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Reshaping of America & the Quality of Cities

Richard Florida pens an interesting long-form article in the Atlantic on how the “crash” will reshape where we live and how cities and regions will look going forward. Nothing specific about parks in here, but some interesting food for thought on the role parks can play in attracting talented individuals. Florida sees a country that:

…..allows more people to mix more freely and interact more efficiently in a discrete number of dense, innovative mega-regions and creative cities. Serendipitously, it will be a landscape suited to a world in which petroleum is no longer cheap by any measure. But most of all, it will be a landscape that can accommodate and accelerate invention, innovation, and creation—the activities in which the U.S. still holds a big competitive advantage.

Florida suggests that:

…….we need to begin making smarter use of both our urban spaces and the suburban rings that surround them—packing in more people, more affordably, while at the same time improving their quality of life. That means liberal zoning and building codes within cities to allow more residential development, more mixed-use development in suburbs and cities alike, the in-filling of suburban cores near rail links, new investment in rail, and congestion pricing for travel on our roads. Not everyone wants to live in city centers, and the suburbs are not about to disappear. But we can do a much better job of connecting suburbs to cities and to each other, and allowing regions to grow bigger and denser without losing their velocity.

What Florida also mentioned earlier in his book The Rise of the Creative Class that recreational amenities, such as trails and parks, can be another element that improves quality of life and attracts residents (both singles looking for the active life and parents looking for quality family amenities), especially as places become more dense, and without the equivalent private recreational space.

End message: now may be a horrible time for cities to walk away from investing in quality parks and public spaces.

Ruling on City Park Monuments by Supreme Court

The Supreme Court rules today that a religious group could not force a city in Utah to accept its monument. The ruling was unanimous, with Justice Alito offering the majority opinion. The NY Times summarizes:

“The Free Speech Clause restricts government regulation of private speech,” Justice Alito noted. “It does not regulate government speech.”

While a government entity is quite limited in its ability to regulate or restrict private speech in traditional public forums, like parks, the government entity “is entitled to say what it wishes,” Justice Alito wrote, citing earlier Supreme Court rulings. If the people do not like what their government officials say or stand for, they can vote them out of office, he wrote.

Not that government, through its officials, can say whatever it wants whenever it wants, Justice Alito observed. For one thing, government expressions must not violate the First Amendment’s ban on endorsement of a particular religion. Moreover, what government officials say may be limited “by law, regulation, or practice.”

“And of course, a government entity is ultimately ‘accountable to the electorate and the political process for its advocacy,’ ” Justice Alito wrote, quoting from an earlier Supreme Court decision.

Study Finds Recess Recharge for Kids

The NY Times has an article this week on how “involuntary attention” such as being in a park or children going out for recess during school hours can foster better learning, health and development. Turns out, not so shockingly, that we need to recharge every once in a while. Sitting in front of a computer, inside a classroom or office all day is best accompanied by a break: a walk in the park, sitting on a bench during lunch, and for kids, as the article illustrates, going outside for recess (as the research is showing):

A study published this month in the journal Pediatrics studied the links between recess and classroom behavior among about 11,000 children age 8 and 9. Those who had more than 15 minutes of recess a day showed better behavior in class than those who had little or none. Although disadvantaged children were more likely to be denied recess, the association between better behavior and recess time held up even after researchers controlled for a number of variables, including sex, ethnicity, public or private school and class size……… [Says lead researcher, Dr. Romina M. Barros of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine] “We should understand that kids need that break because the brain needs that break.”

All the more reason why schoolyards in our cities should look like this:

NYC Playground After

Rather than this:

NYC Playground Before, Photos: Julieth Rivera

NYC Playground Before, Photos: Julieth Rivera

Book: Designing Small Parks

In this recent post we displayed data on the size of most U.S. city parks, and found that most are 5 acres or less — many of which are the nearby parks residents come into contact with most often. The importance of good neighborhood parks is key to attracting residents and especially families in denser urban neighborhoods without any or large backyards.

One resource with some good insights on planning and the design of such parks is a book called Designing Small Parks by Ann Forsyth and Laura Musacchio. For those interested, it might be worth a look. Here’s the product review from Amazon:

Designing Small Parks: A Manual for Addressing Social and Ecological Concerns provides guidelines for building better parks by integrating design criteria with current social and natural science research. Small parks are too often relegated to being the step-child of municipal and metropolitan open space systems because of assumptions that their small size and isolation limits their recreational capacity and makes them ecologically less valuable than large city and county parks. This manual is arranged around twelve topics that represent key questions, contradictions, or tensions in the design of small parks. Topics cover fundamental issues for urban parks, natural systems, and human aspects. Also included are useful case studies with alternative design solutions using three different approaches for integrating research findings into small urban park design.

Planetizen marked the book one of the ten best in 2006, and offers a review.

What Size is the Average (or median) City Park?

Local NYC Park, Photo: Avery Wham

Local NYC Park, Photo: Avery Wham

Ever wonder, what’s the size of an average U.S. city park? Well, we have the answer.

The Center for City Park Excellence maintains a database of individual parks in the largest U.S. cities — currently at a total of 10,500 parks in about the 50 largest cities. So, a pretty big sample size to make some statistical assumptions. Based on these parks, here’s the numbers:

  • Average Size U.S. City Park: 54 acres
  • Median Size U.S. City Park: 5 acres

Some parks are incredibly large – take Phoenix’s 16,000-acre South Mountain Preserve, so the average size reflects the number and scale of these large spaces. But when looking at the median – or middle value – of the sizes, the number goes down to five acres, which means that most parks are five acres or less.

When thinking of city parks, we often spend much or most time thinking about the medium to large parks — Central Park in NYC, Lincoln and Millennium Parks in Chicago, the Lakes of Minneapolis, Balboa Park in San Diego and Forest Park in St. Louis to name only a few. But what we sometimes forget is that most parks are small – and these neighborhood parks are closest to where people live. Its small parks that perhaps should be getting the attention and prescriptions for success just as much or more than the larger parks.