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“A Design that Celebrates the People”: Normal, IL Traffic Circle Wins Smart Growth Award as New Civic Space

Earlier this month, EPA announced the winners of the 2011 National Award for Smart Growth Achievement.  We are excited to report that Normal, Illinois is the recipient of the award in the Civic Places category for their traffic roundabout.

We’ve written before about how the town’s new traffic circle has successfully managed traffic flow at a busy five-way intersection, diverted thousands of gallons of untreated stormwater away from the nearby creek, and become the town center by bringing residents together in an attractive public space.  The more recent news is how the traffic roundabout is spurring local economic development with the construction of a multimodal transportation station adjacent to the circle, courtesy of a U.S. Department of Transportation grant.  Both the transportation hub, which will eventually have high-speed rail service and create an estimated 400-500 new jobs, and the circle take advantage of the town’s existing infrastructure, bus service, and the historic central business district to attract even more residents to the new town center.

The one-third-acre roundabout does much more than move cars. It invites pedestrians with shade trees, benches, lighting, bike parking, green space, and a water feature. People have lunch, read, and play music, and the open space invites community gatherings such as a holiday caroling event. It is the anchor for a community-wide revitalization and is part of Uptown Normal’s LEED-ND Silver recognition.

A popular rails-to-trails conversion, the Constitution Trail, leads to and around the roundabout, helping both to revitalize Normal and to bring people from surrounding areas to Normal’s central district. A new Children’s Discovery Museum on the edge of the roundabout already receives over 140,000 visitors per year, and a hotel and conference enter have recently opened nearby. One indication of the success of the redevelopment is that property values in the district have increased by about 30 percent since 2004.

According to the short video, this traffic circle was almost banned to pedestrians.  It’s a good thing town officials fought back.

Read more about the project here, as well as the other winners from the 2011 National Award for Smart Growth Achievement.

From all of us at City Parks Blog, thanks for reading, commenting and inspiring us this past year with all of your park stories and successes.  We look forward to hearing how park development and redevelopment is changing your city.  Happy New Year and all the best in 2012 :-)

The Environmental, Financial and Health Benefits of Urban Forestry

Forest Park, Portland, Ore.

The USDA Forest Service – Northern Research Station (NRS) released a report entitled Sustaining America’s Urban Trees and Forests, offering an overview of the current status and environmental, financial and health benefits of America’s urban forests and how these forests vary in different regions of the country. The report defined urban forest as “all publicly and privately owned trees within an urban area – including individual trees along streets and in backyards, as well as stands of remnant forest.” Providing essential services to more than 220 million people (supporting 79 percent of the population), urban forests in the U.S. are estimated to contain about 3.8 billion trees and worth an estimated $2.4 trillion.

According to the report, urban forest services and benefits include (but are not limited to):

  • Local climate and energy use—Trees influence thermal comfort, energy use, and air quality by providing shade, transpiring moisture, and reducing wind speeds. The establishment of 100 million mature trees around residences in the United States is said to save about $2 billion annually in reduced energy costs.
  • Air quality—Trees improve air quality by lowering air temperatures, altering emissions from building energy use and other sources, and removing air pollutants through their leaves. Urban trees in the conterminous United States remove some 784,000 tons of air pollution annually, with a value of $3.8 billion.
  • Climate change—Urban trees can affect climate change by directly storing carbon within their tissues and by reducing carbon emissions from power plants through lowered building energy use. Urban trees in the conterminous United States currently store 770 million tons of carbon, valued at $14.3 billion.
  • Water flow and quality—Trees and soils improve water quality and reduce the need for costly storm water treatment (the removal of harmful substances washed off roads, parking lots, and roofs during rain/snow events), by intercepting and retaining or slowing the flow of precipitation reaching the ground. During an intense storm in Dayton, OH, for example, the tree canopy was estimated to reduce potential runoff by 7 percent.
  • Noise abatement—Properly designed plantings of trees and shrubs can significantly reduce noise. Wide plantings (around 100 ft) of tall dense trees combined with soft ground surfaces can reduce apparent loudness by 50 percent or more (6 to 10 decibels).
  • Wildlife and biodiversity—Urban forests help create and enhance animal and plant habitats and can act as “reservoirs” for endangered species. Urban forest wildlife offer enjoyment to city dwellers and can serve as indicators of local environmental health.
  • Soil quality—Trees and other plants help remediate soils at landfills and other contaminated sites by absorbing, transforming, and containing a number of contaminants.
  • Real estate and business—Landscaping with trees—in yards, in parks and greenways, along streets, and in shopping centers—can increase property values and commercial benefits. One study found that on average, prices for goods purchased in Seattle were 11 percent higher in landscaped areas than in areas with no trees.
  • Individual well-being and public health—The presence of urban trees and forests can make the urban environment a more aesthetic, pleasant, and emotionally satisfying place in which to live, work, and spend leisure time. Urban trees also provide numerous health benefits; for example, tree shade reduces ultraviolet radiation and its associated health problems, and hospital patients with window views of trees have been shown to recover faster and with fewer complications than patients without such views.
  • Community well-being—Urban forests make important contributions to the economic vitality and character of a city, neighborhood, or subdivision. Furthermore, a stronger sense of community and empowerment to improve neighborhood conditions in inner cities has been attributed to involvement in urban forestry efforts.

The specifics of how urban trees provide these benefits have been discussed at length, but this report adds value by comparing different urban forestry areas and their management, which vary by size and region across the United States.

The report determines which urban forestry areas provide the greatest relative canopy cover, as well as the areas that have the most potential for future tree coverage. Results indicate the area of tree cover in cities within naturally forested areas was nearly twice the percentage of cities in grassland regions, and more than three times the cover of cities in desert regions. Regional climate and landscape is not the only influence on urban forests, as land-use activities such as development play a large role. Overall, the regions with the greatest amount of tree cover for urban areas are the Southeast and New England states.

These findings would lead some to believe that it is the rest of the country that urban forest advocates need to focus on, however certain precautions need to be taken into account, such as fire risk, energy cost and water usage. Therefore, “maximum tree coverage may not be optimal tree coverage.”

Even though there is a widespread acknowledgment of the benefits of urban forests, the level of resources allocated to the management of these areas varies greatly by region. The report suggests a long-term comprehensive urban forest management plan for cities, though it recognizes that these plans can be complicated, especially for forested areas that cross multiple government jurisdictions.

Cities that choose to increase their urban forests face many challenges with comprehensive management, such as lack of funding, volunteer time and initiation, completion or implementation of a management plan. Most of the innovation comes in the form of software and websites, such as i-Tree and CITYgreen, a program used to calculate the monetary values of the economic and ecological benefits provided by trees in specific locations.

In this report, the USDA Forest Service shows how urban forestry decisions made today impact the future of cities and the well-being of their residents. It shows that only by collaboration between local governments and communities, as well as planners and landowners, can we hope to make urban areas more sustainable and desirable places to live.

The Urban Agriculture Movement: Partnerships in Motion

It’s fairly common for cities to have community gardens located on public parkland.  But what if these gardens were not just isolated patches of green space serving only the neighborhood they are located in?  What if these gardens were actually part of a larger citywide movement to promote urban sustainability?

A recent article on Urban Omnibus highlights the Five Borough Farm, a project of the Design Trust for Public Space, whose mission is to create a citywide plan to support urban agriculture in New York City by “bringing together urban farmers, community gardeners, educators, and advocates from across the city to partner with experts in sustainable development, urban planning, food policy and program evaluation.”  The project works in partnership with Added Value, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that operates one of the city’s largest farms.  Mostly targeted towards youth, Added Value has helped revitalize local parks, transform vacant lands into vibrant Urban Farms, improve access to healthy, safe and affordable food, and begun to grow an economy that supports the needs of the community.

Over the course of this year, the Five Borough Farm team will be evaluating the city’s existing urban agriculture activity, establishing a set of metrics by which to quantify the benefits of urban agriculture and creating policy recommendations for relevant city agencies.

Nevin Cohen, an urban food policy expert and chair of Environmental Studies at the New School, is the Policy Fellow responsible for surveying the existing urban agriculture landscape in New York City and identifying new opportunities and recommendations.  As he explains in the interview:

Urban agriculture engages people citywide in initiatives to strengthen and improve the social, ecological, and economic well-being of their communities and, by extension, the city as a whole.  The scope of Five Borough Farm includes the youth leadership programs, school-based curricula, entrepreneurial rooftop farms, and related infrastructure – from composting projects to farmstands – that make urban agriculture such a powerful, multidimensional movement.  The urban agriculture system — and it really needs to be addressed as a system — is a promising model of community development that has the potential to improve many aspects of urban life.

Cohen also adds that the results of the project will be bigger than just growing healthier food:

But the benefits are about more than just the quantity of food that can be grown.  Community gardens make neighborhoods more livable, and also increase property values.  Innovative entrepreneurial urban farms create jobs and make underused spaces safe and productive.  Non-profit urban agriculture projects teach young people about ecology, food and nutrition, and help build skills and confidence.  Productive green spaces keep rainwater out of our sewer system, reduce the urban heat island effect, and recycle organic matter.  The impacts are far-reaching — as many practitioners will tell you, urban agriculture is a social justice movement.

One of the exciting aspects of this project is the idea that partnerships, in addition to measurable data, is the key to success.  The Five Borough Farm project hopes to bridge this more-often-than-not barrier and get practitioners constructively communicating with each other.

It is well-known that some of the most successful park systems rely on partnerships with others, from non-profits who provide volunteers for park clean-ups, to transportation departments who provide funding for trail improvements, to private individuals who provide endowments to create new parks.  Although it is true that one person can make a difference, just imagine the endless possibilities a team of committed individuals can accomplish.  The impacts could reach every park, community garden and neighborhood of an entire city.

When Parks, Transportation and Water Collide

Sometimes small towns are the communities pushing the envelope on innovation.

What happens when you take a regular traffic circle, cover it with a lawn, add some trees for shade and then a fountain for kicks?  Well, in Normal, Illinois they did just that as a means for reducing downtown congestion in this college town.

Credit: Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects

But the true innovation comes from the sustainable infrastructure used to create the traffic roundabout.  Apparently the water in the public fountain is actually cleansed and re-circulated stormwater from five main streets leading to the traffic circle.  Although not safe for drinking, it is perfectly fine for toe-dipping as these kids would gladly testify.  And as soon as those London plane trees grow a little more fuller, I imagine this will be a relaxing place for a good book or a picnic.

Credit: Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects

We’ve posted before about how parks can be great green places, regardless of size.  Washington D.C.’s Dupont Circle is a nice example of a vibrant urban park that is heavily used in the midst of a busy downtown.

The new Circle in Normal is only one component of the city’s plans for redevelopment of the downtown area.  As the residents of Normal find increasing popularity in their new park, perhaps now is a good reminder of the five characteristics of Great Green Places:

  • Landscape: a place that is successful uniting site planning and landscape design;
  • Mixed Use: a place that demonstrates a variety of retail, housing, and commercial uses;
  • Sense of Place: a place that physically embraces its history and culture;
  • Streetscape: a place that is pedestrian-friendly with activated public spaces; and
  • Transit Options: a place that encourages and supports multiple forms of transportation including subway, bus, and biking.

It’s only when looking at sustainability from a holistic view, can we truly see the transformation in a community.

For more pictures and technical details regarding the Circle in Uptown Normal, visit the Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects website.

Transforming the Trinity River in Dallas

Blogging about the 2010 American Society of Landscape Architects Annual Meeting and Expo, September 10-13, held at the Convention Center in Washington, D.C.

For years I’ve been hearing bits and pieces about the massive, multi-billion-dollar project to fix Dallas. No, not everything about Dallas, just one of its biggest challenges – creating parkland along its river, the Trinity.

This is the story that came out, in fits and starts, in that riveting ASLA workshop, told by landscape architect Ignacio Bunster-Ossa, engineer James Parrish, park official Willis Winters and park advocate Gail Thomas. Each focused a bit tightly on his or her specific issue, but ultimately, prodded by some audience questions, the full story in its complexity came through.

Dallas’ problem is a doozy and its solution is a double-doozy, although whether it’s sustainable is another question.

Trinity Lakes Vision Plan

The challenge of the Trinity River, like other desert waterways, is that it fluctuates wildly from the usual trickle to the occasional roaring deluge. Building the surrounding city to respect the deluges means pulling the buildings and streets hundreds or thousands of yards back from the regular river channel, leaving a wide swath of deadening nothingness. Conversely, building the surrounding city right up against the normal trickle means courting periodic catastrophic floods.

Dallas, with the help of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has split the difference, building quite a distance away from the river (but not really far enough for true flood safety) then adding high levees to protect against the worst of the crests. This leaves a wide stony area alongside the river, relegated historically to an out-of-sight, out-of-mind status by the high levees.

If Dallas were an eastern or northern city, the Trinity would have a broad greenspace alongside it, as Washington, D.C. has alongside the Potomac or Minneapolis by the Mississippi. But there’s not enough rain in Dallas, and irrigation for a big park would be way too expensive. However, there is one source of water for a Trinity River Park — the sinks, bathtubs and toilets of the 1.2 million residents of Dallas. Turns out that the city’s wastewater treatment plant produces about 50 million gallons of relatively clean water per day. That regular flow enters the Trinity, day in and day out, but it does so downstream from downtown. That’s enough water not only to irrigate a park but to actually create a brand new lake in the normally dry gulch, as well.

A big part of the story is political — how a controversial multi-billion-dollar project got through the political process, beginning as a highway program and gradually morphing into something ecological and place-making over the decades. Other big issues involve engineering — how to design a lake that doesn’t stagnate and eutrophy between floods; and also how to make a park inviting to users without breaching the high concrete levees that surround it. The answers are complex (one seems to involve tilting the lake’s bottom so that it flows upstream), and I’m heading to Dallas in November for the 21st Century City Conference to try and understand them better.

But one big question — the 50-million-gallon question — didn’t come up. The cleaned wastewater, upon which rests this whole perpetual motion machine, will need to be pumped uphill about three or four miles.

I’ll be the first to admit that many if not most urban parks aren’t traditionally sustainable. I’m sure that if the power were shut off in Chicago’s Millennium Park or San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park or Houston’s Buffalo Bayou all kinds of things would go haywire. But I also know that one of the most basic rules of infrastructure is that water flows downhill.

Interestingly, 1,000 miles west of Dallas, Phoenix has a similar problem but deals with it differently. There, so much water is taken out of the Salt River that it actually dries up above the city and there is nothing but a wide empty gully through town. Then, downstream it reappears, thanks to the city’s wastewater treatment plant. Phoenix hasn’t tried to create a lake in the city, but it has used the sewer outflow in a network of manmade wetlands to attract wildlife.

Phoenix started with one big physical advantage over Dallas — the city’s downtown wasn’t built near the Salt River and has no real connection to the waterway. Now it has two: its river-and-park solution comes a lot closer to sustainability.

The only way Dallas’ new Trinity River Park will ever be sustainable is if the power used to pump its life-giving water is generated renewably, using solar or wind. This is another reason for park advocates and clean energy advocates to work side-by-side together.

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