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August’s Frontline Park

Each month, City Parks Alliance recognizes a “Frontline Park” to promote and highlight inspiring examples of urban park excellence, innovation, and stewardship across the country. The program also seeks to highlight examples of the challenges facing our cities’ parks as a result of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures, and urban neighborhood decay.

New York, NY

????????Bryant Park is a 9.6 acre park adjacent to the New York Public Library in Midtown Manhattan. Despite its prime location and rich history, the scenic landmark suffered from a high crime rate and lack of visitors in the 1960s – 70s, and mounting concerns led The Rockefeller Brothers Fund to commission a report detailing the degraded state of the park. In 1980, with support and guidance from Mayor Edward I. Koch, the NYC Dept. of Parks and Recreation, and the New York Public Library, the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation (now the Bryant Park Corporation) was established to improve the park, with Daniel Biederman and Andrew Heiskell at the helm. Continue reading

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.

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.

Food Trucks Bring New Patrons to City Parks


Visitors line up for food truck fare at the Prospect Park Food Truck Rally.
Credit: Elissa H. Izmailyan

The second season of the Prospect Park Food Truck Rally launched this Sunday in balmy spring weather.  On the third Sunday of each month from April through October, sixteen gourmet food trucks will greet crowds of eager New Yorkers at Grand Army Plaza, a paved area at the Park’s main entrance. Though the Food Truck Rally was initially designed to be a one-time event last May, it has become a monthly fixture in the park in response to its overwhelming success.

Across the nation, food trucks are increasingly popular in city parks.   A new type of vendor is energizing  park patrons, offering new options over and above the typical hot dog/pretzel fare, including everything from locally sourced Vietnamese cuisine (at Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway) to lobster rolls (at the Prospect Park Food Truck Rally).

Concession amenities of all kinds can support parks’ success by attracting attendance and extending the length of stay, creating concentrated hubs of activity.  A high quality and diverse food selection can increase these benefits, and food trucks can provide opportunities to enhance both.  With their inherent portability and commercial-grade kitchen equipment, food trucks can combine the flexibility of temporary concessions with the food quality of more permanent venues.  A rotating core of vendors can expand the variety of  concession offerings in a given location, and while vehicles of any kind can feel aesthetically out-of-place in park environments, food trucks can be positioned in highly trafficked hardscapes adjacent to or within parks.

Many parks have begun to host large, highly publicized food truck events with high levels of visitation. For example, the Food Truck Rodeo in Durham features approximately 30 trucks and live music, drawing activity to support the newly developed Central Park.  In Milwaukee, the downtown BID (EastTown) runs Food Truck Fridays in Cathedral Square, which offers a range of lunchtime options on summer Fridays, to support and sustain a lively downtown atmosphere.

Visitors congregate at the entrance to Prospect Park beside the Food Truck Rally.
Credit: Elissa H. Izmailyan

The Prospect Park Food Rally attracts thousands of visitors each month. According to David Weber, President of New York City Food Truck Association (NYCFTA), the organization that runs the Rally, “While just one food truck is more like a service to support another activity…you get 16 food trucks and it serves as a magnet and becomes a destination.”  Major events can overcome barriers to access and draw park users from a broad region; a NYCFTA event at Governor’s Island, which is accessible only by ferry, drew 17,000 people.

While events of this scale must be properly managed  to mitigate the adverse impacts of visitation, they can also generate a range of benefits to parks, including:

  • Attracting visitation:  In addition to drawing high attendance to concession areas, food trucks can increase attendance throughout parks.   Weber describes the Food Truck Rally as a “gateway into the park,” providing a node of activity at the park entrance that welcomes regular and first-time visitors.
  • Providing an amenity:  Park patrons enjoy the presence of food trucks and food truck events, as evidenced by their high levels of success. Welcoming food trucks to parks responds to patron preference and may sustain higher levels of park use and enjoyment.
  • Generating revenue for parks:   Food trucks typically pay rents to park managers in exchange for the right to vend on-site, which can be dedicated to support park operations.

Proceed Without Caution: Cities Add Parkland by Closing Streets and Roads to Cars

A thirteenth 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 closing streets and roads to automobile traffic.

In every city there are hundreds of acres of streets and roadways potentially available as park and recreational facilities. While parks make up about 20 percent of New York City’s total area, streets make up about 30 percent. In Chicago, 26 percent of the land is devoted to streets compared to only 8 percent for parks. Converting some street capacity for recreational activity–either full-time or part-time–is a underrealized opportunity.

Atlanta closed three miles of roads in Piedmont Park in 1983. The park now attracts more than four million visitors a year. Credit: Piedmont Park Conservancy.

Wresting space away from automobiles is never easy, but if any opportunities constitute “low-hanging fruit” they are the hundreds of miles of roads within city parks. Naturally, all large parks need some streets for access to facilities as well as to allow motorists to get from one side to the other, but most city parks have a surfeit of auto corridors. The National Mall in Washington, D.C., formerly had four parallel drives running for about a mile between the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument. Not only was the green Mall thoroughly intersected every few dozen yards by asphalt, but the drives themselves were permanently clogged with tourists (and government workers) looking for parking spaces. In 1976, just in time for the national bicentennial celebration, Assistant Interior Secretary Nathaniel Reed decided to abolish the two central roads and replace them with pebble-covered walkways reminiscent of those in Paris parks. The aggregate amount of space–about 4 acres–was relatively small, but the impact on park usability, ambience, safety, and air quality was monumental. Similarly, in Atlanta, following a raft of crime and nuisance issues that were negatively affecting Piedmont Park, Parks Commissioner Ted Mastroianni and Mayor Maynard Jackson announced test weekend road closures. Despite protests, the results led to dramatic increases in other uses of the park, such as running, walking, and cycling, and, in 1983 the closures were made total and permanent. (Piedmont Park is today the most car-free major city park in the United States.)

Other examples abound (see below table). San Francisco’s longtime Sunday closure of 2 miles of John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park was extended in 2007 to Saturdays as well. The program, which makes available one of the only hard, flat, safe areas for children in the entire hilly city, according to the San Francisco Bike Coalition, effectively added about 12 acres of parkland without any acquisition or construction costs. Park usage during car-free hours is about double that of when cars are around. Even cities that are thoroughly oriented to cars are finding an enthusiastic constituent response to park road closures. Kansas City, Missouri, bans automobiles on beautiful Cliff Drive within Kessler Park from Friday noon until Monday morning during the summer. San Antonio permanently closed Brackenridge Park’s Wilderness Road and Parfun Way in 2004. And Los Angeles has permanently closed 10 miles of Via del Valle and Mt. Hollywood Drive in Griffith Park to protect wildlife, reduce the risk of fire, and provide a safe, quiet venue for walkers, runners, and cyclists.

It’s not just large parks. Many small parks which were disfigured by roads can be re-greened, too. New York City’s Washington Square, famous as a Greenwich Village movie set and also for street theater, rallies, and as a de facto quad for New York University, had been bisected by Fifth Avenue until 1964. Ironically, a proposal to expand that avenue into a freeway led to the uproar that made the park entirely car-free–and a much more successful space. In Washington, D.C., Thomas Circle had gradually been sliced down in size almost to the diameter of the statue of General George Henry Thomas and his horse, with traffic consuming the entire area. In 2007 the National Park Service and the District of Columbia reinstituted the original circle and rebuilt pedestrian walkways to allow people to use it. Earlier, a similar project re-unified 2.5-acre Logan Circle and helped ignite a renewal of its neighborhood.

In 2007, Houston got itself a park addition by trading away a street. It happened in Hidalgo Park, a venerable 12-acre greenspace in the city’s hard-bitten East End, near the Turning Basin on Buffalo Bayou where Houston started. When a small sliver between the park and the bayou came up for sale, the city secured federal funds to buy it through an obscure federal program called Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation. The sliver had two drawbacks: It was separated from Hildago Park by a street, plus there is a federal requirement that coastal funds be matched one-to-one by non-federal dollars. Park Director Joe Turner took a tour of the site and had a “Eureka!” moment–why not close the street, have it transferred from the Public Works Department to Parks and Recreation, and use its land value as the local match for the federal grant. The politics and geography happened to be perfect: There were no houses on the street, it had no through access, and the one industrial user at the far end had another plant entrance it could use. And since no one before Joe Turner had ever offered to use the value of a street as a local match, the federal bureaucrats were surprised enough to say yes. (They’ve since rethought it and forbidden the maneuver, but the Houston handshake was grandfathered in.) Today Hidalgo Park is a much-improved 14 acres with unbroken access to the channel and views of the stupendous ships coming up to the Turning Basin.

Closing and beautifying streets that are not in parks is more difficult. Many cities, including Boston, Santa Monica, and New Orleans have turned one of their key downtown streets into a car-free zone, although in nearly all cases the motivation is less for casual, free recreation and clean air than for upscale shopping and dining. Portland, Oregon, however, did pull off a famous and extraordinarily successful “road-to-park” conversion. It involved the 1974 elimination of four-lane Harbor Drive, an expressway along the Willamette River that had been rendered redundant by a new interstate highway. Most cities would have given in to the strenuous remonstrances of their traffic engineers and kept highways along both sides of their river, but under the leadership of Mayor (later Governor) Tom McCall the old roadway was dug up and replaced by 37-acre Waterfront Park. The park opened in 1978, exactly three-quarters of a century after the concept was first proposed by planner and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., in his plan for Portland. Built for about $8.5 million, the park in its very first year was credited with stimulating an estimated $385 million in retail, office, hotel, and residential development in the vicinity. Later named after the visionary governor, Tom McCall Waterfront Park has since become Portland’s focal point for all kinds of activities and festivals.

Baltimore's 14-mile Gwynns Falls Trail used about six miles of underused roads along a scenic stream valley that are now popular with bikers, runners and other non-car users. Credit: Maria Carola.

Some cities, including Baltimore, El Paso, Chicago, New York, and Miami, have recently begun experimenting with the idea of once-a-summer or once-a-month road closures on regular city streets, following the example of the “ciclovias” that have become immensely popular in Bogota, Colombia; Quito, Ecuador; and several other Latin American cities. Called such things as “Summer Streets,” “Scenic Sundays,” “Walk and Roll,” and “Bike Days Miami,” the events often take place on cities’ most park-like streets (Park Avenue in New York, Scenic Drive in El Paso) and bring forth tens of thousands of people in an electrifying, community atmosphere in a domain normally dominated by cars. (The events are often initially organized and promoted by bicyclists but soon become so congested that they evolve into street festivals.)

Cities can permanently convert streets into park-like “Woonerfs,” a Dutch concept for neighborhood ways where pedestrians, bicyclists, and children are given priority over cars. (The name translates to “Home Zone,” which is what it is called in Great Britain.) While the concept has yet to fully establish itself in the United States, variants have surfaced. On downtown Asheville, North Carolina’s, Wall Street, the city installed brick pavers, bollards, benches, and lights so intertwined that they become an obstacle course that greatly reduces automobile speeds. Seattle is doing similar traffic calming in certain neighborhoods and is also adding numerous pervious areas and water-capturing features to add ecological benefits to these “street-parks.”

Park Roads that Have Been Closed to Automobiles, Selected Parks

Park City Road Name Miles Closure
Time
Year First Closed
Central Park New York Central Park Dr. 6 P 1966
Golden Gate Park San Francisco John F. Kennedy Dr. 2 P 1967
Prospect Park Brooklyn, N.Y. Prospect Park Dr. 3.5 P 1966
Gwynns Falls Trail Baltimore Ellicott Dr./Wetheredsville Rd. 6 F 1972
The National Mall Washington, D.C. Washington Dr. & Adams Dr. 2 F 1976
Rock Creek Park Washington, D.C. Beach Dr. 4 P 1981
Fairmount Park Philadelphia Martin Luther King Dr. 4 P 1982
Piedmont Park Atlanta Piedmont Park Dr. 2.9 F 1983
Washington Park Denver Marion Pkwy/Humboldt Dr. 2 F 1985
Overton Park Memphis Interior Rd. 2 F 1987
Griffith Park Los Angeles Mt. Hollywood Dr. 10 F 1991
Memorial Park Houston Picnic Loop 1.2 P 1994
Garden of the Gods Colorado Springs Gateway Rd. 0.25 F 1996
Brackenridge Park San Antonio Wilderness Rd. 1 F 2004
Fair Park Dallas First Ave. 0.25 F 2004
Pope Park Hartford, Conn. Pope Park Dr. 0.2 F 2005
Franklin Mnts St. Pk El Paso Scenic Dr. 2.6 P 2008
Kessler Park Kansas City, Mo. Cliff Drive 2.6 P 2008
Hampton Park Charleston, S.C. Mary Murray Dr. 1.5 P N.A.
F – Full-time; P – Part-time; N.A. – Not Available      
Source: Center for City Park Excellence, The Trust for Public Land, 2008      
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