the “petty” enforcement of park rules, many more will be grateful knowing that civilized, thoughtful behavior is being enforced. Research shows that this is particularly true among lower-income and minority park visitors.

A special stress factor is automobile traffic, particularly for parents with children. An excess of park roads and parking areas not only reduces field space and the number of trees in a park, it also adds unhealthy noise and smog and may create real and perceived dangers from vehicles. Park managers who recognize the problem have instituted slow speed limits, speed humps, or circuitous routings—all designed to calm traffic. But some cities permit or even encourage fast, unimpeded traffic and even high-speed commuting through their parks. (Perhaps the most outlandish case was in Detroit, where for several years Belle Isle Park—designed by world-famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted as a pristine getaway—was annually the site of a Grand Prix auto race.)

Automobiles also increase stress in parks by pushing many bicyclists and most roller skaters off roads and onto pedestrian pathways. This can convert a pleasant walking experience into an annoying or even frightening one and decrease the total number of park users.

Credit: Seattle P-Patch Program

A completely different parklike space that can reduce stress and promote health is the community garden. Community gardens have been around for more than a century, but only in recent decades have city park departments comprehensively moved into this field. Many departments have designated garden areas within existing parks. A few have acquired established gardens and officially added them to the park system. The resultant spaces benefit public health in numerous ways: by promoting physical activity, social connections, and mental relaxation; by fostering feelings of self-worth and self-reliance; and by producing healthful food—of particular importance in low-income neighborhoods, where residents may have less access to fresh produce.

At the far unhealthy end of the spectrum, both mentally and physically, is outright violence in a park—either through injury from assault or through reduced park use from fear of an attack. Occasionally‚ a park gets a reputation for danger that is worse than the reality, such as when a homicide is committed elsewhere but the body is found in the park. But making parks feel safe is a complicated interplay between culture, rules, enforcement, design‚ and programming, one that also involves socioeconomic factors in the surrounding neighborhoods. Although much about crime and violence is not yet understood, better-used parks are generally safer, particularly if some of the users are engaged in organized programs.

Importantly, not everyone perceives parks in the same way. Residents of wealthier neighborhoods, where danger and personal safety are not overwhelming concerns, frequently prefer leafy, natural parks. Residents of poorer neighborhoods often shun forested areas and prefer open areas with lots of activity. There, enlivening parks is a high priority—from sports leagues to festivals, cultural events to cleanup activities, tree planting and vine pulling to outdoor classrooms and exercise cooperatives, “screen-on-the-green” movie nights to volunteer safety patrols. High-capacity park departments may be able to organize many activities without help; others should at a minimum have an outstanding volunteer coordinator to encourage and support partnership efforts to make events happen.

One effective way of increasing park use in dangerous areas is through “park-pooling”—group travel from neighborhoods to parks. Pennsylvania State University Professor Geoffrey Godbey interviewed a group of black women in Cleveland who walked together to a park, initially joined by a police escort. They told Godbey that they liked to see police, although as more women joined the group the escort eventually was not needed. In New York’s Central Park, there is an established meet-up time and location for females who wish to jog together for safety.

Credit: Friends of Patterson Park

Though Patterson Park is now considered the most successful park in Baltimore, this was not always the case. There was a time in the 1970s and 1980s when the city came close to losing the park and, with it, the surrounding Patterson Park neighborhood. Demographic changes to the neighborhood, crime, vandalism‚ and drug dealing began tipping the 135-acre park from amenity to liability. Structures were damaged and vegetation was killed; arson destroyed the beloved Music Pavilion. The nadir came in 1985, when a youth was severely beaten in the park in a widely publicized racial incident.

The first few save-the-neighborhood efforts sputtered and died. Finally, in 1993, community leaders produced a plan that included a vision for improving the park. Under guidance from a University of Maryland urban studies professor and funded by a federal grant, a student spent two years inventorying all the park’s physical features, measuring erosion, and also organizing a park festival and an ongoing friends group. At the same time, a visitor survey threw up two red flags: Patterson Park’s users were overwhelmingly male, and almost half of the community’s residents never went there at all. It became clear that any effort to maximize the park’s value—including social and health benefits—depended on attracting new users, especially women and girls.

What turned the tide was the Friends of Patterson Park, which quickly grew in effectiveness, in part because it received staff support from two local organizations working on housing and senior services. The Friends began by tackling infrastructure improvements—raising private funds and lobbying public agencies to renovate the park’s iconic pagoda, install new perimeter ighting, and reconstruct playing fields and two ark entrances.

But the real turnaround was due to programming. Thanks to the Friends, the park gradually became the favored site for a wide variety of family festivals and events, including such longtime local favorites as the Turtle Derby (in its 70th year), Preakness Frog Hop, Doll Show, and Fishing Rodeo. Early years saw a canine extravaganza called Bark in the Park and a monthly Art Market Fair. Newer events include the Great Halloween Lantern Parade, the BikeJam Race and Festival, and the eye-popping Kinetic Sculpture Race of homemade human-powered vehicles.

Summer now brings concerts every other Sunday night, Shakespeare in the Park, outdoor movies, and four large cultural gatherings—Polish, Ukrainian, Hispanic, and African. Youth soccer leagues are ever present. Occasionally there are even more unique happenings, like 1999’s Synchronized Swimming Water Ballet by an ethnically and physically diverse cast of neighborhood residents ages 8 to 52.

“One of our goals was to do as much outreach as possible in the parts of the neighborhood that were less connected to the park,” said Kini Collins, former events coordinator for the Friends. “The main thing was to have fun!” Along with the fun, Patterson Park is delivering improved health for its neighbors and other Baltimore residents. Two health-related items on the Friends’ wish list are a children’s farm to teach about gardening and nutrition and a collaboration with nearby Johns Hopkins School of Public Health to capture specific health data for children and other park users.

Want to know more ways urban park systems can best promote health and wellness?  Read this publication from The Trust for Public Land.

Healthier Parks Through Partnering with Public Agencies and Private Providers

Creating a health-promoting park system requires greater expertise and resources than any park agency can provide alone. What’s needed are partnerships with other public agencies, as well as with private foundations, corporations, citizens’ groups, and volunteers.

Partnerships can be immensely powerful by leveraging the strengths of one partner with those of another—financial capacity with legal authority, for instance, or communication outreach capability with large numbers of participants.

But for every triumphant alliance, there seems to be another partnership that ends badly. The key to a happy partnership is a mutual commitment to an overarching goal larger than the missions of the individual entities. If narrow goals take precedence—boosting income or donations, improving name recognition, or generating individual publicity—the alliance is almost certain to fail. Leverage is not possible when a partner is working primarily for its own interests rather than for the larger cause.

When the larger cause is advancing health, park systems and recreation programs offer one set of skills. But there are also other agencies that share the goal and have their own set of skills to bring.

These include:

  • Health departments. Health agencies possess vast knowledge, expertise, data analysis, and other capabilities that can make them ideal partners.
  • Water or sewer departments. These agencies often own significant quantities of land to protect drinking water aquifers and manage stormwater runoff. Depending on legal requirements and limitations, a partnership might make some of these lands available for  healthful recreation.
  • Public works or transportation departments. These agencies control the other big parcels of urban public land—streets, sidewalks, and bridges—and can serve as key collaborators in all kinds of physical activities—runs, walks, bike rides, and much more. The link between parks and streets should be seamless, but it takes a thoughtful partnership to make it happen.
  • Transit agencies. Good transit is the key to getting lots of people to and through major urban parks without overwhelming them with cars and the need for parking. Advertising space on transit and in transit stations is a good place to promote parks and park activities. Conversely, park users can become a new source of transit riders.

Private companies, individuals, foundations, and nonprofits that could serve as partners include:

  • Health insurers and their foundations. Health insurers have a special interest in keeping their members and the wider public healthy, and they often choose to fund programs that promote public health. Examples include support for fitness zones and trails by the foundations of insurers Kaiser Permanente and MetLife.
  • Hospitals and clinics. Frontline health care providers may be among the largest economic entities in a community. Like health insurers, they often look for ways to promote health in the community. Although there are numerous physical, practical, and legal constraints to partnerships, there are also opportunities for collaboration.
  • Doctors and nurses. What could be more natural than a prescription for physical activity? That’s what happens in Portland, Oregon’s voluntary pilot Active Youth Prescription Program. Overweight children ages 6 to 12 are given a doctor’s prescription to simultaneously reduce “screen time” and engage in programs at a city recreation center where staff are trained to provide them with support and encouragement.
  • Disease-fighting charities and recreation promoting organizations such as bike and running clubs. This is another natural collaboration. Such organizations can supply members and donors to partnerships, while park agencies can supply land, facilities, and trained leadership.
  • Sporting goods and sportswear companies. These include manufacturers and retailers of sneakers, bikes, skates, playground equipment, ski jackets, soccer balls, and so much more. Partnerships with these companies—particularly when they are hometown firms— represent an obvious alignment of interests.
  • Friends of parks groups. These, of course, are the classic partners in most cities. While few friends groups can bring any money to the table, they are an excellent source of volunteers, public outreach, advocacy, information, local connections, and other value to a park agency.

    New York’s “Shape Up” Program. Credit: NYC Department of Parks and Recreation

With eight million residents, New York has recreational programming needs that would overwhelm the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation on its own. The department therefore has an ambitious partnership with a large number of public agencies and private organizations.

Perhaps most significant is “Shape Up, New York,” a fitness initiative that encourages healthy lifestyles and improved self-esteem through noncompetitive exercise. Funded by the health department and managed by the parks department, Shape Up sessions are staffed by professionals in personal fitness, yoga, cardio kickboxing, and step aerobics and offered both in parks and at New York City Housing Authority facilities. Added to after-school programs, Shape Up provides an enjoyable, low-stress approach that can help ease even sedentary youngsters into a workable exercise regimen.

Another joint effort with the health department offers a 16-week course for diabetics at a Bronx recreation center that incorporates health instruction with an exercise regimen. A third, in conjunction with the city’s Commission on Women’s Issues, is “Step Out, New York City,” a program of organized community walks in which participants receive pedometers to track their daily steps.

New York Parks and Recreation also hosts and heavily markets four free seasonal festivals that are supported by companies including Red Bull, the Olympic Regional Development Authority, and the Mountain Creek ski facility. January’s Winter Jam encourages residents to try crosscountry skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding, sledding, rock climbing‚ and hockey. The goal, according to Marketing Director Christine Dabrow, is to try new things in the outdoors, hoping that “something will spark.”

The Medical Mile, Little Rock. Credit: Little Rock Parks and Recreation

Many doctors prescribe exercise for their patients. In Little Rock, Dr. Robert Lambert and his colleagues at Heart Clinic Arkansas prescribed a path.

The result is the Medical Mile, the centerpiece of Little Rock’s Arkansas River Trail. Located in Riverfront Park and adjacent to the Bill Clinton Presidential Library, the facility offers a healthful opportunity for running, skating, walking‚ and cycling while also serving as an educational museum of information and inspiration about wellness. Among many exhibits, there is a 1,300- foot, three-dimensional mural wall, a wellness promenade‚ and a body-mind-spirit entry plaza. The themes of exercise, smoking cessation‚ and better nutrition were developed by a project partner, the Arkansas Department of Health.

The heart clinic’s involvement was catalytic to the project’s success. In December 2003, clinic physicians unanimously voted to undertake a two-year, $350,000 fundraising effort to assist the parks and recreation department in making it happen. After reaching that goal in only three months, they expanded the concept and increased the budget to $2.1 million—a goal they also met. The physicians’ success demonstrates that the medical community can go beyond traditional park donors to tap the generosity of all residents.

In dedicating the facility, Mayor Jim Dailey said, “From the perspective of the City of Little Rock, the trail is an economic, health, and environmental conservation stimulator.” Diana Allen of the National Park Service—another project partner—has called Little Rock “a cradle of innovation with health care and recreation partnerships.”

Want to know more ways urban park systems can best promote health and wellness?  Read this publication from The Trust for Public Land.

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.

An Interconnected Park Web: How Greenways Create Healthy Communities

We recently came across an article by Randall Arendt discussing how greenway networks are the “useful bridge between ‘new urbanism’ and conservation design.”  His article talks about using greenways as the connector to parks, neighborhoods, schools and mixed-use centers, allowing for urban and rural ideas to merge and produce a superior hybrid community form.  He argues that only when blending urban and rural designs can there be successful opportunities for improved public health and wellness.

Indeed, elements typical of rural environments can – and must – be part of any truly livable urban design, as Olmstead and Vaux‘s plan for Central Park in Manhattan demonstrates, and as further proven by the Olmstead firm‘s five-mile long “Emerald Necklace” around Boston, encompassing 1000 acres of parkland, connecting the Boston Common with the 527-acre Franklin Park.

We know that the better connected parks are, the more a park system can provide healthful recreation—and transportation, too. A recent publication from The Trust for Public Land shows how interconnected trails, greenways‚ and parks support bicycling, running, walking, skating, skiing‚ and even wheelchair travel—reaching all the way from home to work for some users. And several small parks can be connected to create a “large-park experience,” with a tennis court in one park, a basketball court in another, a swimming pool in a third. Connections can be a system of sidewalks or bike lanes, complemented by outstanding signage and perhaps dressed up with a catchy name, such as the Wellness Walk or the Fitness Funway.

The easiest way to create interconnections that also extend a park system is in stream valley parks, particularly where a small stream flows into a larger river and both are flanked with trails. This kind of intersection, comparable to a highway interchange or a train junction, more than doubles the usefulness of a given route. An even more effective connection can be made by bridging a river with a pedestrian crossing, either a new bridge or a repurposed old one. Wherever this has been done—including in Austin, Cincinnati, Chattanooga, Little Rock, Minneapolis, Nashville, Omaha, Pittsburgh, and Tampa—the bridges have become instantly popular attractions.

Another great connector is a rail-trail, a park path constructed out of an abandoned train track. Most of the more than 15,000 miles of U.S. rail-trails are rural, but an increasing number are in cities, including Atlanta; Chicago; Dallas; Houston; Portland, Oregon; Orlando; Seattle; and Washington, D.C.

Platte River Greenway, Denver. Credit: Darcy Kiefel.

Even without a stream or an abandoned railroad, it’s sometimes possible to create a linear corridor. It happened in San Francisco after the public utilities commission decided to retire an underground water main through Visitacion Valley, a lower-income immigrant neighborhood. The corridor had been kept free of weighty construction over the pipe, resulting in a six-block swath of weedy lots through the heart of the community. When the commission tried to sell the land, neighbors objected and worked with The Trust for Public Land to turn it into a park and garden. Today the Visitacion Valley Greenway supports both physical exercise and improved nutrition—and introduces visitors to the exotic Asian medicinal plants growing there.

Another example of a successful city creating connectors is Denver.  In 2009, the American Obesity Association rated Denver residents the least obese of big city Americans. The reason, in part, is their sporty lifestyle. Supporting that way of life is the Platte River Greenway.

It took 30 years to create the Greenway from a former industrial backwater. Today its 15 parks linked by 100 miles of trails attract hundreds of thousands of users. The middle 12 miles—which stretch on either end deep into the suburbs—are operated by the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation, with support from the private Greenway Foundation. Its centerpiece is 22-acre Commons Park, constructed as part of a new walkable neighborhood on a former railyard on the edge of downtown.

Not only does the Greenway lure a continual stream of cyclists, runners, and walkers, the South Platte River itself was reengineered with rocks, riffles, and inflatable dams so that it offers whitewater rapids for kayakers and rafters.

Public investment in the Greenway totaling about $70 million has fueled $2.5 billion in residential, commercial, retail, sports, and entertainment projects along the corridor. Denver, which for several decades was losing population, is now growing again—and recreational opportunities are one reason why.

Randall’s article appeared in the August/September 2011 issue of Planning magazine, available here.

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