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Voters in Three Cities Approve Spending for Parks

Voters in Newark, Cleveland and Grand Rapids have overwhelmingly approved local taxes to pay for better parks in their cities, The Trust for Public Land announced.

On November 5th:

  • Newark, N.J., voters gave 84% approval to create the Newark Open Space & Recreation Trust Fund, which would receive about $1.1 million a year to maintain city parks and provide new parks. The money would come from a tax of one penny per $100 of real property value.
  • In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, voters in Cleveland and nearby communities gave 70% passage to a measure that increases the local levy used to pay for a variety of parks in the county. The measure will bring in about $75 million a year over the next 20 years.
  • In Michigan, Grand Rapids voters passed by a 60–40 margin a park levy which will create $28 million over the next seven years.

The three successful city measures were among 15 local conservation spending proposals on the ballot. Twelve of the 15 passed, and will generate $1.8 billion for local conservation over the next two decades. The only major loss came in Boise, Idaho, where voters gave 62–38% support for a conservation tax, but that figure fell just short of the 2/3 approval required.
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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.

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      

From Dumps to Destinations: Converting Landfills to Parks

A tenth 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 from capped landfills.

New parks can be fashioned out of old garbage dumps. It’s not as bad as it sounds.

Fresh Kills Park, New York. The soon-to-open park will be New York's largest city park at 2,200 acres, more than double the size of Central Park. Credit: Garrett Ziegler (Flickr Feed).

Balloon Park in Albuquerque, Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley, McAlpine Creek Soccer Complex in Charlotte, Red Rock Canyon Open Space in Colorado Springs, Rogers Park Golf Course in Tampa, and hundreds of others, both famous and obscure, have been created from landfills. And in a few more years New York City’s 2,200-acre Fresh Kills Landfill will have settled in to become that city’s largest park.

Landfill parks go back to at least 1916 (many years before the word “landfill” was coined) when the old Rainier Dump in Seattle was turned into the Rainier Playfield. In 1935 in that same city a more momentous conversion transformed the 62-acre Miller Street Dump into a portion of the now-famous Washington Park Arboretum. The following year, New York City closed the putrid Corona Dumps–famously called the “Valley of Ashes” by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby–and began preparing the land for construction of the 1939 World’s Fair. Following World War II, as the volume of trash in America mushroomed, so did the number of landfills. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that as many as 3,500 landfills have closed since 1991; the number from earlier years is anyone’s guess.

In an ideal world all trash would be recycled and there would be no landfills. But in a time of severe urban space and resource constraints, closed landfills represent excellent locales for three big reasons: size, location, and cost. A former dump is usually one of the few large, open locations within a dense metro area. There is also the opportunity to correct what may have been a longstanding environmental injustice to the surrounding residents. Finally, there’s a good chance that the landfill–which may be as small as dozens of acres or as large as 1,000 or more–is free or inexpensive to buy or possibly that it even comes with its own supporting funds.

While a capped landfill is not necessarily a park director’s first choice for a parcel of land, it’s impressive and instructive that so many perfectly adequate–or even better than adequate–city parks started out as dumps. Communities from coast to coast have been jumping at the chance to use them. Based on a survey, the Center for City Park Excellence estimates that there may already be as many as 4,500 acres of landfill parks in major U.S. cities.

Mount Trashmore, Virginia Beach. The city's highest point and its largest non-wetland park was constructed in 1974 over an 800-foot-high mound of municipal refuse, and became the best known of the nation's early landfill parks. Credit: Backus Aerial.

In Portland, Oregon, the park department is getting a free 25-acre park. All closure and conversion costs for Cully Park were paid by the solid waste department, which built up a reserve for exactly that purpose by charging a per-ton fee on garbage disposed there. (The park department coordinates closely in habitat development and vegetation management.) In Virginia Beach, where Mount Trashmore required multiple fixes over the decades, the original 1974 capping and the 1986 recapping were paid for by the public works department; the 2003 recapping–hopefully the last–was financed by the park department through its capital improvement budget. In Fresno, California, the landfill isn’t even being officially transferred over; the public utilities department will own it in perpetuity but will sign a management agreement with the parks and recreation department.

Frankly, a cheap purchase price is important because preparation costs can be significant. Depending on the age and contents of the landfill, the amount of groundwater or soil contamination, and the planned recreational use, construction costs have ranged from $500,000 for a 2-acre site to $30 million for a regional park of more than 100 acres. Expenses depend on such factors as topography, availability of materials, cover design, and much more. A calculation by the Center for City Park Excellence puts the average at around $300,000 per acre. Financial responsibility for these and other costs may lie solely with the park developer or be shared by the landfill owner/operator.

The construction of municipal solid waste landfills has been regulated since 1991 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Today an owner/operator must install a 24-inch earthen cover within six months of closure to minimize water infiltration and erosion. The cover usually also has a gas venting layer and a stone or synthetic biotic layer to keep out burrowing animals. The EPA requires groundwater monitoring and leachate collection for thirty years after the landfill is closed.

Technically, the two big challenges to using a former landfill are gas production and ground settlement. Landfill gases, including methane, carbon dioxide, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide, are created when buried waste decomposes. Methane may be released for thirty or more years after closure, and EPA requires gas collection systems. (In parks built on pre-1991 landfills there were occasional stories of picnickers being stunned to see a column of flame surrounding a barbeque grill.) Happily, methane collected from landfills can be sold by park departments to generate revenue. In Portland, Oregon, St. Johns Landfill, a former disposal site within the 2,000-acre Smith-Bybee Wetlands Natural Area, earns more than $100,000 a year from methane that is piped 2 miles to heat the lime kiln of a cement company. The revenue helps pay for closure operations as the site transitions from landfill to park.

Settlement is a bit tougher. Like cereal in a box, municipal landfills gradually slump as much as 20 percent over a two- or three-decade period. That much settlement would cause foundations to break and sink, utility and irrigation pipes to burst, roads and paths to crack and heave, light poles to tilt, and sports fields to crumple. Obviously, if the ultimate reuse of a landfill is as a natural wild land, none of this matters. But most recreational reuses require the construction of at least trails if not fields and buildings of various types. Fortunately, waste sits only in “cells” in certain areas of a landfill, and park facilities can be safely constructed over undisturbed areas, leaving the settling sections to support grass and shrubbery. Therefore, structural foundations can be protected through detailed research and careful planning; the key is to know exactly where the waste is. At New York’s Fresh Kills only about 45 percent of the land area was actually used for waste disposal.

Despite the many successful individual examples, there is not yet a seamless landfills-to-parks movement in the United States. Numerous challenges remain–technological, political, and legal–all of which drive up costs. Back when land was more easily available, the impediments were generally not worth taking on. Now in many cases they are. With a three-pronged effort to design safer waste dumps, to work more closely with community activists, and to ensure protection from legal liabilities, cities will be able to gain much new parkland from abandoned landfills.

For more information about landfill parks, read an article published in Places journal here.

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.

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