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Some News From Around…

  • This spring, ground will be broken on a $3.25 million renovation of Military Park in downtown Newark. (New York Times)
  • A federally funded survey has identified the top 10 cities for urban forests. (USA Today)
  • San Bernardino’s economic decline is having a negative effect on the city’s urban parks, but residents are looking for ways to save them. (San Bernardino Sun)
  • City Slicker Farms breaks ground on a new urban park and farm in Oakland. (East Bay Express)
  • Locals push back against a proposal to build a shopping center in one of Sydney’s most important urban parks.  (Sydney Morning Herald)

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.

Creating and Financing Infill Parks in the Bay Area: Part III

The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence performed a study for the Association of Bay Area Governments, one component of which was identifying examples of how recently completed infill parks were financed. We will be publishing each of the four case studies (see the first here and the second here), with Oakland’s remarkable FROG Park as our third case study.

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The city of Oakland has an impressive amount of parkland. In fact, of the nation’s densely populated cities, it has the most parkland per resident. But the land is unequally distributed: the hills are green but the more populous portions of the city are lacking. This fact was the impetus for the formation of the Friends of the Rockridge-Temescal Greenbelt (FROG), which began an effort to build a community park in the Rockridge neighborhood in 1997.  The story of FROG Park is a paragon of community initiative and drive.

The first effort to create a park failed. When a Department of Motor Vehicles licensing facility underwent renovation, green space advocates suggested converting half its parking lot into a park to mitigate the development impact. Other neighbors, however, protested, fearing the loss of parking, and the FROG proposal was rejected. Though unsuccessful, the group remained determined to find a space for a park, and began researching other nearby sites. They soon discovered an area that combined an underused basketball court and dog park with fenced-off land owned by the Alameda County Flood Control District.

The FROG Park playground during construction by community volunteers. Photo credit: Theresa Nelson.

The site was complicated, both in shape – it is long and narrow, and passed over by a major highway – and in ownership. But it also offered tremendous potential, with a creek and an already-existing 120-foot-long mural under the highway. The idea for a park gained additional traction when two FROG volunteers came up with a master plan inspired by the idea of building playgrounds – one for toddlers and one for older kids – to serve as anchors on either end of a linear park.

To secure a lease on the site from the city, FROG was required first to deal with a number of liability issues, negotiating with CalTrans for permission to improve the site below California 24, and assuring unfettered passage for the Alameda County Flood Control District to service the creek and its utility area.

By early 2000, it became clear that FROG would be able to secure the cobbled-together park site, and fundraising began in earnest.  By working with Oakland Vice Mayor Jane Brunner, FROG positioned itself to legally receive funding from city bond measures. (Later, Brunner also provided her entire $125,000 annual discretionary allotment to the park as a challenge grant.) Oakland’s Measure DD (the Trust for Clean Water and Safe Parks) provided $140,000. California Proposition 12 (the Safe Neighborhood Parks, Clean Water, Clean Air and Coastal Protection Bond Act of 2000) supplied $493,000. They also manage to snag $60,000 for a tot lot under Measure I (the Oakland General Obligation Bonds for Parks) — and then, with the help of Friends of Oakland Parks, an amazing additional $400,000 of interest money on unspent Measure I funds.

Private fundraising followed in 2000, consisting of a mail campaign, monthly articles in the local newspaper, direct solicitations of businesses, a reception and a silent auction, generating well over $200,000, along with a critical $350,000 worth of volunteer labor and tools.

The park was built in two phases (with a third and final phase still to come). Phase I consisted of improved access to Temescal Creek (most of which flows below in an underground pipe), the construction of two playgrounds, the restoration of the 1972 mural (by the original artist along with students from a local arts college) and Phase II, completed in 2006, yielded paths, basketball hoops, swings and a water fountain, and the public art element: a series of obelisks equipped with small telescopes aimed at brass castings of animals that inhabit the landscape. (There is also a reproduction of the castings on a table so that the visually impaired can feel the sculptures.). The final addition will be a solar-powered restroom, as the park has only a porta-potty for 10 years, funded by FROG.

Total costs for Phases I and II totaled only $2.87 million, partly because FROG mobilized the entire community to help — 1,300 volunteers showed up over 10 days to construct the playgrounds under the direction of Leathers & Associates of Ithaca, New York. (FROG volunteers also prepared three meals a day for the volunteer workers and offered free child care during the entire period.)

The design of FROG Park incorporates land owned by the Alameda Couny Flood Control District. Photo credit: Theresa Nelson.

FROG now works to sustain community involvement, which remains the backbone of the park. All maintenance besides grass cutting and trash removal (done by the city), such as creek cleaning and refinishing the wooden play structures, is done by neighbors on semiannual work days. A local high school sends its entire freshman class each year to work on replanting the native garden.

The park is a seven-minute walk from the nearest BART station, and park co-founder Theresa Nelson reports that many park visitors arrive on public transit. The weekend farmer’s market, held in the DMV parking lot, brings in “probably a thousand people, from kids splashing in the creek and sailing boats to older couples walking to the market,” according to Nelson. FROG has also worked with the developers of two adjacent infill developments to extend the park into their properties. Realtors have begun to pitch the park in advertisements, and surrounding properties seem to have benefited: while Rockridge property values have generally remained stable since the park was constructed, Nelson estimates an average home near the park has increased in value by about $150,000.

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