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Visions of Closing Roads and Creating Parks

A previous post highlighted a few cities that closed roads through parks to increase pedestrian and non-motorized use. We’ve recently learned about a proposal to temporarily close streets to traffic during weekends and holidays in Buenos Aires and bring in portable playground equipment and benches to turn these roads into parks. A video of this concept is below:

The “Plaza Movil Street Park” was one of three winners of the Philips Livable Cities Award, a global initiative designed to generate innovative, meaningful and achievable ideas to improve the health and wellbeing of city-dwellers across the world. The creator of the Plaza Movil Street Park received a grant of €25,000 to help translate his concept into reality.

Also worth viewing is the video of one of the five finalists, who brings a plan a little closer to home. The “Design Your Own Park Competition” in Binghamton, NY would turn neglected, urban spaces into parks by having neighborhood residents and groups submit designs in a contest, with the winning vision ultimately created and maintained as a public park.

Green Gyms and Medical Miles: Promoting Public Health with Parks

A group looks into a net near a stream at the Milwaukee Urban Ecology Center. Credit: Jeff McAvoy.

We’ve previously looked at ways in which the medical community is using exercise prescriptions as a way to combat obesity and inactivity.  Park prescriptions are only a portion of the spectrum of exercise prescription programs. Fortunately, the growing awareness of the benefits of outdoor exercise – in addition to the cooperation of parks departments, environmental nonprofits, and individual parks – means that these programs should continue to grow.

Once patients have left the doctor’s office with a prescription in hand, there’s still plenty of work to be done. Someone has to ensure that public parks are meeting the needs of people trying to develop good exercise habits, and that newly inspired patients can find interesting and engaging ways to exercise in local parks.

A growing body of evidence that suggests that exercise in the outdoors provides some quantifiable benefits over indoor exercise. A study released February in the journal Environmental Science and Technology analyzed data from 11 different studies that compared benefits from outdoor and indoor exercise programs, and found that outdoor exercise was associated with “greater feelings of revitalization, increased energy and positive engagement, together with decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression.” Not surprisingly, those who participated in outdoor exercise “stated that they were more likely to repeat the activity at a later date.”[1]

Promoting these mental benefits, which in turn lead to physical benefits, is one of the most effective ways for parks to remain at the center of exercise prescription efforts.  Green Gym, a program in the UK, exemplifies this approach. Green Gym began in 1997 as a project of Dr. William Bird and the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers. Green Gym groups meet at least once a week to do several hours of gardening or conservation work, and results from the program demonstrate both physical and psychological benefits, according to a study done by The School of Health and Social Care at Oxford Brookes University. Researchers found a strong trend in decreased depression scores, as well as increases in muscular strength and improvements in cardiovascular fitness.

Another strategy for encouraging repeat park visits is helping to get family members and pets to join in.

Yes, pets – Albuquerque’s Prescription Trails program, in addition to human park prescriptions, offers walking prescriptions for overweight dogs (whose physiques often mimic that of their owners). Charm Linblad, Executive Director of New Mexico Health Care Takes on Diabetes, quips “from experience, you can’t turn down the dog when it is time for a walk, so when the veterinarian writes a prescription for the pet we get a double bonus – the owner gets a walk!”

Milwaukee’s Urban Ecology Center has seen success in encouraging repeat visits by offering inexpensive family memberships. The Center brings in school groups year-round to its “outdoor classrooms,” and then inspired kids often bring their families back to go cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, rock climbing, or canoeing. The center is committed to never turning away visitors who cannot pay the full membership price, and has built a substantial base of four thousand households, undoubtedly in part due to the welcoming and exciting atmosphere that their website describes:

  • We want to get you outside! We love helping people have positive outdoor experiences and don’t mind at all if your experience starts by borrowing our equipment.
  • We don’t have sugar. Remember when you had to borrow a cup of sugar (or milk, or doughnuts) from your neighbor? Well, just substitute “kayak” for “cup of sugar.” We’re really just trying to be a good neighbor. A neighbor who shares lots of stuff.

Individual parks also have a role to play in forging connections with health. The Medical Mile, which winds through Little Rock, Arkansas’ Riverfront Park, is a good example of how parks can actively tout their contributions to public health. It is accented with motivating and informative information about the benefits of exercise, good nutrition, and smoking cessation. The Medical Mile is part of the 14-mile Arkansas River Trail, perfect for those who want to gradually ramp up their activity.

In an upcoming series of posts, we will excerpt a new report from the Center for City Park Excellence that looks at the specific relationship between health and parks, 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.  We will show you how today’s efforts to design urban parks for their health benefits and to create health-enhancing park programming close a circle that extends all the way back to the beginning of the parks movement.


[1] Does Participating in Physical Activity in Outdoor Natural Environments Have a Greater Effect on Physical and Mental Wellbeing than Physical Activity Indoors? A Systematic Review. J. Thompson Coon, K. Boddy, K. Stein, R. Whear, J. Barton, M. H. Depledge Environmental Science & Technology 2011 45 (5), 1761-1772

Of Parks, Podiums and Penumbras: How Density Changes Development

Cities that increase density by building skywards can inadvertently end up with impersonal streetscapes defined by monotonous walls of glass and concrete. Toronto has avoided the issue of dark, canyon-like streetscapes by mandating that buildings offer a human-scale street presence. Most large buildings are composed of a “podium” base, with towers receding from the street in steps as they grow upwards, allowing sunlight to filter through. But one developer, Brad Lamb, is tired of the monotonous wedding-cake aesthetic caused by codes that encourage “podiumism.”

He sees parks as a way to increase density without sacrificing beauty and creativity. This is a somewhat of a twist on the usual tension between density and open space, in which cities have to force developers to include parks as an offset to residential and commercial projects (in a future article, we’ll discuss Seattle’s Green Factor codes, which require new developments in dense areas to provide publicly accessible and visible landscaping).

In Toronto, Lamb wants to build a slender 47-story residential tower and replace the podium space of other towers with a tiny park (the entire lot is only 62 by 200 feet). The building is between two historic buildings and the park would feature a lawn, benches, and a fountain.

His plans, though, face some opposition from city planners. This is certainly not the first time that open space and density have struggled to coexist.

Justin Herman Plaza, San Francisco. Credit: Kenneth Lu (Flickr Feed)

San Francisco’s Proposition K, otherwise known as the Sunlight Ordinance, was the source of a recent clash between parks advocates and proponents of dense, transit-oriented city living. Passed in 1984, the ordinance bans the development of any building over forty feet that would cast a shadow on an existing park.

The Sunlight Ordinance halted the development of a group of residential towers, part of the high-profile remake of the Transbay Transit Center, when it was discovered that two of the towers would cast a shadow on nearby parks. The shadows would have fallen on St. Mary’s and Portsmouth Squares for an hour a day in the spring and fall, and on Justin Herman Plaza for an hour around lunchtime in the middle of winter.

The project, designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, eventually got the go-ahead, in part because developers agreed to pay $10 million for park improvements and to offset the impact of the shadows by building a 5.4-acre rooftop park over the transit center.  The park, which according to this video has the potential to match the grandeur of Chicago’s Millennium Park, will feature an open air amphitheatre, gardens, a trail for running and walking, open grass areas for picnics, lily ponds and more.

It will also provide significant environmental benefits by minimizing the heat island effect, regulating interior temperatures, and absorbing and filtering pollutants rising from the terminal, which will connect 11 regional transit systems and accommodate 100,000 passengers each day.

With more people yearning to move into cities, it is critical to ensure that densification and parks are mutually reinforcing. And in the end, there is no reason why they should not be: people in dense areas need nearby parks for health and relaxation, and parks benefit from a lively atmosphere that comes from being close to homes, shops, transit and workplaces. With the recent success of Chicago’s Millennium Park and New York’s High Line, cities such as Los Angeles , Seattle and San Diego are recognizing the potential of elevated parks to encourage density while also generating excitement and boosting livability.

Urban Parks and Accessibility

Community Green

Access to city parks has always been an important and ongoing topic for planners, landscape architects, and city officials. In the early days, urban parks were only found in upper-class neighborhoods, as those individuals realized the potential for city parks and had the means to create these spaces as well. Parks have since become a representation of equality, where everyone is allowed to share and enjoy the same space. Indeed that was the vision held by Frederick Law Olmsted when he was designing parks throughout the United States.

According to two new articles, however, access to city parks is greatly diminished when living in a less-affluent section of the city. London’s Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment recently released the report Community Green, which studied the relationship between “urban green space, inequality, ethnicity, health and well-being” in the inner-cities of the United Kingdom. A key finding of the report concluded that residents living in a deprived inner-city area have access to five times fewer public parks and good quality general green space than people in more affluent areas.

This is an important issue for cities to tackle, as research has shown that green space plays a role in easing racial tensions and promoting diversity, using activities such as sports and even casual walks in the park. The article continues to give other examples of the social benefits of clean, usable urban parks, and certain steps that should be taken in the future.

In Decent Homes Need Decent Spaces, written in conjunction with the National Housing Federation of the United Kingdom, the authors lay out an “action plan” to improve open spaces in social housing areas. The plan offers suggestions for ways landlords can provide more effective open space, which in turn gives people a safe and livable landscape near their homes. Examples include involving residents in decisions, recognizing the larger issues at stake while still maintaining a localized agenda, and making the best use of funding.

For more information about the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, visit their website.

London’s A-Mazing Trafalgar Square

Credit: Steve Punter (Flickr Feed)

Sometimes all it takes is an unusual piece of greenery to draw visitors to a part of town not very known on tourist maps. London, England’s Trafalgar Square temporarily received a laurel and thuja hedge maze at the foot of Nelson’s Column earlier this month as part of the West End Partnership’s summer marketing program. 

The program is geared towards tourists who usually bypass Theatreland in London’s West End for more popular locals such as Big Ben and the Change of the Guard. Measuring 98 feet by 66 feet, and almost 8 feet high, the labyrinth was divided into different sections, with the name of a West End street at each segment. Blue plaques with each street name provided quirky, little-known facts about the landmark. Those who reached the center of the maze were rewarded with different cultural shows and performances each day. (There was no cost to enter the maze.)  

The importance of plazas and squares in crowded downtown areas cannot be over emphasized. Having public spaces for a breath of fresh air from stuffy office buildings, smelly buses and crowded subways can be a haven to residents and tourists in cities. Looking at an aerial view of Trafalgar Square, the hedge maze was a major source of greenery in the immediate area.  

The planted hedge remained for five days to the amusement of office workers and visitors. Just months away from the release of the next Harry Potter movie, perhaps grownups and children alike were half expecting to see flying red sparks and hovering Dementors in the maze :-)  

The aerial views and a fun video of the construction of the maze can be found here.

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