• Who We Are

    City Parks Blog is a joint effort of the Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land and the City Parks Alliance to chronicle the news and issues of the urban park movement. Read more about us.
  • Urban Park Issues

  • Enter your email address to receive notifications of new City Parks Blog posts by email.

  • Archives

  • Urban Green Cover Ad

Some news from around…

  • This week’s opening of Columbus Commons, a downtown park on the site of an old mall, already has people anticipating a strong residential and commercial market response (The Columbus Dispatch)
  • In Seattle, landscape architect James Corner unveiled “big ideas” for a more accessible, walkable waterfront with numerous parks jutting out into Elliott Bay (The Seattle Times)
  • St. Louis looks to keep up with the trend of elevated parks, and is moving forward slowly with plans to turn an abandoned railroad trestle into a 1.5 mile linear park (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
  • In a photo tour of Seattle, Lawrence Cheek analyzes the successes and failures of public spaces, many of which he finds “dreary and uninviting” (Crosscut Seattle)
  • The upcoming arrival of a light rail line and the space shuttle Endeavour at Los Angeles’ Exposition Park is prompting many to rethink how the park fits into, and is shaped by, the city’s complex urban fabric (Los Angeles Times)
  • The long-awaited summer has finally reached even the most northern climes, and now urban thinkers are evaluating downtown parks with fresh eyes. Robert Campbell asks how the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway could be improved and better used (The Boston Globe)
  • The Minnesota Orchestra’s renovation of Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis could help vault Peavey Plaza to new heights – possibly becoming the city’s signature park (Finance and Commerce)

Pack Square Park and Holly Farm Park Selected as “Frontline Parks”

Each month, City Parks Alliance recognizes two “Frontline Parks“ to promote inspiring examples of urban park excellence, innovation and stewardship across the country in the face of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures and urban neighborhood decay.

When we think about urban park philanthropy, we usually imagine a single, wealthy individual donating a portion of their fortune to buy or develop land for a park. That late 19th century model coincided with the creation of many of today’s urban park systems.  Today, there are newer models of philanthropy that reflect the diversity of our cities’ economic and cultural diversity.  For instance, one of America’s newest urban parks, Millennium Park, had more than 100 donors who each gave at least $1 million.  At the other end of the philanthropy spectrum, tens of thousands of urban park programs, leagues, and facilities are funded through grassroots fundraising such as bake sales, door-to-door campaigns and in-kind donations.  These philanthropy activities are essential for today’s urban parks because they help provide what government cannot, and more importantly, they demonstrate the public’s belief that parks have value.

This month’s featured parks show how two very different models of parks philanthropy share a common result: parks that successfully serve their communities. Continue reading

Visions of Closing Roads and Creating Parks

A previous post highlighted a few cities that closed roads through parks to increase pedestrian and non-motorized use. We’ve recently learned about a proposal to temporarily close streets to traffic during weekends and holidays in Buenos Aires and bring in portable playground equipment and benches to turn these roads into parks. A video of this concept is below:

The “Plaza Movil Street Park” was one of three winners of the Philips Livable Cities Award, a global initiative designed to generate innovative, meaningful and achievable ideas to improve the health and wellbeing of city-dwellers across the world. The creator of the Plaza Movil Street Park received a grant of €25,000 to help translate his concept into reality.

Also worth viewing is the video of one of the five finalists, who brings a plan a little closer to home. The “Design Your Own Park Competition” in Binghamton, NY would turn neglected, urban spaces into parks by having neighborhood residents and groups submit designs in a contest, with the winning vision ultimately created and maintained as a public park.

Pedestrians and Park Planning: How Far Will People Walk?

As cities vie to attract talented college graduates and sustain population growth, they are focusing attention on parks to increase livability and support a strong economy. Since parks must be convenient if they are to provide their benefits, many places have set goals for the maximum distance any resident should be from the nearest park. But the goals vary widely, from an eighth of a mile in Chicago to two miles in Atlanta. Many people wonder if it is even possible to establish a universal standard.

This is a complex question. An individual’s willingness to walk varies greatly depending on age, health, time availability, quality of surroundings, safety, climate, and many other factors. On top of the variability in walking patterns, a city’s density has a bearing on what is considered a reasonable distance and where it is cost effective to add new parks.

The majority of walking studies are for and about commuters. Broadly speaking, they indicate that most people are only willing to walk a quarter-mile as part of a commute. A New York Regional Plan Association study, for example, found that residents within a quarter-mile of a transit facility are 5 to 7 times more likely to walk to the station than other passengers.[1]

Credit: Lynn D. Rosentrater (Flickr Feed).

The quarter-mile standard is also supported by park equity research. Jennifer Wolch, now at the University of California at Berkeley, wrote in 2002 that a quarter-mile is reasonable “for parents taking toddlers and small children to a park for everyday outings and playground opportunities.”  In the context of Los Angeles, she noted, “trips of more than a quarter mile (especially in high-traffic areas or neighborhoods where parents have safety concerns) are unlikely to be acceptable to parents.”[2] 

Conversely, several studies show that a half-mile walk is well within a reasonable distance for most people. The 2002 National Survey of Bicyclist and Pedestrian Attitudes and Behavior, by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, surveyed almost 10,000 people over the age of 16 and found that only 5 percent of walking trips were for getting to work. [3] (This suggests that transit studies should not be too heavily relied upon to determine a reasonable distance to a park.) Of the other trips, 38 percent were for personal errands, 28 percent were for exercise, and 21 percent were for recreation or leisure. The average trip length was 1.3 miles.

A 1976 study of the Bay Area transit system found that only 50 percent of riders who walked to the facility came from within a six-minute walk, but 80 percent came from within ten minutes, or approximately a half-mile.[4] This data supports cities that set a standard of a half-mile (and in some cases, more) as a reasonable distance to walk to a park. Perhaps the crux of the issue is: do people consider walking to the park a chore, or is the walk part of the recreational experience itself?

This isn’t as funny as it sounds. A 1997 study from Austin, Texas stated that “utilitarian and recreational walk activities have been found to have distinct structural characteristics.…Walk distance and duration for commuting, shopping, and reaching transportation are shorter, and recreational walks for exercise, walking the dog, and socializing are longer.”[5] 

Transit-based studies also underscore people’s variability: most won’t walk much more than a quarter-mile to a bus stop, but most will walk up to a half-mile to a commuter rail station. Parks, too, draw pedestrians from “catchment areas” of various sizes, depending on their quality and amenities offered. In a 2002 article, Van Herzele and Weidemann note that “the maximum walking distance may differ according to the function a green space fulfils.”[6]

In summary, research supports the validity of both quarter-mile and half-mile distance goals, depending on perceptions of the built environment, safety, and time constraints. Of course, people’s preferences and habits are only part of the equation for planners, who must also take into account the cost effectiveness of expanding the park system versus improving current parks or focusing on connectivity.

Density is a major factor. Building a new park in a low-density area (5 units per acre) provides access to only about 1,500 people within a quarter-mile range.  In a very dense area (90 units per acre) it serves close to 30,000. So even if planners in, say, Charlotte found a reluctance to walk more than a quarter-mile to a park, the city still probably could not afford to build a park for every 1,500 residents.

The following table illustrates the total population within quarter-mile and half-mile buffers in areas of varying density:

Neighborhood Example

Density  (Units per Acre)

People per Acre (2.5 per Unit)

 Population in 1/4 mile buffer (126 acres)

Population in 1/2 mile buffer  (503 acres)

Residential near Charlotte, NC





Los Angeles or Emeryville, CA





Rowhouses in Capitol Hill, DC





High-rise complex in Detroit, MI





Standard block in Brooklyn, NY





Belltown high rises in Seattle, WA





Studies of walking patterns are critical for planners working to ensure an equitable distribution of parkland within a city. The dependence of people’s walking habits on the surrounding environment also suggest that cities could boost the utility of existing parks by increasing connectivity and making the process of reaching a park more pleasant.


[1] Regional Plan Association (1997).  Building Transit-Friendly Communities: A Design and Development Strategy for the Tri-State Metropolitan Region (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut). 

[2] Wolch, J., Wilson, J., and Fehrenbach, J.  (2002).  Parks and Park Funding in Los Angeles: An Equity Mapping Analysis. University of Southern California Sustainable Cities Program. Retrieved from  http://dornsife.usc.edu/geography/ESPE/documents/publications_parks.pdf

[3] U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (2002).  National Survey of Pedestrian and Bicyclist Attitudes and Behaviors. Retrieved from  http://www.nhtsa.gov/DOT/NHTSA/Traffic%20Injury%20Control/Articles/Associated%20Files/810971.pdf

[4] California DOT (1979). BART’s First Five Years; Transportation and Travel Impacts (DOT-P-30-79-8).

[5] Shriver, K. (1997). Influence of Environmental Design on Pedestrian Travel Behavior in Four Austin Neighborhoods. Transportation Research Record 1578. Retrieved from  http://www.enhancements.org/download/trb/1578-09.PDF

[6] Van Herzele, A., and Weidemann, T. (2003).  A Monitoring Tool for the Provision of Accessible and Attractive Green Spaces. Landscape and Urban Planning 63, 109-126.

Some news from around…

  • New York City’s green infrastructure plan, which will rely on parks to control stormwater runoff, is certainly forward looking, but its roots can be traced back two hundred years (The New York Times)
  • With tighter budgets, parks departments are looking for ways to maintain parks for less. Enter what might be described as the “Ziptrailer” model, a program in Omaha, Nebraska that will allow local volunteer groups to rent trailers full of tools to help with park upkeep (KETV Omaha)
  • In another example of volunteer-led park stewardship, the “Detroit Mower Gang” is leading an effort to replace broken swingsets in Detroit parks (The Detroit Regional News Hub)
  • Madrid has completed a far-reaching project to reconnect with the Manzanares River by replacing a freeway with a six-kilometer linear park. Though the product is beautiful, the process has been arduous and has contributed to Madrid’s monumental public debt (Sustainable Cities Collective)
  • On the other end of the freeway park spectrum, Seattle has made clever use of space under an interstate for an urban mountain bike course, as illustrated in this new series of photos (Free Association Design)
  • Connectivity makes a park system more than the sum of its parts, and elevated parks are all the rage since the High Line came into being. An innovative, 240-foot pedestrian bridge is being constructed in New York City to connect Squibb Park to the new Brooklyn Bridge Park, providing access for a neighborhood which would otherwise be cut off by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (Popular Mechanics)