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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      

Visions of Closing Roads and Creating Parks

A previous post highlighted a few cities that closed roads through parks to increase pedestrian and non-motorized use. We’ve recently learned about a proposal to temporarily close streets to traffic during weekends and holidays in Buenos Aires and bring in portable playground equipment and benches to turn these roads into parks. A video of this concept is below:

The “Plaza Movil Street Park” was one of three winners of the Philips Livable Cities Award, a global initiative designed to generate innovative, meaningful and achievable ideas to improve the health and wellbeing of city-dwellers across the world. The creator of the Plaza Movil Street Park received a grant of €25,000 to help translate his concept into reality.

Also worth viewing is the video of one of the five finalists, who brings a plan a little closer to home. The “Design Your Own Park Competition” in Binghamton, NY would turn neglected, urban spaces into parks by having neighborhood residents and groups submit designs in a contest, with the winning vision ultimately created and maintained as a public park.

Road Closures: A Driving Force for Park Visitation

We’ve written before about city parks that close roadways for use by pedestrians, cyclists, rollerbladers, and more. Closing parks to cars actually has been shown to increase visitation, which may come as a surprise to some. Some of the more famous examples include JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park, Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Park, and Kansas City’s Cliff Drive.

We’re hoping to harness the collective expertise of our readers to keep up to date on current trends in park road closures.

Is your city considering a road closure in a park, either permanently or for certain days of the week or hours of the day? Let us know by posting a comment below.

Thanks for your input!

World Health Day Encourages Car Free Roads

Compelled by concerns over public health and a returning zeal for urban life with fewer cars, cities across the world are closing roadways to cars and opening them for people. This trend is getting a great endorsement through the World Health Organization’s upcoming World Health Day on April 11, in which it is encouraging cities to close roads on that day for the enjoyment of people.

Car-free Sunday along Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro

The concept took hold in South America in Bogota, Columbia, with other efforts in Mexico City and along the beaches of Rio de Janeiro taking hold. In Rio, the beachfront recreational space is practically doubled (and so is the amount of users) during the weekly car-free Sundays.

Youth pitching in for Portland's Sunday Parkways in one of the route's park sites.

The idea has also caught on in the U.S. in Chicago, New York City, San Antonio, Baltimore and other places. Portland, Oregon’s Sunday Parkways shuts down eight miles of streets on three summer Sundays in three neighborhoods. The city’s transportation department views Sunday Parkways as ideal for connecting neighborhoods, bringing people together and providing something to do in the city’s many great neighborhood parks. Park and transportation officials have worked together to include parks along the route and program them with different events and attractions.

The event has been a hit. Tallies showed 15,000, 22,000 and 25,000 participants on the streets and in the parks for the three different days, with about 25% being non-bicycle riders — showing that these are not just “bike-people” events.

Meanwhile, cities are also continuing to close roads permanently or on designated days inside city parks. The park roads of Central and Prospect Parks are closed to traffic nearly full time nowadays, but places such as Kansas City are doing it, too. The city’s park department has shut down over two miles of Cliff Drive every weekend from May to September. And the National Park Service closed down the length of road that traverses Fort Dupont Park in the city’s economically depressed southeast. Both of these recent efforts have made the explicit connection in getting residents physically active — but in a fun way instead of preaching the virtues of fitness.

The upcoming 1,000 Cities, 1,000 Lives effort for World Health Day on April 11 is a great opportunity for cities to encourage their residents to get out, have some fun and together engage in some healthy activities — whether it be burning calories or warm conversations with newly-met neighbors and friends. Cities across the globe have signed up for the event. Though it is coming in only two months, there is still time to schedule something. The roads found within parks may be an easier route for those that are interested.

Looking beyond, the WHO event is about more than one day of road closures. It is about encouraging our cities to be healthier places by design. And road closures both in parks and city streets are one way to do this on a regular basis.

Testing Road Closures in Parks

The Presidio, San Francisco; Streetsblog.org

The Presidio, San Francisco; Streetsblog.org

Speaking of National Parks in urban areas, there’s some news from the Presidio in San Francisco that the park is experimenting with some road closures. Devising ways of reducing car use and encouraging non-motorized transportation within parks is becoming more popular with concerns about climate change, obesity and mental health and just a general interest from society in living in cities that are not preoccupied with moving automobiles.  As reported by Streetsblog SF:

In an effort to make the Presidio function less like a traffic shortcut and more like a national park, the Presidio Trust is trying out an idea that’s caught on in the dense city that borders it: a trial street closure. From today until October 27, Presidio Boulevard will be closed to private automobiles between West Pacific Avenue and Upper Simonds Loop [map PDF], as the Presidio Trust and the MTA study traffic impacts. Muni and emergency vehicles will still have full access……Traffic on Presidio Boulevard is about 60 percent cut-through, compared to 50 percent in the park as a whole.

This is a problem in many parks: car drivers using the park roads (meant mainly for recreation) as cut through routes for commuting and other non-recreational trips — something that really has “nothing in common with the park proper,” as Frederick L. Olmsted might say.

The evidence from road closures that have occurred shows that little negative impact is seen on traffic (which may be attributed to the sound planning of officials implementing the closures). In San Francisco, a study of closures at Golden Gate Park found little impact on neighboring streets, and even in traffic-clogged New York City, when Central Park’s loop road was totally shut down for Christo’s “Gates” project, the city found there was little impact on overall traffic.

As said, good planning is key. And as with other places, the Presidio is running test closures to allow commuters to adjust and officials to measure impact. Successful road closures are based on sound evidence rather than desire alone to reduce the role of automobiles.

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