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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

Seattle Parks and the Downtown Seattle Association: A Smart Marriage (Part 3 of 3)

This year the City Parks Alliance was one of the hosts to the International Downtown Association’s World Congress in New York.  The theme, “People/Places/Partnerships,” focused on how leaders across the globe are transforming buildings, places and streets through design, redevelopment, place management and distinctive programming.  City Parks Alliance added a focus on downtown parks by organizing tours.

I’ve talked about downtown associations before – and business improvement districts (BIDs) – and their increasing willingness to take on parks to help enliven and beautify downtowns.  BIDs exist in almost every one of the top 50 largest cities in the United States. BIDs, mostly financed by taxes on property owners in a given district, are increasingly including public spaces and parks in their mission.

Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) is no different.  It has been in existence since 1953 and in the late 1990s, the leadership formed a BID to help them carry out their mission.  With six hundred residential and business members they include parks in their mission.  “We care about the parks because our policy and advocacy agenda focuses on the health and vitality of public spaces – parks, plazas and sidewalks,” says Jon Scholes, DSA’s Vice President for Advocacy and Economic Development. Continue reading

Public-Private Partnerships, Seattle-Style (Part 2 of 3)

Almost every city in America has a public-private partnership around one or more of its parks.  Everyone is doing it, and everyone is asking the same questions about the best way to develop and manage them.  It is a tough topic to wrap your head around since every partnership is a slightly different riff on the one they learned from.  But the key question appears to be, what does the right agreement look like that keeps public space public?

Seattleblog2Seattle is taking a big picture view of where and how they want to use partnerships and working hard on finding the best way to keep public space for the public.   “Our approach is going to look different in different parts of the city,” says Christopher Williams, Acting Superintendent for Seattle Parks and Recreation.  “For example, in the downtown core Friends of the Central Waterfront are working with us in a guiding position for how the waterfront gets redeveloped.”
Continue reading

Cities with Health Promoting Park Systems Reduce Stress by Calming Traffic and Emotions

As beautiful, peaceful islands of greenery, parks can help reduce stress and promote mental health. But this is the case only if parks provide a safe and welcoming environment. An empty, frightening park, or one overrun with activity that requires constant vigilance, can increase stress and damage mental health. This is a complex issue. On the one hand, parks need active public use to provide the safety of “eyes and ears”; but well-used parks need rules and enforcement to ward off stress from overcrowding and inappropriate behavior.

San Antonio Bike Patrol.

Activities that may provoke stress include panhandling, behaving raucously (including playing loud music), riding bicycles at high speed on crowded trails, and, of course, leaving trash and litter from picnics. Such actions need to be controlled by setting clear rules and then enforcing them. Just because parks are green spaces doesn’t mean they can serve as urban jungles. Despite agency cutbacks it is essential that there be some kind of uniformed presence to allay park users’ concerns—if not police, then uniformed maintenance workers, or perhaps even an “orange hat” group of volunteers who patrol in pairs and carry communication radios. For every person who may be annoyed by the “petty” enforcement of park rules, many more will be grateful knowing that civilized, thoughtful behavior is being enforced. Research shows that this is particularly true among lower-income and minority park visitors.

A special stress factor is automobile traffic, particularly for parents with children. An excess of park roads and parking areas not only reduces field space and the number of trees in a park, it also adds unhealthy noise and smog and may create real and perceived dangers from vehicles. Park managers who recognize the problem have instituted slow speed limits, speed humps, or circuitous routings—all designed to calm traffic. But some cities permit or even encourage fast, unimpeded traffic and even high-speed commuting through their parks. (Perhaps the most outlandish case was in Detroit, where for several years Belle Isle Park—designed by world-famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted as a pristine getaway—was annually the site of a Grand Prix auto race.)

Automobiles also increase stress in parks by pushing many bicyclists and most roller skaters off roads and onto pedestrian pathways. This can convert a pleasant walking experience into an annoying or even frightening one and decrease the total number of park users.

Credit: Seattle P-Patch Program

A completely different parklike space that can reduce stress and promote health is the community garden. Community gardens have been around for more than a century, but only in recent decades have city park departments comprehensively moved into this field. Many departments have designated garden areas within existing parks. A few have acquired established gardens and officially added them to the park system. The resultant spaces benefit public health in numerous ways: by promoting physical activity, social connections, and mental relaxation; by fostering feelings of self-worth and self-reliance; and by producing healthful food—of particular importance in low-income neighborhoods, where residents may have less access to fresh produce.

At the far unhealthy end of the spectrum, both mentally and physically, is outright violence in a park—either through injury from assault or through reduced park use from fear of an attack. Occasionally‚ a park gets a reputation for danger that is worse than the reality, such as when a homicide is committed elsewhere but the body is found in the park. But making parks feel safe is a complicated interplay between culture, rules, enforcement, design‚ and programming, one that also involves socioeconomic factors in the surrounding neighborhoods. Although much about crime and violence is not yet understood, better-used parks are generally safer, particularly if some of the users are engaged in organized programs.

Importantly, not everyone perceives parks in the same way. Residents of wealthier neighborhoods, where danger and personal safety are not overwhelming concerns, frequently prefer leafy, natural parks. Residents of poorer neighborhoods often shun forested areas and prefer open areas with lots of activity. There, enlivening parks is a high priority—from sports leagues to festivals, cultural events to cleanup activities, tree planting and vine pulling to outdoor classrooms and exercise cooperatives, “screen-on-the-green” movie nights to volunteer safety patrols. High-capacity park departments may be able to organize many activities without help; others should at a minimum have an outstanding volunteer coordinator to encourage and support partnership efforts to make events happen.

One effective way of increasing park use in dangerous areas is through “park-pooling”—group travel from neighborhoods to parks. Pennsylvania State University Professor Geoffrey Godbey interviewed a group of black women in Cleveland who walked together to a park, initially joined by a police escort. They told Godbey that they liked to see police, although as more women joined the group the escort eventually was not needed. In New York’s Central Park, there is an established meet-up time and location for females who wish to jog together for safety.

Credit: Friends of Patterson Park

Though Patterson Park is now considered the most successful park in Baltimore, this was not always the case. There was a time in the 1970s and 1980s when the city came close to losing the park and, with it, the surrounding Patterson Park neighborhood. Demographic changes to the neighborhood, crime, vandalism‚ and drug dealing began tipping the 135-acre park from amenity to liability. Structures were damaged and vegetation was killed; arson destroyed the beloved Music Pavilion. The nadir came in 1985, when a youth was severely beaten in the park in a widely publicized racial incident.

The first few save-the-neighborhood efforts sputtered and died. Finally, in 1993, community leaders produced a plan that included a vision for improving the park. Under guidance from a University of Maryland urban studies professor and funded by a federal grant, a student spent two years inventorying all the park’s physical features, measuring erosion, and also organizing a park festival and an ongoing friends group. At the same time, a visitor survey threw up two red flags: Patterson Park’s users were overwhelmingly male, and almost half of the community’s residents never went there at all. It became clear that any effort to maximize the park’s value—including social and health benefits—depended on attracting new users, especially women and girls.

What turned the tide was the Friends of Patterson Park, which quickly grew in effectiveness, in part because it received staff support from two local organizations working on housing and senior services. The Friends began by tackling infrastructure improvements—raising private funds and lobbying public agencies to renovate the park’s iconic pagoda, install new perimeter ighting, and reconstruct playing fields and two ark entrances.

But the real turnaround was due to programming. Thanks to the Friends, the park gradually became the favored site for a wide variety of family festivals and events, including such longtime local favorites as the Turtle Derby (in its 70th year), Preakness Frog Hop, Doll Show, and Fishing Rodeo. Early years saw a canine extravaganza called Bark in the Park and a monthly Art Market Fair. Newer events include the Great Halloween Lantern Parade, the BikeJam Race and Festival, and the eye-popping Kinetic Sculpture Race of homemade human-powered vehicles.

Summer now brings concerts every other Sunday night, Shakespeare in the Park, outdoor movies, and four large cultural gatherings—Polish, Ukrainian, Hispanic, and African. Youth soccer leagues are ever present. Occasionally there are even more unique happenings, like 1999’s Synchronized Swimming Water Ballet by an ethnically and physically diverse cast of neighborhood residents ages 8 to 52.

“One of our goals was to do as much outreach as possible in the parts of the neighborhood that were less connected to the park,” said Kini Collins, former events coordinator for the Friends. “The main thing was to have fun!” Along with the fun, Patterson Park is delivering improved health for its neighbors and other Baltimore residents. Two health-related items on the Friends’ wish list are a children’s farm to teach about gardening and nutrition and a collaboration with nearby Johns Hopkins School of Public Health to capture specific health data for children and other park users.

Want to know more ways urban park systems can best promote health and wellness?  Read this publication from The Trust for Public Land.

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.

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