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Video: Overview of Shrinking Cities

From the Shrinking Cities project, there’s a great video (without audio) on change in shrinking cities from Detroit to Manchester/Liverpool, UK to Leipzig and the Essen area in Germany. The simulation shows that these regions are spreading out almost as much as they are shrinking. This seems particularly the case with Detroit and Manchester/Liverpool. In the case of the latter, it appears that after years of attempting to restructure, there has been some infilling of abandoned areas. Might be some good ideas there for shrinking U.S. cities, and we’ll try to follow up on that in another post.

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5 Items for Winter Parks

Ljubljana, Slovenia. Flickr: ethan.kent (www.pps.org)

Winter does not have to be a time for cold weather parks to shut down. Often, a lively winter park can help bring vibrancy to the city around it. Here are five items (especially for center city parks) worth considering for the cold:

1. Ice Skating. Detroit’s Campus Martius Park is a prime example of how an outdoor skating rink can help bring a great city setting to life.

2. Holiday markets. Small outdoor tents can be set up to give people something to do while outside, and these spaces can be warmed with outdoor space heaters. The Bryant Park market accompanies the park’s ice skating rink and is a filled with shoppers and browsers meandering about the vendor’s stalls.

3. Lights. Winter is a dark time, literally. The Project for Public Spaces provides a picture from Ljubljana, Slovenia of its center city park. The colored lighting during the dark hours really gives the space an inviting feel. (We also recommend this PPS piece on winter cities.)

3. Trees. A tree can provide not only decoration and lighting along with a skating rink or other features, it is an attraction itself and can essentially be programmed as a sort of signature winter element. There’s lots of examples: the White House tree, Rockefeller Center and more.

4. Warm food and drink. Jan Gehl, the Danish planner famous for helping rejuvenate Copenhagen’s public spaces likes to advise places to offer hot drinks such as cocoa and cider as well as soups that can warm people up. Indoor facilities might even be set up or used for people to come in from the cold temporarily.

5. Music. Just because its colder, it doesn’t mean people won’t gather to hear music. Its often said that “cold is a state of mind.” If it is, than music certainly helps warm that condition. In Chicago’s Millennium Park, choral groups sing carols Friday evenings with park visitors joining in.

Light Blogging Until Next Week

With the holidays in full swing, we’ll be posting a bit less until next week.

Happy Holidays!

Late 1800’s Article on Parks: Need for Well Distributed Spaces

Columbus Park in Manhattan, New York was opened in 1897 after concerns that the very tightly-packed area lacked any form of recreational space.

The view of urban parks from policy leaders of the late 1800s shows the differences and similarities with how these spaces might be viewed today. Through the gift of Google, we have access to an American Statistical Association journal article by E.R.L. Gould, a respected economist and sociologist on issues such as parks, public health and housing from that time.

In a sign of how cities were built in Gould’s time, he asserts that they “do not extend in area proportionately to their advance in numbers. They grow rapidly in height, but not so fast in length or breadth.” He argues that given this tightly packed environment there is a need for “adequate out-door breathing spaces” and “wholesome facilities for recreation.”

In the many years since Gould’s study cities have instead sprawled more than concentrating growth through compact arrangements. But recently there has been a return to walkable neighborhoods that put more emphasis on building within rather than expanding out. Today there is just as much a need in making these areas attractive and livable through such “breathing” and recreational spaces.

The article provides an interesting glimpse into the park statistics of yesteryear (i.e. acreage per resident, percent of land area in parks, etc.). And the author asks the question cities still today are pondering: What is an ideal park system ?

Gould’s answer: “Undoubtedly the most important requisite is small open spaces, well distributed over a city, but numerously located in populous districts.” As in the past, it is not necessarily realistic or even good policy to provide an overabundance of open space within cities, but a system of walkable neighborhood parks (along with some larger spaces) that act as the front and back yards for residents. The more things change the more they stay the same.

Parks and Natural Areas & the Future of Detroit

Can a new Detroit be grounded on setting aside some of its vacant land as new natural areas? In making a case for what could help bring Detroit back from its current economic doldrums, Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institution offer some ideas in The New Republic, including one that involves a reinvented public realm:

The new Detroit might be a patchwork of newly dense neighborhoods, large and small urban gardens, art installations, and old factories transformed into adventure parks. The new Detroit could have a park, much like Washington’s Rock Creek Park, centered around a creek on its western edge, and a system of canals from the eastern corner of the city to Belle Isle in the south. The city has already started on the restoration of the Detroit River waterfront, largely bankrolled by private philanthropy. The city has created a new “land bank,” which can take control of vacant and derelict properties and start the process of clearing land, remediating environmental contamination, and figuring out what to do next with the parcel, whether that’s making it into a small park, deeding it to a neighbor to create a well-tended yard, or assembling large tracts of land for redevelopment or permanent green space.

The key would be to not convert too much land over to permanent green space. A balance would have to be found between setting land aside and encouraging reinvestment outside of them. As Kaid Benfield has commented on his blog, giving too much over to agriculture or nature could actually reinforce a fragmented pattern of living.

The city recently rolled out the Dequindre Cut bike trail, has found much success in Campus Martius Park downtown and as the article mentions, is investing in its riverfront. Perhaps these efforts can provide the city some insight into a larger role for parks and natural areas in its future.