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The Downtown Park Model: Pioneer Courthouse Square

StreetFilms did a nice little look at Portland’s 1.6-acre gem, Pioneer Courthouse Square, during its Festival of Flowers. The post for this video refers to the fact that the square is successful because of its wide range and frequency of programming. Here’s some more backstory: set right in the middle of downtown, this space used to be an above-ground parking garage, which was torn down. In 1984, the city built the park for about $4 million using city funds, fundraising (the sale of bricks raised $500,000) and approximately $1.6 million in federal grants for transportation and conservation. The square is run by the non-profit Pioneer Courthouse Square Inc., under a contract with the city, and receives only about $250,000 in city support, with the rest of its $2 million in revenue coming from fundraising, event fees and concessions. (Data from the Center for City Park Excellence.)

News from this week….

  • Indianapolis Mayor unveils plans to sell off parkland, controversy erupts. (Indy Star)
  • Denver’s parks set to host rallies during the Democratic national convention. (Rocky Mountain News)
  • Cities will see parking spots turn to parks for Park(ing) Day. (Next American City)
  • Making a wind farm out of New York City’s new Fresh Kills Park? (New York Times)
  • Ciclovias catching on in U.S. cities — closing streets to cars. (Christian Science Monitor)

The Payoff of Park Investments

Steve Pearlstein wrote a great column in this week’s Washington Post on the wisdom of investing in parks, using New York’s Central Park to show how this has resulted not only in great community pride, but economic benefits to the city as a whole. Pearstein writes of two lessons:

The first is a reminder of the importance of creating and sustaining public facilities that are accessible to everyone and nourish a sense of community. Over the past 20 years, the tendency has been for those who can to abandon public schools, public transportation, public recreation, with the result that American society has become increasingly segregated by class and polarized by political ideology. In Central Park, I found hints that Americans were eager to reverse that trend.

The second big lesson is that investment in public infrastructure can have big payoffs. The Central Park Conservancy calculates that it invested $350 million over the past 20 years to restore the park to its former glory and requires $37 million a year to maintain it. That may sound like a lot of money, but when compared with the enhanced property values in the surrounding neighborhoods, the increased tourism it has helped to spawn and its contribution to making the city a more attractive place to live, my guess is that the return on investment easily equals that of the average hedge fund.

The Center for City Park Excellence research into the economic value of city parks has looked deeper into this, even quantifying the entire economic benefits of Philadelphia’s park system to be over $1 billion per year.