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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.

Some news from around…

  • New plans for a greenway along the Allegheny Riverfront in Pittsburgh. Next American City has the story, along with a fantastic picture of Point State Park.
  • Kaid Benfield at NRDC reviews Peter Harnik’s “Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities.”
  • Jonathan Lerner at Miller-McCune discusses the connections between urban planning and public health, highlighting the importance of large destination parks and small, neighborhood parks where children can play.
  • Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square becomes a battleground in the struggle of how to pay for city parks. (Philadelphia Inquirer)
  • Planning begins for the Bronx’s historic pedestrian/bike High Bridge, which stretches across the Harlem River. Mayor Bloomberg has devoted $50 million to restoring the span, which connects to Highbridge Park. (New York Times)

Getting to Park Connectivity in Built-Out Cities

Planners have long held up the idea of connectivity – links between people and places that tie everything together.  Within park systems, the concept goes back at least to when the walls of European cities came down, as many of them (e.g. Paris), were turned into grand boulevards ringing their cities and linking up places. And when the American park movement was in full swing in the late 1800s, park planners in nearly every city were laying down parkways between green spaces — think Boston’s Emerald Necklace, the Grand Rounds of Minneapolis, and others in Louisville, Denver, Kansas City and Chicago to name a few.

We’ve written before about how many of these spaces have been retrofitted probably too much for automobile use, and described the ways to refit them back for more rambling and two-wheeling. But another issue is present today — that many places still aspire for connectivity between parks but seem unable to do it because streets have been laid and the city built out. For instance, in Hartford, Conn., a parkway system was once envisioned but never implemented, and the dream of connections seemingly lost.

But this isn’t necessarily the case. There are a variety of ways to make connections that even the most built-out cities can do. Based on what we’ve seen, here are a few ways:

  1. Rail corridors. Often these run right through core areas of cities. One of the best examples of this is Atlanta’s BetlLine, which will use 22 miles of abandoned railway to create a circular trail connecting several parks in the heart of Atlanta. A similar effort is also taking place in Santiago, Chile, with the Anillo Interior, which will ring the city’s core.

    The Anillo Interior uses new boulevards and old rail corridors for a Santiago belt line.

  2. A conceptual plan shows how a network of riverfront trails (partially completed), easements and street upgrades could connect Hartford's parks.

  3. Waterfronts and stream corridors. Many of these areas were used for industry when cities developed, but now are being turned into recreational space. In Hartford, Conn., the entire Connecticut Riverfront is being turned into a series of parks connected by a trail in a partnership with the group Riverfront Recapture. And by developing a trail along the city’s Park River on its west side, the long lost plan for an interconnected park system could be realized.
  4. Easements. These are strips of land within cemeteries, schools, ports, private properties and the like. A number of easements were used to create the 14-mile Gwynns Falls Trail in Baltimore.
  5. Upgrading Streets into Parkways. Sometimes a wide street can be turned into a boulevard with a center median, separated bike trail and other features. That’s exactly what Minneapolis is planning to do to finish a piece of the “missing link” in its Grand Rounds.
  6. Bike Boulevards. If a street isn’t wide enough to turn into a full-fledged parkway, a bike boulevard can act as a trail connection. These facilities have only appeared recently in Davis and Berkeley, Calif., Eugene and Portland, Oreg. and Minneapolis, but the concept could easily be applied to connecting parks.
  7. The Indianapolis Cultural Trail uses an off-street trail and other landscape features to define itself.

    Cycle Tracks & Pedestrian Improvements. Similarly, separated bike facilities known as cycle tracks along with upgraded pedestrian features and signing can turn regular streets into key park and public space linkages. Such a configuration is being done in downtown Indianapolis for the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, which just received $20 million in Recovery Act “TIGER” funding.

All of these ways can be used to create linkages — one system may include an old rail corridor, a stream or river, an existing parkway and upgrading streets where none of those are possible.

Years ago, Frederick Law Olmsted remarked that no one should be a long walk’s time from parkways, and that the citizens using them, whether going to and from a park, or to and from some form of business, may gain some “substantial recreative advantage.” Today, it’s not that different of a story. Using the many different forms of connections can give great value to residents — in pleasure, recreation, health and lessened carbon output — and help create excellent park systems.

Making More of Boulevards and Parkways

Between efforts to make bicycling better and improve the public realm in Manhattan, New York City has been making some steps to upgrade boulevard streets for more users — making the center medians of these facilities into usable and attractive public spaces rather than just an area between two directions of traffic.

An initial separated bike lane on Pike Street.

Case in point: Pike Street. The city’s Transportation Department has been working to add physically separated bike facilities (or cycle tracks) along the central median in both directions and creating plaza-like public spaces by closing off certain intersections. Plans eventually call for adding trees, benches and gardens to the median promenade, through the Parks Department. (Streetsblog provided a picture showing some of the initial changes, see at right.)

The changes are supported and were devised with input by the local community. A model for this concept has been the Boulevard de Clichy in Paris, which is essentially a linear park with cycle tracks on each side, separated from traffic by landscaped buffers. Below are some pictures of that boulevard and plans for Pike Street’s further upgrades from the Department of Transportation.

Boulevard de Clichy, Paris

Boulevard de Clichy, Paris

Planned further improvements for Pike Street

Planned further improvements for Pike Street

The new plazas, seen in above picture from Streetsblog.

The new plazas, seen in above picture from Streetsblog.

Chicago Sunday Parkways

Streetfilms gives a neat look at the Sunday Parkways program in Chicago, in which about three miles of the city’s parkways were closed to car traffic on four Sundays in October, including through parks. The route cut through neighborhoods lacking park space, and essentially turned the city’s wide boulevards into large linear parks. The video shows a lot of people out enjoying the space and Chicago’s parks, with one interviewee saying this “is the greatest thing since sliced bread, except you can burn it off, too.”

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