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Parks: One of the Most Important Ingredients of a Successful City

(Republished from NextCity)

An audience member at the Philly Parks Future Forum last week called the panelists assembled a “dream team.” The experts represented parks agencies from Seattle, New York, Minneapolis, San Francisco and Chicago. Presented by the City Parks Alliance, the forum wasn’t so much an event to unravel the issues that Philly parks will face specifically, but to discuss how city parks are one of the greatest assets to our country and how they are progressing nationally. Philadelphia Daily News writer Sandra Shea moderated the panel of parks and recreation officials, who shared what’s been working in their necks of the woods. Here are five important takeaways from the Forum.

1. Seattle’s New Park District Was 20 Years in the Making
Proposition 1, which called for the creation of a Seattle Park District, passed with 53 percent of the vote in August. Prop 1 did away with the need to return to voters to secure funding, permanently backing parks through property taxes. (This new source of revenue will be in addition to the $89.5 million that Seattle already receives each year from the city’s general fund.)

What turned the tide? Seattle Parks and Recreation Acting Superintendent Christopher Williams said it was Mayor Ed Murray’s outspokenness on the issue. Since city officials at Parks and Recreation don’t run for their jobs, they don’t campaign on their stances. Williams said having a public face mattered. “I can’t say enough about advocacy,” he stated.

Williams said the Seattle department knows it still answers to voters, and because of that responsibility, he suggested, parks departments everywhere should be using a strong performance management model, relying on spreadsheets and data and report cards to track success.

2. 96 Percent of San Franciscans Can Walk From Their Homes to a Park in 10 Minutes or Less
According to The Trust for Public Land, close to 10 million Americans live within a 10-minute walk to a park. According to San Francisco Recreation and Park General Manager Phil Ginsburg, some 800,000 of them live in San Francisco. Ginsburg got more than a few laughs from the Forum audience when he pointed out that many of those park visitors have four legs: San Francisco’s a city of 80,000 children … and 150,000 dogs.

Of course, just having abundant park space isn’t enough. Ginsburg pointed out that as San Francisco’s population continues to grow, his department is focused on modernizing one of the oldest park systems in the U.S. by acquiring more land to create new parks. He pointed out that prioritizing long-term capital planning (thanks to former Mayor Gavin Newsom and current Mayor Ed Lee) is making that expansion possible. Ginsburg emphasized that investing in children — in their health and public safety — with parks improvements was better than paying on the “back end in emergency rooms.”  Continue reading

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.
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