City Parks Blog

Getting to Park Connectivity in Built-Out Cities

Planners have long held up the idea of connectivity – links between people and places that tie everything together.  Within park systems, the concept goes back at least to when the walls of European cities came down, as many of them (e.g. Paris), were turned into grand boulevards ringing their cities and linking up places. And when the American park movement was in full swing in the late 1800s, park planners in nearly every city were laying down parkways between green spaces — think Boston’s Emerald Necklace, the Grand Rounds of Minneapolis, and others in Louisville, Denver, Kansas City and Chicago to name a few.

We’ve written before about how many of these spaces have been retrofitted probably too much for automobile use, and described the ways to refit them back for more rambling and two-wheeling. But another issue is present today — that many places still aspire for connectivity between parks but seem unable to do it because streets have been laid and the city built out. For instance, in Hartford, Conn., a parkway system was once envisioned but never implemented, and the dream of connections seemingly lost.

But this isn’t necessarily the case. There are a variety of ways to make connections that even the most built-out cities can do. Based on what we’ve seen, here are a few ways:

  1. Rail corridors. Often these run right through core areas of cities. One of the best examples of this is Atlanta’s BetlLine, which will use 22 miles of abandoned railway to create a circular trail connecting several parks in the heart of Atlanta. A similar effort is also taking place in Santiago, Chile, with the Anillo Interior, which will ring the city’s core.

    The Anillo Interior uses new boulevards and old rail corridors for a Santiago belt line.

  2. A conceptual plan shows how a network of riverfront trails (partially completed), easements and street upgrades could connect Hartford's parks.

  3. Waterfronts and stream corridors. Many of these areas were used for industry when cities developed, but now are being turned into recreational space. In Hartford, Conn., the entire Connecticut Riverfront is being turned into a series of parks connected by a trail in a partnership with the group Riverfront Recapture. And by developing a trail along the city’s Park River on its west side, the long lost plan for an interconnected park system could be realized.
  4. Easements. These are strips of land within cemeteries, schools, ports, private properties and the like. A number of easements were used to create the 14-mile Gwynns Falls Trail in Baltimore.
  5. Upgrading Streets into Parkways. Sometimes a wide street can be turned into a boulevard with a center median, separated bike trail and other features. That’s exactly what Minneapolis is planning to do to finish a piece of the “missing link” in its Grand Rounds.
  6. Bike Boulevards. If a street isn’t wide enough to turn into a full-fledged parkway, a bike boulevard can act as a trail connection. These facilities have only appeared recently in Davis and Berkeley, Calif., Eugene and Portland, Oreg. and Minneapolis, but the concept could easily be applied to connecting parks.
  7. The Indianapolis Cultural Trail uses an off-street trail and other landscape features to define itself.

    Cycle Tracks & Pedestrian Improvements. Similarly, separated bike facilities known as cycle tracks along with upgraded pedestrian features and signing can turn regular streets into key park and public space linkages. Such a configuration is being done in downtown Indianapolis for the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, which just received $20 million in Recovery Act “TIGER” funding.

All of these ways can be used to create linkages — one system may include an old rail corridor, a stream or river, an existing parkway and upgrading streets where none of those are possible.

Years ago, Frederick Law Olmsted remarked that no one should be a long walk’s time from parkways, and that the citizens using them, whether going to and from a park, or to and from some form of business, may gain some “substantial recreative advantage.” Today, it’s not that different of a story. Using the many different forms of connections can give great value to residents — in pleasure, recreation, health and lessened carbon output — and help create excellent park systems.