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Developer Impact Fees Pay for Parks

Residents in downtown Los Angeles are leaping for joy because a brand new park is coming to the revitalized historic core.  Spring Street Park, which broke ground last October, will be the first public park in the neighborhood.  According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 15,000 residents moved into downtown between 2000 and 2010, without the addition of new public greenspace.  The city purchased the property from Council District 9 in 2009 with $5.1 million in Quimby funds.  California state law requires the dedication of land or in lieu fees for park or recreational purposes as a condition of new residential subdivision.  These fees are known as “Quimby fees.”  The 1965 Quimby Act authorizes the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks to spend Quimby funds within one to two miles of a new subdivision.

California is not the only state that uses developer impact fees to purchase or maintain parkland.  According to the Center for City Park Excellence, 36 of the main park and recreation agencies within the 100 most populous U.S. cities have some variation of a developer impact fee and received $55.5 million and over 200 acres of parkland in FY 2010.  Even more impressive, cities spent $64.5 million from their developer impact fee accounts in that same fiscal year (fees collected do not have to be spent in the same year received).  At the top of the list was the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks (spending $15.7 million), followed by the San Jose Department of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services ($9.1 million), Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department ($9 million), Riverside, CA Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department ($8.4 million), and Portland, OR Parks and Recreation ($4.5 million).

It is interesting to note that, due to the current economic situation, develop impact fees are actually a declining source of revenue.  In FY 2008, 28 of the major park and recreation agencies received $101.6 million and almost 600 acres of parkland.  Of the $101.6 million received from developer impact fees, $71.6 million was spent in that same fiscal year.

Developer exaction programs have been adopted by many communities to help offset a variety of costs associated with new development.  A sizable percentage of these localities, recognizing that public parks, trails, open space and recreational facilities are critical to ensuring residents’ health and quality of life, have specifically set fees and/or required land dedication for parks.

The majority of these ordinances apply only to residential plats or subdivisions that create additional dwelling units.  A few ordinances also apply fees to office construction, hotels, schools, churches, nursing homes and other types of commercial or even industrial development.

The formulas used to assess the fee or generate acreage vary; some are based on the number of new residents, others on the number of units, others on the square footage of construction.  In addition, the ordinances differ in allowing a developer to substitute land or facilities for paying a fee; in setting the size of the geographical “nexus” within which the funds or land can be applied; in permitting uses for the funds (i.e. land acquisition, facility development, maintenance and even administration); in being flexible as to the types of facilities for which funds can be used; and in setting a time limit within which the funds must be spent or committed.

There is no nationally agreed-upon standard for land (or dollar) donations by developers, and different city or state ordinances use substantially different formulas to determine the exactions. In some cases the ratio is based upon population, in others on dwelling units; some cities prefer outright land gifts while others prefer money with which to buy land.

For more information about the role of developer exactions in the creation of new city parks, read an article here.

Cities with Health Promoting Park Systems Provide Mixed Uses and Adequate Programming

An excerpt from The Trust for Public Land’s report From Fitness Zones to the Medical Mile: How Urban Park Systems Can Best Promote Health and Wellness. We wrote a preview of this report in an earlier postIn this post, we look at a mixture of uses and a maximum amount of programming.

Mixing uses in parks has its challenges and requires good design, adequate signage, and clear rules. Trail use, for example, can create conflict between walkers, skaters, and fast cyclists. Many cities appropriately prohibit fast cycling on trails shared by pedestrians. On the other hand, hard pedaling and fast running provide more health benefit than casual spinning and jogging. Other than putting bikes on roadways, the only safe solution is to provide parallel treadways for fast and slow users—and to clearly mark the allowed uses by location or time of day. Then, too, the alternate trails need occasional enforcement.

Even if a park system offers varied spaces for physical activity, not everyone will know how to take advantage of them. Some users need to learn new skills, some need encouragement, some need an exercise regimen, some need social support. Even with all this, many require other assistance—partners, equipment, referees, timekeepers, music, safety paraphernalia, and more. In a word, programming. Good programming can increase park use many times over, make activity more enjoyable, and increase its benefits to health and fitness.

Credit: Phil Schermeister.

Traditional park  programming consists of league sports, exercise routines, children’s camps, and oldies-but-goodies such as ballroom dancing. More recent additions have been Jazzercise, tai kwon do, tai chi, rock climbing, and bicycle “roadeos.” But in response to changing technologies and new immigrant cultures, innovative ideas come along all the time. In Minneapolis, the park department offers open gym periods to play sepak takraw, a remarkable kick volleyball game brought to this country by Hmong immigrants from Cambodia. Raleigh, North Carolina, uses the reward of a free pedometer for diabetic children who sign up for special athletic programming that includes nutrition instruction. Seattle has launched monthly Women of the World swims at two pools at the request of Muslim women whose faith bars them from recreational activities with men. Women of all faiths are welcome, and the sessions are privately funded. Overseen by female lifeguards and held at pools without street-facing windows, the swims provide some women with exercise they otherwise would not get.

Of course, programming has a health impact only if people know about it, and that requires promotion and marketing through advertisements, program pamphlets, TV and radio public service announcements, flyers, email‚ and social networking services such as Twitter. Outreach is difficult in times of tight budgets, but creative park departments attempt to find private sector collaborators in fields such as health, media, banking, and public utilities to help them spread the word.

Finally, every new program and every new facility needs to be evaluated, particularly when dealing with health, since this approach is standard in the medical community. It is not enough to assume that an activity has a positive impact. The only real way to know is through monitoring and before-and-after measurement. Sometimes the research can be done by the park agency itself. But when this is prohibitively time-consuming or expensive, it may be possible to partner with a local university, college‚ or high school whose student researchers can observe usership and even measure such health indicators as body mass index, heart rate‚ or muscle strength.

Credit: Susan Lapides.

When it comes to programming, Cincinnati—the nation’s 56th-largest city—packs a wallop. On a per-capita basis, Cincinnati ranks in the U.S. top ten for its number of ball diamonds, recreation centers, swimming pools, tennis courts, basketball courts‚ and golf courses. More important for public health, the Cincinnati Recreation Commission’s programs attracted over 3.2 million participant-visits in 2009, some 691,000 of which were visits by youth. All this in a city of barely 330,000 residents—giving Cincinnati the highest per-capita recreation participation rate of all cities reporting information to The Trust for Public Land.

Among the hundreds of programs offered are youth and adult league sports ranging from soccer and basketball to track and field and kickball; senior programs such as golf, swimming, tennis‚ and the Senior Olympics; programs for the disabled, including wheelchair football and basketball; and such offerings for youth as afterschool programs, summer day camps, and bike outings. In addition to the formal programming, most of the recreation commission’s 29 recreation centers offer fitness centers and open gym hours. Residents can use the recreation centers and the city’s 26 pools for a yearly membership fee of $25, or $10 for seniors and youth.

The Cincinnati Park Board—a landowning and land management agency separate from the recreation commission—plays a part, too, by working to make Cincinnatians feel safer in their parks. In Burnet Woods, a place with a mixed reputation, the board thinned out invasive vegetation and installed a disc golf course through the forest. The sport, which is growing in popularity throughout the country, drew so many more people into Burnet Woods that the park became safer and more appealing even for visitors not there for the game.

Credit: Rich Reid.

Fitness zones are easy-to-use, accessible outdoor gyms designed to promote general  health within a park experience, creating a supportive social context for getting fit. Using only a gravity- and-resistance weight system, fitness zones require no electricity and employ their users’ body weight to engage different muscle groups. The exercise equipment is durable, vandal- and weather-resistant, and appropriate for people 13 years of age and older of all fitness levels.

Working under the leadership of The Trust for Public Land and with funding from health insurer Kaiser Permanente and the MetLife Foundation, the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation Department have installed 30 fitness zones across the region, including six in existing Los Angeles city parks.

Fitness zones are often placed in areas of high need, including communities with high rates of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. Some are located adjacent to playgrounds to encourage adults to exercise while keeping an eye on children. Others are placed near administrative offices to reduce safety worries.

The El Cariso Regional Park in Sylmar is one example of a successful fitness zone. It includes nine pieces of easy-to-use outdoor gym equipment along with bilingual health and fitness information panels.

“The bottom line is that fitness zones attract new users to parks,” says Dr. Deborah Cohen, a researcher with the RAND Corporation who carried out an exhaustive before- and-after study of the facilities in 12 parks. “We also know that fitness zones are used throughout the day, that fitness zone users increase the amount they exercise, and that they use the parks more frequently than other park users.”

2011 City Park Facts Released: Urban Parks Grow as Employment Declines

The Trust for Public Land has released its most recent data on city park systems from across the country, showing that the 100 largest cities added more than 120 parks in the past year.

2011 City Park Facts

Despite aggregate increases in acreage and facilities across the U.S., many city park departments are struggling with funding shortages. Operational spending shrank by 0.6 percent overall, with close to half of cities experiencing cuts.  Full-time employee counts fell by 3.9 percent, a loss of 935 jobs nationwide. The impact on seasonal jobs was particularly severe, with a decrease of 11.04 percent, or more than 8,000 jobs. Overall though, the rate of employment cuts has slowed since the previous year, which witnessed a 7 percent drop in employment.

The 22,493 city parks profiled in the report serve 62 million urban residents with a wide array of facilities, including 419 public golf courses, 569 dog parks, 9,633 ball diamonds, 11,678 playgrounds, and 14,415 basketball hoops.

Budgets grew slightly overall, but not enough to sustain jobs or overcome increasing – and often deferred – maintenance costs. Peter Harnik, director of the Center for City Park Excellence, noted that “cities are still saddled with a reported $5.8 billion in deferred repairs and improvements.” That figure is only slightly smaller than the total parks expenditure of the 92 cities that provided financial data for FY 2009, which equaled $6.1 billion.

The enthusiasm for great parks among city dwellers hasn’t suffered. Nearly half the primary park and recreation agencies reported more than 1 million visits during the year, and 14 boasted more than 10 million annual visits. Topping the list were New York (123 million visits), San Diego (72.3 million), and Chicago (50 million). Park directors welcome this popularity, though heavy usership can also be a burden, with 1,261 parks categorized as “overused.”

Madison, Wisconsin has the most parks per capita, with 12.7 per 10,000 residents, followed by Cincinnati, St. Petersburg, Anchorage, and Buffalo. Madison also has more playgrounds per capita than any other city, with seven for every 10,000 residents. The next five are Virginia Beach, Corpus Christi, Cincinnati, and Norfolk.

For the set of cities which provided data in both FY 2009 and FY 2010, the only major facility type to decrease in number was swimming pools, dropping from 1,337 to 1,227.

There are almost 20,000 community garden plots in the parks of the 100 largest cities. Despite being two of the coldest cities, St. Paul, Minnesota and Madison, Wisconsin were tops in the number of garden sites per 10,000 residents, with 35.6 and 32.9, respectively.

Spread-out cities such as Anchorage and Albuquerque usually offer the most park acreage per resident. Older, denser cities that still manage to offer residents large swaths of open space include Minneapolis (13.3 acres per 1,000 residents), Oakland, Washington, D.C., and Seattle. But operating quality parkland in dense cities does not come cheap – Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., and Seattle each spent $200 or more per resident, compared to a median of $84.

Read the entire 2011 City Park Facts report here.

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

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 one here), with Windsor Town Green as our second case study.

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Windsor, a town of 27,000 almost 30 miles north of San Pablo Bay, is the site of one of the newest central parks in the Bay Area. Interestingly, the Windsor Town Green grew not from the needs of a park-starved citizenry, but from a community’s desire to reclaim a largely abandoned downtown, provide a public gathering place – and, not least, compete with nearby towns for Sonoma County wine country tourists.

Even before Windsor incorporated in 1992, there was momentum behind the idea of transforming the underutilized downtown area into a public plaza. That vision, first articulated by Sonoma County in 1986, remained in place after incorporation and served as the foundation for turning the downtown, once a wine processing and railroad hub, into a true walkable civic center anchored by shops and residences.

A crowd gathers on a summer night in Windsor's Town Green. Photo courtesy Windsor Department of Parks and Recreation.

Windsor decided to develop the Town Green, as well as its new municipal center, on the grounds of a vacant junior high school campus, thus fortunately eliminating any opposition from neighbors.  Owned by the Sonoma County Office of Education, the 21-acre site was broken into two parts and sold — 7.5 acres of buildings to the town (for a new town hall), and 13.5 acres to a private developer, subject to a town planning process.

In 1999, after the exact location of the Town Green had been selected, the Windsor Redevelopment Agency purchased the 4.84-acre park site for $1,142,670, which included more than $450,000 in matching grants from the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation Open Space District. The remaining funds came from the agency’s capital fund, which is replenished by the collection of the tax increment in the growing area. Two years earlier, the Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District had acquired another small part of the property to protect a stand of historic oaks. The remainder of the land has been (or is in the process of being) redeveloped for housing and retail around the park.

Finding a private developer willing to gamble on a unique project in an area of traditional subdivisions was not easy, even with the redevelopment agency spending $2,900,000 to build the park, widen sidewalks, bury utilities, and improve the surrounding streets.

“The town had been promoting the concept of mixed use for a long time,” says Senior Planner Rick Jones, “but no one was willing to take the risk” on a new urbanist development. Finally, in 2001, a developer named Orrin Thiessen took the plunge. In addition to the park, Windsor provided Thiessen with some other incentives. He was given the right to develop his three properties at higher densities than code allowed, and also to encroach on sidewalks for restaurants and commercial use. He was also given an expedited planning review process and reduced parking requirements. By now, almost 14 acres of colorful three-story townhomes with commercial space below have been built.

The Town Green itself features a stage, covered pavilions, a playground, a plum tree orchard, a fountain, reflecting pools, and a historical time-line walk. (The historic oak grove is directly adjacent.) The park, as well as the adjacent restaurants and businesses, are supplied with a Wi-Fi network. In 2008, a community member offered to help underwrite the expansion of the stage, which is now outfitted with a sound system, used for the numerous programs held on the green. Programming is varied and popular, and all events are free. The Summer Nights on the Green concert series is expected to attract 40,000 attendees in 2011. Other regular summer events include the Farmers Market, Tuesday Night Kid Movies and the outdoor Shakespeare Theater on the Green.

Time for City Parks to Pull Their Weight

From Fitness Zones to the Medical Mile: How Urban Park Systems Can Best Promote Health and Wellness.

We’ve written before about the need for urban parks to do more for public health. A new report by the Center for City Park Excellence, From Fitness Zones to the Medical Mile: How Urban Park Systems Can Best Promote Health and Wellness, looks at how individual parks and entire city park systems help people be healthier and more fit.  The report details more than 75 innovative features and programs, including 14 case studies, that maximize a park’s ability to promote physical activity and improve mental health.

Today’s post, a reprint of an op-ed that appeared in yesterday’s The Philadelphia Daily News, serves as an overview of that report.  We will highlight specific best practices in a series of future posts.

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When it comes to health and fitness, the U.S. is in crisis.

Forty-nine percent of Americans get less than the minimum recommended amount of physical activity, and 36 percent of U.S. adults engage in no leisure-time physical activity at all. These people are not all obese, of course, but lack of exercise is certainly a risk factor for being overweight, and we are the most overweight nation on earth. On average, an obese American racks up nearly $1,500 more a year in health-care costs than one of normal weight, for a national total of $147 billion in direct medical expenses.

It’s well-established that physical activity helps prevent obesity and related medical problems. And there’s mounting evidence that providing places for urbanites to exercise (parks, primarily) can improve health.

But the mere presence of a park doesn’t guarantee a healthier population. Thousands of acres of city parks are not, for one reason or another, serving the purpose of helping people become healthier. With a growing clamor from doctors, parents, overweight people and even those who just want to strengthen muscles, lungs, and hearts, it’s time for parks to be more than just pretty places. Individual parks, and entire city park systems, should be designed and programmed to help people be more fit.

The overriding principle for a park system to foster mental and physical well-being is that it must be well-used by the public. But many parks don’t make it easy to exercise. Some are too small, some too big and confusing, some too far away, some too frightening, or too unattractive and unimaginative. Some are mainly athletic complexes for special users – baseball, soccer or tennis players as far as the eye can see. Others are primarily natural areas with occasional trails, too boring for many competitive people.

In the starkest terms, most parks simply don’t offer enough choices for activity. The more facilities and spaces layered onto a park, the more use it can get from people with different interests and skills. A golf course can serve a couple of hundred people a day; add a running track around it and it can serve thousands. (The one encircling Memorial Park Golf Course in Houston hosts 10,000 runners a day and is said to be the most heavily used exercise trail in the country.)

A playground is a nice spot for kids to practice motor skills, but adding a fitness zone of adult exercise equipment lets grown-ups get into shape while watching the kids. A softball field is a great place for 18 players, while unstructured space nearby means twosomes and threesomes can kick a ball, toss a Frisbee, play catch, throw sticks to a dog, and much more. Forests are wonderful sanctuaries for wildlife and the occasional intrepid bushwhacker; woods with manicured trails, an occasional bench and grassy openings can attract many more users.

Even if parks didn’t provide all the urban benefits they are known for – improving the environment, attracting tourists, building community, enhancing property values – they’d still be critically important because of their potential contribution to public health and wellness. But platitudes about healthy parks aren’t enough. If park agencies are to truly justify all the land and tax money they use, they must actually serve their health functions as powerfully as do doctors, hospitals and health agencies.

In the mid-19th century, Frederick Law Olmsted and others called for the creation of parks as refuges from the unhealthful air and stresses of urban life. Today’s urban air quality may be improved, but Americans have found other ways to put their bodies and spirits in jeopardy. Parks continue to be among the best places to offer solace and solutions to public-health problems.

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