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Parks: One of the Most Important Ingredients of a Successful City

(Republished from NextCity)

An audience member at the Philly Parks Future Forum last week called the panelists assembled a “dream team.” The experts represented parks agencies from Seattle, New York, Minneapolis, San Francisco and Chicago. Presented by the City Parks Alliance, the forum wasn’t so much an event to unravel the issues that Philly parks will face specifically, but to discuss how city parks are one of the greatest assets to our country and how they are progressing nationally. Philadelphia Daily News writer Sandra Shea moderated the panel of parks and recreation officials, who shared what’s been working in their necks of the woods. Here are five important takeaways from the Forum.

1. Seattle’s New Park District Was 20 Years in the Making
Proposition 1, which called for the creation of a Seattle Park District, passed with 53 percent of the vote in August. Prop 1 did away with the need to return to voters to secure funding, permanently backing parks through property taxes. (This new source of revenue will be in addition to the $89.5 million that Seattle already receives each year from the city’s general fund.)

What turned the tide? Seattle Parks and Recreation Acting Superintendent Christopher Williams said it was Mayor Ed Murray’s outspokenness on the issue. Since city officials at Parks and Recreation don’t run for their jobs, they don’t campaign on their stances. Williams said having a public face mattered. “I can’t say enough about advocacy,” he stated.

Williams said the Seattle department knows it still answers to voters, and because of that responsibility, he suggested, parks departments everywhere should be using a strong performance management model, relying on spreadsheets and data and report cards to track success.

2. 96 Percent of San Franciscans Can Walk From Their Homes to a Park in 10 Minutes or Less
According to The Trust for Public Land, close to 10 million Americans live within a 10-minute walk to a park. According to San Francisco Recreation and Park General Manager Phil Ginsburg, some 800,000 of them live in San Francisco. Ginsburg got more than a few laughs from the Forum audience when he pointed out that many of those park visitors have four legs: San Francisco’s a city of 80,000 children … and 150,000 dogs.

Of course, just having abundant park space isn’t enough. Ginsburg pointed out that as San Francisco’s population continues to grow, his department is focused on modernizing one of the oldest park systems in the U.S. by acquiring more land to create new parks. He pointed out that prioritizing long-term capital planning (thanks to former Mayor Gavin Newsom and current Mayor Ed Lee) is making that expansion possible. Ginsburg emphasized that investing in children — in their health and public safety — with parks improvements was better than paying on the “back end in emergency rooms.”  Continue reading

Philanthropy and Stewardship Meet Community Organizing in San Francisco

SFPark1If I could peek into the future to see what private park organizations might look like in the coming years, I suspect they would resemble the San Francisco Parks Alliance – a new organization, resulting from a merger, that is taking on a far larger and more complex mission for public parks in that city.  The Alliance’s mission – a mix of stewardship, philanthropy and advocacy – is about balancing a collaborative approach to a huge challenge.
Continue reading

What is Your City’s ParkScore?

How many people in your city live within walking distance of the nearest park? In what neighborhoods should park improvements or additions be targeted to maximize impact? How well is your city’s park system serving the needs of its residents? Are there disparities between the inner-city core and the lower-density urban fringe, or between different demographic groups?

Today, with the launch of The Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore, it became easier to answer these questions – and more importantly, to begin to develop solutions to park shortages. ParkScore is the most comprehensive park rating system ever developed, combining advanced GIS analysis and data collected by the Center for City Park Excellence.

San Francisco came out on top of the ParkScore rankings, edging out Sacramento, Boston, and New York. Credit: Flickr user Phillie Casablanca.

The Trust for Public Land analyzed the park systems of the nation’s forty most populous cities, and ranked them according to three categories:

Acreage: a city’s acreage score is based equally on two data points – median park size and the percentage of the city’s area covered by parkland.

Access: a city’s access score is based on the percentage of the city’s population that lives within a half-mile walk of the nearest park, taking into consideration the layout of the road network and barriers to access such as railroads, freeways, and fences.

Service & Investment: a city’s service & investment  score is based equally on two data points – total spending per resident and playgrounds per 10,000 residents.

Park access in Dallas, which placed 21st overall in ParkScore. Areas without walkable park access are either red (very high need) or orange (high need), depending on three demographic factors: density, income, and presence of children. Interactive maps for all cities are available at the ParkScore website.

Combined, these factors provide a fair and comprehensive basis for comparison within cities, between cities, and over time. ParkScore is designed to help city residents quantify their need for more and better parks, and for city governments to craft effective and efficient plans to create excellent park systems.

There is a wealth of information in ParkScore that we will delve into in much greater detail in the coming months. For now, here’s an overview of the best urban park systems and those most in need of improvement. Visit the ParkScore website for all the in-depth rankings, maps, and information.

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

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. This is the last of the four cases studies we’ve published from the study. (See the first three in Emeryville, Windsor, and Oakland).


When it comes to urban infill projects – and urban infill park systems – in the San Francisco Bay Area, the colossus is Mission Bay. Almost one out of every six acres of the brand new community is slated to become parkland.

Located in east-central San Francisco, along San Francisco Bay and not far from the Financial District, the 303-acre site was a former industrial area, port rail terminal and warehousing center that suffered through decades of decline. Finally, the pendulum swung back, the area’s intrinsic value was recognized, and in 1998 the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to establish the Mission Bay North and South Redevelopment Project Areas. It then turned the vast project over to the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. The area is eventually scheduled to contain 6,000 residential units, 6 million square feet of commercial space, a hotel, a university campus, retail – and 49 acres of new parkland.

Mission Creek Sports Courts, the first of many new parks that will be built within Mission Bay. Credit: Ning Deng, Marta Fry Landscape Associates

The first of the new parks to come on line is 3-acre Mission Creek Sports Courts, a facility designed to specifically activate land and water spaces partially under a freeway. Its development cost was approximately $7.2 million, its gestation period was 10 years, and it officially opened to the public in mid-2008.  As is usually the case with redevelopment projects, the story of Mission Creek Sport Courts is complex.

By the 1990s most of the land of Mission Bay was owned either by the City of San Francisco or by Catellus, Inc., a land development company associated with the Southern Pacific Railroad. Under normal circumstances, since the area was uninhabited, the company would have had a relatively free hand to develop the large site more or less as it wished, which might have meant a modest amount of parkland. However, there was a small but historic and vociferous community living in houses that literally floated in Mission Creek itself, and that group pressed for parks.

“We weren’t going to let them move ahead without a significant commitment to parks and recreation in our area,” recalls Corinne Woods, a local resident who formerly worked for the Neighborhood Parks Council. Years earlier, ideas for the Mission Bay area had included a sterile collection of concrete water channels and high-rise towers that residents had rejected. This time was different, said Woods. “I’ve got to say that they really stepped up to the plate.”

A major reason that so much more was done at Mission Bay is because the developer wanted, and was dependent on, special financing from the Redevelopment Agency to fund public infrastructure. The city, the agency and the community therefore had considerable leverage to require that land be dedicated to public parks, affordable housing and other benefits.  Without public financial help, the entire project would not have been feasible.

Basketball courts in front of new residences. Courtesy Mission Bay Development Agency.

“This is the value of public/private partnerships,” explained Kelley Kahn, project manager with the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. “We bring powerful public financing tools to the table, the developer brings private land, and together with the community a plan with important public benefits is negotiated.”

Ultimately the redevelopment agency and the master developer (formerly Catellus, now a company called FOCIL-MB) agreed to create 0.45 acres of parkland for every 1.0 net acres of physical development (i.e., acreage not counting streets). This will translate into 41 acres of parks (plus 8 more acres promised within the new campus being built for the University of California at San Francisco). Moreover, under the agreement, the parkland has to be brought on line at a rate equivalent to the development of buildings — that is, park construction cannot be held back while residents are awaited.

Park funding in Mission Bay is provided by way of two sources: from a community facilities district (CFD, also known as a Mello-Roos District), and from tax increment financing – additional tax monies generated because of redevelopment in the area. A CFD is an area where a special property tax on real estate, in addition to the normal property tax, is imposed. The district then sells bonds to finance public improvements and services (which, in addition to parks, could pay for streets, water, sewage and drainage, electricity, schools or police protection.) The tax paid is used to reduce the principal and interest on the bonds.  Similarly, tax increment bonds are issued against future tax increment to pay for parks and other public infrastructure.

The CFD, which runs until the year 2043, and the tax increment financing – a key tool of redevelopment – make all the difference. If it weren’t for the district, Mission Bay (like San Francisco itself at the current time) would not be financially able to create any parks. Moreover, if Mission Creek had contained a large number of small landowners, it is unlikely that they would have voted to spend more of their money by way of a community facilities district. Since Catellus wanted it and was the primary owner, the company was able to make it happen.

Today the park contains courts for basketball, volleyball and tennis, a dog run, a small boat launch for human-powered vessels (kayaks and canoes), a walkway, a bikeway, and a multipurpose lawn. Maintaining and programming the Sports Courts costs about $400,000 per year. A separate community facilities district was formed to fund park maintenance and operations. The cost of this (and other parks) comes to $10,650 per acre for undeveloped land and just over $18,000 per acre for developed land (which is pro-rated by the number of units on each acre). For individual units, the fee generally came to between $150 and $200 in 2010.

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.


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.


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