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What Attaches People to Place?

In November the Knight Foundation released findings from their Soul of the Community study, a three-year project aimed to understand resident attachment to place, what drives it and why it matters in 26 U.S. communities. Of the 10 attributes studied, the top three were:

  • Social Offerings – Places for people to meet each other and the feeling that people in the community care about each other;
  • Openness – How welcoming the community is to different types of people, including families with young children, minorities, and talented college graduates; and
  • Aesthetics – The physical beauty of the community including the availability of parks and green spaces.

According to the study:

Residents generally give their communities high marks for aesthetics, and they gave their best ratings this year. Four in 10 residents rate the availability of parks, playgrounds, and trails in their communities positively. They are slightly less positive about the beauty or physical setting of their communities, with more than one-third giving positive ratings.

In other words, 40% of residents rated the availability of Parks, Playgrounds and Trails as influencing community attachment, and 35% of residents rated Beauty or Physical Setting as influencing community attachment.

An interesting disclaimer to this finding is the following:

Generally, demographics are not the strongest drivers of attachment. In almost every community Gallup studied, attachment is more strongly related to certain perceptions of the community than to residents’ age, race, income, or other demographic characteristics. In other words, whether a resident is young or old, wealthy or poor, or black, white, or Hispanic matters less than his or her perceptions of the community. This reality gives community leaders a powerful tool to influence residents’ attachment to the community, no matter who they are.

But what does the study mean by attachment? According to the Knight Foundation it is the psychological connection of loyalty and passion residents have with the community in which they live.

One of the other major findings from the study showed that the communities with the highest levels of attachment also had the highest rates of gross domestic product growth.

The Overview also goes on to say:

While the study also measures perceptions of the local economy and basic services, these three factors are always more important in terms of their relationship to community attachment. This is not to say that communities should focus on building parks when jobs aren’t available. However, it does make it clear that these other factors, beyond basic needs, should be included when thinking about economic growth and development. These seemingly softer needs have an even larger effect than previously thought when it comes to residents’ attachment to their communities.

But of course we know this to be true. Residents resonate with the community they live in. When a community is aesthetically pleasing, people choose to move there.

The Soul of the Community project was funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in partnership with Gallup.

As the year comes to a close, we think back on the many accomplishments for the urban parks movement in 2010. We’ve reported upon new parks opening across the country, learned about innovative ways to create parkland in crowded cities, seen how federal transportation funding can be used to create trails, and discussed ways parks can help combat climate change.

We hope the results of the Soul of the Community project and the accomplishments over the past year will be used to strengthen our cities and ensure a brighter future for all people and communities.

On behalf of staff in the Center for City Park Excellence as well as the City Parks Alliance, we want to wish you all a Happy and Healthy New Year! Thanks for reading 🙂

Some news from around…

  • Paris is dreaming of a green Christmas. The city has set up 95 public collection areas where Christmas trees can be recycled and turned into fertilizer for the city’s parks (Springwise)
  • Prospect Park is moving forward while keeping an eye on the past, with a $70 million renovation that will restore the original vision of Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux (The Epoch Times)
  • Segway: man or machine? In Golden Gate Park, Segway tourists have been given pedestrian privileges. In return, the city expects to bring in nearly $80,000 in revenue this year (The San Francisco Examiner)
  • Minneapolis proposed off-leash dog facilities at a park honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., bringing to the surface tensions from the past.  Here’s an interesting profile of some of the park’s neighbors (Southwest Minneapolis Patch)
  • Tucson approved $15 million in bond funding for greenways, aimed at increasing recreation and transportation options and squeezing park facilities into dense, “underparked” areas (Tuscon Velo)

Going From “Parkway” to “Park”

A third excerpt from the recently released book published by Island Press called Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities. In this post, we look at some examples of boulevards and parkways used as parks.

Boston Women's Memorial along Commonwealth Avenue. Credit: Swampyank (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

When the parkway was first invented by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvin Vaux in the 1860s, it was much more a “park” and less a “way” than it is today. Of course, that was before the automobile. Eastern Parkway and Ocean Parkway, both in Brooklyn, New York, were wide boulevards with a center carriageway, narrow access roadways on each margin, and two attractive, maple-, oak-, ash- and shrub-filled median malls for promenading, sitting, seeing, and being seen. The malls had a cinder equestrian trail. In 1894, the walkway on Ocean Parkway was split to form a bicycle path–the nation’s first. There is also memorable paving-work and even chess tables.

The concept was enticing for reasons of both beauty and economics: parkways were not only pleasing to users but also provided a maximum amount of park edge upon which developers could construct homes. Many cities, from Buffalo to Chicago to Kansas City to Denver eagerly followed suit. Over time, though, most urban parkways and boulevards have been chipped away by transportation engineers and modified by new regulations and insurance requirements so that they do more for cars and less for people.

Some, like the Grand Concourse in New York, essentially lost all vestiges of their original human element. Lanes were widened and speed limits raised. Trees were severely pruned or removed and not replanted; muscular guardrails were installed; and intrusive directional and regulatory signs erected. Meanwhile, on some older boulevards benches have been removed; on new ones they were never even contemplated. By the time of the automobile era, almost every aspect of parkway design was for windshield pleasure, not actual use.

According to researchers at the University of Minnesota, making parkways into something more than just pretty roads requires that they be treated as places. “Parkways become places,” they write, “by creating outdoor rooms that are shared by a broad community, not just the automobile….The integration of sidewalks, bike paths, adjacent civic institutions, and other important cultural amenities with the road support the image of place. The orientation of buildings to the street also strongly influences the character of parkways.”

Back in the nineteenth century, Eastern Parkway and Ocean Parkway served many different users, and even today they accommodate far more than just drivers. The 6-mile-long, 210-foot-wide Ocean Parkway contains about 110 acres of non-car space. Kansas City’s Ward Parkway has spectacular fountains with benches, community-tended flower gardens, and Mirror Pool, which is used for ice skating in mid-winter. Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue features a center walkway that has benches, public art, and monuments, along with majestic shade trees, bushes, and gardens.  In contrast, the median on Pennsylvania Avenue in southeast Washington, D.C., contains only small cherry trees and is designed solely as visual relief for drivers – it has no walkway, seating, or any other pedestrian-oriented amenity.

Beyond squeezing more value out of existing parkways and boulevards, it may be possible to create new ones. Most cities have one or more streets that are extraordinarily and unnecessarily wide and that could be reconstructed as parkways with planted medians. This might be particularly effective in an old industrial area that formerly handled trucks or railcars but is now transforming into a residential or office district. Even urban highways are fair game for reconsideration. In many cities, the widest “streets” are the interstates that were bulldozed through preexisting neighborhoods and are now being reevaluated. Unlike expressways, which serve as noisy, blighting barriers in cities, parkways are known to add substantial value to nearby residences, often resulting in enough additional tax revenue to cover the cost of their creation and maintenance.

Minneapolis is now in the forefront of the parkway retrofit movement. While the city and the Park Board are justifiably proud of the Grand Rounds, that famous route is in fact also a bit of an embarrassment due to a 3-mile gap through the northeast quadrant of the city. The gap, and the decline of the area, has lasted for more than a century while real estate values (and social capital) in other sections of the city have flourished. After drawing up plans yet failing to fill the missing link in 1910, 1918, 1930, and 1939, the effort went dormant until 2007 when the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board listed it among the top priorities in its comprehensive plan. A route has been selected that mostly involves using and redesigning existing roadways. There are formidable land acquisition challenges and a projected price tag in excess of $100 million, but the Park Board, under the slogan “Keeping the Promise,” seems determined to achieve success. If and when it does, it will serve as an influential example that great parkways and boulevards are not only a memento from the past but can link recreation with transportation in the 21st century, too.

500 Acres: Philadelphia’s Park Plan

“What’s your park?”

When the City of Philadelphia asked its residents that simple question, they found that 1 in 8 residents – 200,000 people – couldn’t come up with an answer. Why? Because there isn’t a city park within a 10-minute walk of where they live.


Philadelphia is understandably proud of its 4,000-acre Fairmount Park, but much of the city’s population lacks access to neighborhood green spaces which provide recreation space, manage stormwater, and raise property values.  The city’s response is a plan called Green2015. It aims to turn 500 acres of vacant and underused land into parks, which would make the distribution of parkland far more equitable and provide manifold financial and environmental benefits. 

Though privately owned vacant rowhouse lots cover 5 percent of the city’s land area, the plan focuses on tapping into 2,400 acres of available public land, over half of which is schoolyards. Park development will be targeted towards park-poor areas with high populations of children, seniors, and low-income households.

The report notes that the new green spaces won’t necessarily resemble traditional city parks. For example, many of the parks will be made by adding trees, running tracks, and small lawns to asphalt-covered recreation centers and school playgrounds. Schoolyards represent a great resource: there are over 400 acres of schoolyards supporting a population of 36,000 students in park-poor areas of the city. It is calculated that every acre of greened schoolyard provides 260 residents with park access.

The city will achieve this goal without any new taxes in part by relying on cooperation from foundations and community organizations. The report highlights an initiative in Detroit as a model for increasing tree cover in the city while also putting vacant lots to productive use. A group called The Greening of Detroit runs a program which uses vacant lots as urban tree farms (a single acre, if fully devoted to growing, can yield up to 1,400 trees). The trees are tended for 3-5 years, and then transplanted into the community.

A secondary priority of the city is better stormwater management, in part because the Water Department can provide funds for park development through its Green City, Clean Waters program. A greened city acre can prevent 900,000 gallons of water from entering the sewer system each year.

In addition to these recreational and environmental benefits, Philadelphia sees significant economic value in this initiative. In a later post, we’ll expand on some of the other effects that Green2015 could have on Philadelphia’s property values. We’ll also highlight some creative land re-utilization strategies employed by other cities burdened with large quantities of vacant land.

Some news from around…

  • Peter Harnik’s book Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities has received outstanding reviews all year and made the ASLA blog’s best of 2010 list (The Dirt)
  • A vacant airstrip on the Chicago waterfront is the proposed site for an expansive lakefront park, featuring a variety of natural habitats and a reef with a sunken ship to explore (Chicago Tribune)
  • After six years of noisy construction work, San Francisco is repaying residents by creating a dog park on the site of a vacant parking lot (The San Francisco Examiner)
  • Another sort of “dog park” is in the works in New York City, where the Parks Department is considering using Border Collies to chase off geese in Prospect Park (CBS News New York)
  • After a movie studio made a donation for use of a historical carousel in New York’s Forest Park, residents are clamoring for the money to go towards re-opening the shuttered carousel to the public (NY Daily News)
  • A small but fervent group of bike lane opponents in New York City is taking aim at a 1.8-mile route alongside Prospect Park (The New York Times)