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Adding Hours Rather than Acres: Extending Playing Time to Create Parkland

A fourteenth excerpt from the recently released book published by Island Press called Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities. In this post, we look at some cities who have added parkland by extending daylight hours using lighted fields, synthetic turf, and video cameras.

If not enough parkland can be amassed in dense cities by using the three physical dimensions, there is always a fourth dimension: time.

Cities are finding that, through the use of technology, the time that parks are available to the citizenry can be extended. For sports and other recreational activities, buying time can literally be the equivalent of buying land.

The two principal time-extending approaches utilize sports field lights and artificial playing surfaces (synthetic turf). Both are growing in importance in crowded environments.

Soccer players take advantage of the turf fields and lighting at Cal Anderson Park, in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Credit: Flickr user JeanineAnderson.

Lighting has the longer history, and most cities already have numerous lit facilities, including tennis and basketball courts and baseball, football, and soccer fields. Oakland has seventeen lit fields and a policy that all new fields will include lights. Atlanta has forty-four. Miami, which has an extreme park shortage plus a 365-days-per-year playing season (and which, during the summer, is much more pleasant at night) illuminates almost everything: twenty-six baseball diamonds; eleven soccer, six football, and five combination fields; and even one cricket pitch. On the other end of the climate spectrum, Minneapolis lights a golf course for nighttime cross-country skiing in the snows of winter.

Because of lights, usable playing time can be extended by about two hours in the height of summer and up to five hours in the depth of winter. (Most park agencies have an outdoor nighttime sports curfew of 10:00 or 10:30 p.m.) Even ruling out the very coldest months, the average city might pick up almost 1,000 hours of extra sports playing time for every lit field.

And, despite the energy crunch, night lighting is still economical in comparison to land acquisition–at least wherever land is expensive. Installing an illumination system on a field costs about $150,000 (or half that for tennis or basketball), to which must be added an hourly operating cost from about $5 to $20, depending on electricity rates in each city. Most cities tend to reserve the lit fields for permitted high school and league competitions, although they allow pick-up games at other times. Some allow free use, others don’t. Miami charges $10 per hour, Atlanta has a sliding scale all the way up to $71 per hour, depending whether teams are nonprofit and whether they are composed of city or non-city residents. The lights have a variety of operating systems, from old-fashioned manual control by onsite custodians to the latest in cellphone-activated, passcode-protected remote electronic management.

Lights can be controversial with neighbors, depending on the location of the park and layout of the fields. However, new technology seems to be helping there, too, thanks to the invention of better methods to focus the beam and reduce ambient light and glare. Fortunately, on this score there are no trade-offs: the less light “spillage,” the less the operating costs. A major sports illumination company, Musco Lighting, claims that it can cut both hourly costs and unwanted glare by 50 percent simply through the use of better designed luminaires, the bonnets that direct the light onto fields and away from others’ eyes. (Reducing the cost means less electricity used and less pollution generated, although lights, of course, do have a somewhat negative environmental impact.) There are still issues of activity, noise, cars, and ambient nighttime light, but for every complainant, someone else approves of a park that is busy and activated in the evening and that does not serve as a dark gathering place for clandestine, antisocial uses.

Lighting can also extend the hours for other parkland uses beyond traditional competitive sports on fields. The Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis and the Lieberman Exercise Trail in Houston’s Memorial Park are both lighted for bicycling and running, and both facilities are approaching round-the-clock use — the Midtown Greenway because it gets lots of purposeful transportation use, and the Lieberman Trail because parking at Memorial Park is so difficult that runners start showing up at 4:30 a.m. just to get a space.

The cross-country ski trails at Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis are lit, allowing for use even during long, dark Minnesota winters. Credit: Scott A. Schneider for the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board.

Synthetic turf is a much newer development that can also dramatically increase a park field’s usable hours. This is not “astroturf,” the first-generation artificial material that was created to deal with the problem that grass wouldn’t grow in the domed baseball stadium built for the Houston Astros in 1965. Early products were more rug-like and drew complaints for injuries, ambient temperature, ball handling, and water runoff. Several technological generations later, current synthetics come much closer to mimicking real grass, cause far fewer athletic injuries than older versions, and seem to be strongly supported by coaches, players, and park department officials. By allowing a field to be played upon continuously without any rest, artifical turf extends playing hours on a morning-to-night basis as well as month-to-month.

“Our natural grass fields are so old and so heavily used that in many places they’ve turned to bare dirt,” explained Mark Oliver, special assistant to the director of the Oakland Department of Parks and Recreation. “In dry weather that means dust, in wet weather it means mud.” Artificial turf has no such limitation. “We can use them twelve months a year,” Oliver said.

In Boston, with cold and snow sometimes keeping players out of parks in the depth of winter, the season for artificial turf is a bit shorter–generally March through December. But again it is significantly longer than with grass. “Up here, grass fields are unplayable in the spring,” said Stanley Ivan, director of design and construction with the Boston Parks and Recreation Department. “March and even April are very iffy for us with the wet weather.”

The hour-by-hour use is also extended.

“We are real happy with the FieldTurf as it is virtually maintenance-free,” said City of Miami Park Manager Jose Leiva. “The high schools love it and we increased our number of games we can hold on the turf by almost four times compared to what we were able to accommodate with natural grass, which is incredible.”

The downside is that synthetic turf is expensive–as much as $1.5 million per field, counting the price of preparation, materials, and installation. On the other hand, once the initial cost is covered, day-to-day maintenance is easier and cheaper. There is no mowing, no use of fertilizers or herbicides, and no irrigation (although the fields do need occasional hosing down and washing). Healthwise, the new technology seems to be a trade-off: more injuries due to foot-twisting, fewer due to falling into holes; more injuries from “turf burn,” fewer from concussions. As for its environmental ramifications, the verdict is still out. The latest synthetics are designed to allow much rainwater to percolate through the matting to the ground underneath, although they are probably not quite as pervious as natural lawns. Not needing fertilizer and herbicides is a major bonus for clean water and human health; on the other hand, the dust given off by embedded pulverized rubber granules, or by painted nylon fibers, may be harmful to users, and several state health departments have been monitoring the air around some of these fields.

Another technology that is helping to extend the hours of park use, both daytime and evening, is the video camera. Obviously, cameras in parks are not an ideal solution, but their presence does help people feel more secure in rougher neighborhoods, and anything that keeps parks more populated begins a virtuous cycle of use and safety. In MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, police credit the installation of cameras (plus a partial park renovation) with reducing drug dealing and crime and bringing more of the community into the famous and iconic park.

Almost every other aspect of city life is moving toward a “24/7” schedule, so it is not surprising that recreation and park use is, too (although we will probably never again see a time when thousands of residents grab pillows and sheets to sleep out in city parks on hot summer nights, as they did in the 1930s, and as was portrayed in the movie Avalon). The scarcity of land and facilities inexorably pushes park managers to maximize the efficiency with which scarce resources can be used, and adding hours to the day, and days to the year, is another way to please the crowds.

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.

Creating Parkland via Rail Trails

A ninth excerpt from the recently released book published by Island Press called Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities. In this post, we look at some cities who have created parkland by converting abandoned railroad corridors into rail trails.

In 1963 famed Morton Arboretum naturalist May Theilgaard Watts wrote a letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune. “We are human beings,” she wrote. “We walk upright on two feet. We need a footpath. Right now there is a chance for Chicago and its suburbs to have a footpath, a long one.” Her visionary and poetic letter led to the creation of the Illinois Prairie Path and marked the beginning of the rails-to-trails movement.

Until the interstate highway program in the 1950s, the world’s best-engineered rights-of-way were railroad corridors. Hills and cliffs were excavated, valleys filled, curves softened, tunnels dug, bridges built, all to provide routes of exquisitely smooth gentleness with little or no cross-traffic. They were also extraordinarily well routed from, to, and through the centers of activity–cities. Today, 130,000 miles of these marvelous linear connections have been abandoned. Already, 1,500 segments totaling 15,000 miles have been turned into trails for biking, skiing, skating, running, and walking. Most are rural but the urban ones almost invariably become the spines of city biking networks that also include on-road bike lanes and other feeder-collector routes. Rail trails have become focal points for nonmotorized transportation and recreation in Seattle; Washington, D.C.; Boston; Indianapolis; Dallas; Cincinnati; Spokane; Milwaukee; St. Petersburg; Albany, New York; Arlington, Virginia; Barrington, Rhode Island; and scores of other cities and towns. And there are still abandoned corridors available for conversion into trails.

The Stone Arch Bridge portion of the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Trail going towards Minneapolis. Credit: Brian Monberg, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

Minneapolis shows the multiple types of rail trails and their power to affect a city’s park, recreation, and transportation systems. Most dramatic is the Stone Arch Bridge over the Mississippi, built by railroad baron James J. Hill for his Great Northern route to Seattle. Opened in 1883, it was in rail service until 1978. Rescued from demolition, the bridge was refurbished for non-motorized use through a variety of federal, state, and local funds and ultimately turned over to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. Today it is the keystone of the bicycle/pedestrian network in both Minneapolis and St. Paul.

A few blocks away is the Midtown Greenway, created from a former Milwaukee Road track that maintained separation from traffic by being sunk in a box-shaped trench below street level. The 5.5-mile trail today serves several thousand bicyclists, runners, and skaters per day; in the future it will also host an extension of the light-rail system on a parallel track in the same trench. The corridor was bought for $10 million by the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority. Trail engineering and construction, which cost $25 million, was paid from a variety of local, regional, state, and federal sources. Annual maintenance, which includes lighting and snow plowing, comes to about $500,000 a year.

A couple of miles north, a different set of tracks has been converted into the Cedar Lake Park and Trail. This isn’t a rail-to-trail, it’s a rail-with-trail. When the Burlington Northern Railroad decided to divest itself of an underutilized freight yard, it kept one track for through service and sold the rest to the Park Board. The Board erected a fence and converted the wide industrial facility into a model nature habitat with three meandering, parallel treadways–two one-way paths for cyclists and skaters, and one soft-surface path for walkers and runners. With an extraordinary amount of community support, volunteerism, and sweat-equity, the 48-acre project cost only $3.5 million to acquire and develop, and it was finished in a record six years.

Six years is a record? Well, yes. Creating a rail trail, candidly, is not easy. The land ownership issues are confusing. Legal and regulatory complexities stretch from the local level to the state capital to Washington, D.C. A review of years-to-complete-a-trail validates the difficulty: for the Capital Crescent Trail in Washington, D.C., eleven years from conception to ribbon-cutting; for the Pinellas Trail in St. Petersburg, fifteen years; for the Minuteman Trail in Arlington, Massachusetts, eighteen years; for the Metropolitan Branch Trail in Washington, D.C., twenty-two years and (as of this writing) counting.

But the final results justify the heartache: These are truly “million-dollar trails.” Other than on a former railroad track, it is simply not possible in an existing built-up community to create a new pathway that is long, straight, wide, continuous, sheathed in vegetation, and almost entirely separated from traffic. And the annual usership numbers reveal the pent-up desire lines: 2 million on the Minuteman Trail outside of Boston; 3 million on the Washington and Old Dominion Trail outside of Washington, D.C.; 1.7 million on the Baltimore and Annapolis Trail; 1.1 million on the East Bay Bicycle Path outside of Providence, Rhode Island; and 1 million on the Capital Crescent Trail in Washington, D.C.

Many park directors initially shy away from taking on the challenge of a rail-trail. This is a serious mistake. In addition to all the connectivity and usership values, rail trails often have ecological and historical values very much in keeping with an urban park system’s mission. With corridor widths of 60 to 100 feet, or even more in the West, they frequently harbor interesting, unusual, and rare plant species on their margins, as well as having bridges, tunnels, and stations. Moreover, trails are so popular that they have radically increased the support base for virtually every park agency that has ever taken one on.

The reality is that creating one of these trails is so tough that it virtually requires a partnership between a park department (or sometimes a public works or transportation department) and the private sector (usually a citizen group, sometimes a foundation or corporation). The financial and legal issues are too much for a group of volunteers to handle alone, while the political issues are too intense for a government agency without citizen support. Some of these conversions are so difficult that a national organization, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, formed specifically to provide technical, legal, financial, and political assistance to communities around the country. The Trust for Public Land is another national organization that has been unusually active with creating urban rail trails.

More than that, trail advocates are fierce in their commitment to these facilities–many see them literally as “do or die” opportunities. In Seattle, when the Post-Intelligencer newspaper reported that the Burlington Northern Railroad had secretly sold off a piece of track that had been slated for a continuation of the Burke-Gilman Trail, cyclists were so outraged that they chained their bikes across the entranceway of Burlington Northern’s Seattle headquarters and began a vehement protest that stayed on the front pages for two months. (The railroad, which had sold the land to an out-of-state tycoon for a place to dock his yacht, found a way to rescind the deal and the corridor is now the trail extension.)

The Capital Crescent Trail as it enters Bethesda, Maryland, 7 miles from its starting point in Washington, D.C. Credit: Barbara Richey, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

In Washington, D.C., when the National Park Service was unable to get a quick congressional appropriation to save the Georgetown Branch from being developed by CSX Railroad into a string of million-dollar homes through a national park, land developer Kingdon Gould III loaned $12 million of his own money and held the land for a year until Congress acted. (The corridor is today the Capital Crescent Trail, centerpiece of what will eventually be a 20-mile “bicycle beltway” within the nation’s capital.)

The latest innovation is the overhead or trestle trail. Influenced by the creation in Paris, France, of the Promenade Plantée (“Planted Walkway”), activists in New York, Chicago, and St. Louis have all discovered abandoned rail trestles and launched campaigns to bring them back as trails. First to open, in 2009, was New York’s High Line, a sensational tour de force in the now-chic former meatpacking district. The walkway (which from day one was so crowded with pedestrians that bicycles were not permitted) includes sophisticated plantings, architectural landscaping reminiscent of railroad tracks, artistic benches and chaise longues, a viewing gallery with picture window overlooking 10th Avenue traffic, a large wall of glass panes dyed every hue of the Hudson River, food carts, seating areas, and more.

A bit less upscale but considerably longer and designed for cyclists as well as walkers, Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail is expected to open in segments as funds for the $45-million conversion are found. The Bloomingdale Trail should serve recreational cyclists as well as purposeful commuters since one day it could join an interconnected trailway linking all the way from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. St. Louis’s Iron Horse Trestle will also prove helpful to cyclists, runners, and walkers of all stripes since it passes over busy Interstate 70 and leads toward the popular Riverfront Trail along the Mississippi River.

Pavement in the Park: How Removing Parking Adds Acreage

A seventh excerpt from the recently released book published by Island Press called Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities. In this post, we look at some cities who have created parkland by removing excess parking spaces.

Do you park in your park? Does it seem to be a parking lot more than a park, a lot?

Urban park advocates struggle mightily to create new green space through a precious parcel here and an irreplaceable acre there. But a large swath of existing parkland is given over to the prosaic task of automobile storage, complete with its side impacts–impermeable surface, water runoff and erosion, oil drippings, heat island effect, displacement of trees and meadows, and loss of playing area.

A 2007 study by the Center for City Park Excellence of 70 major city parks in the United States revealed that, collectively, they devote a total of 529 acres to the very technology that many people seek to escape when they head into their local patch of nature. That’s an area larger than Schenley Park in Pittsburgh, City Park in Denver, Lake Harriet Park in Minneapolis, or Franklin Park in Boston. In Chicago, where the city spent $475 million to create 24-acre Millennium Park, almost twice that much land–46 acres–is given over to auto storage within nearby Lincoln Park.

Hard to find parking spaces in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. Credit: Google Earth.

On average, CCPE found that signature urban parks provide slightly more than one auto space for every acre of parkland. The range is from almost zero spaces in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park to more than 6,000 in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, more than 7,000 in St. Louis’s Forest Park, and 10,000 in Flushing Meadow/Corona Park in New York.

Storing an unused car requires approximately 330 square feet (.008 acres), according to Donald Shoup, professor of Urban Planning at University of California at Los Angeles and author of The High Cost of Free Parking. This factors in the actual surface area of the auto plus the extra space for aisles required to maneuver in and out of an enclosure. For a 500-car lot, that comes to four acres. Of course, Americans assume they have the right to drive, one person per car, from home to a space directly next to a tennis court, rose garden, or picnic table–at least until it’s pointed out that 100 percent auto access means 0 percent park.

Despite the popular assumption, auto storage doesn’t correlate directly with visitation. The nation’s most heavily used park, Central Park in New York, has only 130 parking spaces yet gets 25 million visits per year. Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York, receives 6 million visits while providing only forty spaces for skaters at Wollman Rink–and that lot is open only periodically. On the other hand, in Houston, about 15 of Hermann Park’s 445 acres are devoted to 2,000 spaces for automobile storage. Interestingly, although it gets about 2.3 million visits per year, Hermann is less heavily used than Riverside Park in New York, which has almost no auto storage.

“On about fifty days per year there is no possible way to meet the demand, and on another fifty we’re right at the limit for capacity,” says Rick Dewees, administrator of Hermann Park. Nevertheless, he points out, “It’s hard to add spaces when the lots are empty three-fourths of the time.” Dewees has been forced to become a bit thick-skinned about the issue: “You’re always going to have people complaining there isn’t enough parking during peak times,” he says.

Parks surrounded by low-density housing with little or no mass transportation and filled with high-intensity sports facilities are under relentless pressure to provide large amounts of space for cars. But not every park is held hostage by the automobile. Parks with many people living or working in close proximity and a range of good transit options nearby are able to succeed with little or no car storage.

Of the nation’s big-city signature parks, Atlanta’s Piedmont Park is relatively small, making an internal auto repository particularly undesirable. Not only is there no open-air lot, there aren’t even curbside spaces, since the city closed all Piedmont’s internal roadways to cars in 1983. The park is fairly well-served by transit, but overflow autos end up in the surrounding neighborhood. Also in Piedmont Park is the Atlanta Botanical Garden which has the same automobile problem. The Garden’s original proposal to construct a multilevel garage in an underused portion of the park generated shock and opposition, but gradually a broad compromise was crafted, and in 2008 an 800-car garage was built relatively inconspicuously in a steep, wooded hillside. In return, the Piedmont Park Conservancy removed the existing open-air lot and also added more park entrances for walkers and cyclists. Serving both Botanical Garden visitors and Piedmont Park users (with the Garden covering the costs of construction and operation), the garage charges $1.75 per hour.

There are three ways to reduce the problem of car storage in city parks. By far the simplest and most effective is to charge a parking fee. Storing a car in a park is a service with value. Doing so also places many human and environmental costs on the park system. With an equation like that, a payment should work.

Most of the high-population-density cities rely on residents to walk, use transit or bikes, or pay to use private garages nearby. Most of the low-density cities don’t necessarily get enough usership in any one park for it to be an overwhelming problem. It is in the mid-density cities that the issue often comes to a head. Minneapolis has taken the lead in charging for cars. After a failed 10-year experiment with an honor system in the busiest of its six regional parks, the Park Board installed meters, charging between 50 cents and $1.25 per hour, depending upon demand. Because the Park Board receives all the meter revenue, it can determine how the money ($795,000 in 2005) is used, with some of the funds going to park maintenance and some to youth athletics.

Aerial shot of Hermann Park looking south with light-rail in the foreground. Credit: David J. Schmoll.

The flip side of the coin, of course, is to provide park users with transit options. Eight of the ten most heavily used city parks have subway or light-rail access within one-quarter mile, and all of them have bus service that comes even closer. Outside of New York City (where almost all parks have subway service), among the parks best-served by rail are Boston Common, Forest Park in St. Louis, Grant Park in Chicago, Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, and the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Naturally, instituting transit service, especially rail, to major parks is expensive. But it is not out of the question. In Houston, the city’s first light-rail line, opened in January 2004, features two stops in Hermann Park.

At Washington Park in Portland, Oregon, home to the popular Rose and Japanese Gardens, cars and buses regularly exceed the auto storage capacity from May through September. The city is unwilling to add to the 86 spaces (though it is unwilling to charge for them, either). In response to the crunch, Tri-Met, the regional transit agency, has added a peak-season bus that shuttles between eight stops within the 130-acre park and the closest MAX light-rail stop. The service, which runs every 15 minutes and costs $1.70 (or is free with a transfer) is aggressively advertised by the park department, Tri-Met and by event promoters. The route gets about 500 riders per day on weekends and 420 on weekdays.

Which leads to the third way of reducing auto storage problems in parks: increasing population density nearby. For every person who lives within walking distance of a park, one fewer needs to drive and deal with a car when he or she gets there. Comparison in point: New York’s Riverside Park and Fresno’s Woodward Park. Both are approximately the same size (325 and 300 acres, respectively) but Riverside has only 120 parking spaces while Woodward has 2,500. The difference is in the surrounding neighborhoods. Riverside has the Hudson River on one side and a solid row of twelve- and sixteen-story buildings on the other. Woodward is bordered by single-family homes, most of which have lots large enough for pools, on cul-de-sac street layouts. The residential population density around Woodward is about 6.5 persons per acre, virtually guaranteeing heavy reliance on autos to get to the park. The density around Riverside Park is about 150 persons per acre, and most users of the park walk from within about four blocks.

Obviously, adding residential (or commercial) density around parks is not a short-term project. Nor is it noncontroversial. People who live in single-family homes on large lots around parks enjoy their quality of life and understandably want to maintain it. However, a case can be made that increasing density unlocks a great deal of value for the benefit of the whole city, including more property tax revenue, the likelihood of healthier citizens because of park views and use, and the ability to reduce the presence of stored automobiles in parks.

Going From “Parkway” to “Park”

A third excerpt from the recently released book published by Island Press called Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities. In this post, we look at some examples of boulevards and parkways used as parks.

Boston Women's Memorial along Commonwealth Avenue. Credit: Swampyank (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

When the parkway was first invented by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvin Vaux in the 1860s, it was much more a “park” and less a “way” than it is today. Of course, that was before the automobile. Eastern Parkway and Ocean Parkway, both in Brooklyn, New York, were wide boulevards with a center carriageway, narrow access roadways on each margin, and two attractive, maple-, oak-, ash- and shrub-filled median malls for promenading, sitting, seeing, and being seen. The malls had a cinder equestrian trail. In 1894, the walkway on Ocean Parkway was split to form a bicycle path–the nation’s first. There is also memorable paving-work and even chess tables.

The concept was enticing for reasons of both beauty and economics: parkways were not only pleasing to users but also provided a maximum amount of park edge upon which developers could construct homes. Many cities, from Buffalo to Chicago to Kansas City to Denver eagerly followed suit. Over time, though, most urban parkways and boulevards have been chipped away by transportation engineers and modified by new regulations and insurance requirements so that they do more for cars and less for people.

Some, like the Grand Concourse in New York, essentially lost all vestiges of their original human element. Lanes were widened and speed limits raised. Trees were severely pruned or removed and not replanted; muscular guardrails were installed; and intrusive directional and regulatory signs erected. Meanwhile, on some older boulevards benches have been removed; on new ones they were never even contemplated. By the time of the automobile era, almost every aspect of parkway design was for windshield pleasure, not actual use.

According to researchers at the University of Minnesota, making parkways into something more than just pretty roads requires that they be treated as places. “Parkways become places,” they write, “by creating outdoor rooms that are shared by a broad community, not just the automobile….The integration of sidewalks, bike paths, adjacent civic institutions, and other important cultural amenities with the road support the image of place. The orientation of buildings to the street also strongly influences the character of parkways.”

Back in the nineteenth century, Eastern Parkway and Ocean Parkway served many different users, and even today they accommodate far more than just drivers. The 6-mile-long, 210-foot-wide Ocean Parkway contains about 110 acres of non-car space. Kansas City’s Ward Parkway has spectacular fountains with benches, community-tended flower gardens, and Mirror Pool, which is used for ice skating in mid-winter. Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue features a center walkway that has benches, public art, and monuments, along with majestic shade trees, bushes, and gardens.  In contrast, the median on Pennsylvania Avenue in southeast Washington, D.C., contains only small cherry trees and is designed solely as visual relief for drivers – it has no walkway, seating, or any other pedestrian-oriented amenity.

Beyond squeezing more value out of existing parkways and boulevards, it may be possible to create new ones. Most cities have one or more streets that are extraordinarily and unnecessarily wide and that could be reconstructed as parkways with planted medians. This might be particularly effective in an old industrial area that formerly handled trucks or railcars but is now transforming into a residential or office district. Even urban highways are fair game for reconsideration. In many cities, the widest “streets” are the interstates that were bulldozed through preexisting neighborhoods and are now being reevaluated. Unlike expressways, which serve as noisy, blighting barriers in cities, parkways are known to add substantial value to nearby residences, often resulting in enough additional tax revenue to cover the cost of their creation and maintenance.

Minneapolis is now in the forefront of the parkway retrofit movement. While the city and the Park Board are justifiably proud of the Grand Rounds, that famous route is in fact also a bit of an embarrassment due to a 3-mile gap through the northeast quadrant of the city. The gap, and the decline of the area, has lasted for more than a century while real estate values (and social capital) in other sections of the city have flourished. After drawing up plans yet failing to fill the missing link in 1910, 1918, 1930, and 1939, the effort went dormant until 2007 when the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board listed it among the top priorities in its comprehensive plan. A route has been selected that mostly involves using and redesigning existing roadways. There are formidable land acquisition challenges and a projected price tag in excess of $100 million, but the Park Board, under the slogan “Keeping the Promise,” seems determined to achieve success. If and when it does, it will serve as an influential example that great parkways and boulevards are not only a memento from the past but can link recreation with transportation in the 21st century, too.

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