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“A Design that Celebrates the People”: Normal, IL Traffic Circle Wins Smart Growth Award as New Civic Space

Earlier this month, EPA announced the winners of the 2011 National Award for Smart Growth Achievement.  We are excited to report that Normal, Illinois is the recipient of the award in the Civic Places category for their traffic roundabout.

We’ve written before about how the town’s new traffic circle has successfully managed traffic flow at a busy five-way intersection, diverted thousands of gallons of untreated stormwater away from the nearby creek, and become the town center by bringing residents together in an attractive public space.  The more recent news is how the traffic roundabout is spurring local economic development with the construction of a multimodal transportation station adjacent to the circle, courtesy of a U.S. Department of Transportation grant.  Both the transportation hub, which will eventually have high-speed rail service and create an estimated 400-500 new jobs, and the circle take advantage of the town’s existing infrastructure, bus service, and the historic central business district to attract even more residents to the new town center.

The one-third-acre roundabout does much more than move cars. It invites pedestrians with shade trees, benches, lighting, bike parking, green space, and a water feature. People have lunch, read, and play music, and the open space invites community gatherings such as a holiday caroling event. It is the anchor for a community-wide revitalization and is part of Uptown Normal’s LEED-ND Silver recognition.

A popular rails-to-trails conversion, the Constitution Trail, leads to and around the roundabout, helping both to revitalize Normal and to bring people from surrounding areas to Normal’s central district. A new Children’s Discovery Museum on the edge of the roundabout already receives over 140,000 visitors per year, and a hotel and conference enter have recently opened nearby. One indication of the success of the redevelopment is that property values in the district have increased by about 30 percent since 2004.

According to the short video, this traffic circle was almost banned to pedestrians.  It’s a good thing town officials fought back.

Read more about the project here, as well as the other winners from the 2011 National Award for Smart Growth Achievement.

From all of us at City Parks Blog, thanks for reading, commenting and inspiring us this past year with all of your park stories and successes.  We look forward to hearing how park development and redevelopment is changing your city.  Happy New Year and all the best in 2012 🙂

Parks Breathe Life (and Jobs) into Cities

The South Platte River has become a cherished recreational asset for residents and visitors to Denver. Thoughtful, visionary planning and public-private partnership have restored and transformed the city’s waterfront from what was once called an “urban dump” to refuge for wildlife and people alike. Local efforts to improve the river have created new jobs and inspired economic development, and places for picnicking, biking, boating, dining, entertainment and even sunbathing on a sandy stretch of beach.

Much of this progress would not have been possible, however, without essential funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), the nation’s primary tool for protecting open space in urban and rural communities nationwide. Denver, like cities across the country, relies on the fund to match state and local dollars to create and enhance urban parks and restore waterways.

Instead of using taxpayer money, the little-known LWCF is funded with fees paid by oil and gas companies drilling offshore. For nearly 50 years, the fund has protected national parks, wildlife refuges, rivers, parks, and ball fields in every state.

“The Land and Water Conservation Fund continues to be an essential tool to meet the increasing demand for livable communities in cities all across this country,” Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock said recently. “In Denver, we value our great open spaces and recreational facilities. These investments are as much economic investments for the city as they are quality of life investments for our residents. “

Denver isn’t alone. Recognizing the importance of parks to the vitality and health of their communities, 50 U.S. mayors joined Mayor Hancock in appealing recently to President Obama and Congress to maintain funding for LWCF during these difficult economic times.

With cities facing depressed property values, reduced tourism, and lower tax revenues, urban parks have incurred approximately $6 billion in deferred maintenance costs, according to Will Rogers, president of The Trust for Public Land. Newly released data from TPL’s Center for City Parks Excellence show that many city park systems are struggling to deal with budget shortfalls, resulting in fewer people employed in full-time and seasonal positions, and potential impacts on programs and services.

At a time when the nation is looking for every opportunity to create new jobs, mayors assert that parks are just as important to a city’s prosperity as banks, coffee shops, department stores, and corporate headquarters. In addition to luring tourists, parks bolster community home values. Mayors know that could mean more real estate tax revenue.

Furthermore, parks breathe life into communities. Urban parks are not just safe and beautiful retreats, but also help to address nearly every critical urban need from health to housing, education and environmental justice, countering sprawl, and combating crime.

Just last month, Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa announced a plan to create dozens of new parks throughout the city. The initiative is part of his goal to create a livable, vibrant and prosperous community, and at the same time drive economic development and create new jobs.

“Urban parks are more important than ever as cities grow larger and denser,” said Rogers. “Though budgets are tight everywhere, urban parks have consistently proven to be a wise investment, helping to improve health, increase environmental quality, and sustain property values.”

Are President Obama and Congress listening? Working together, we can revitalize and green our cities and create jobs. The Land and Water Conservation Fund is an essential tool for realizing that vision.

–  Catherine Nagel, Executive Director of the City Parks Alliance

This article was originally published in “The Hill” on December 20, 2011.

Some News from Around…

  • St. Louis has passed two bond measures for city parks totaling $64 million, along with a commitment of another $280 million in private matching funds. The repair and renovation of city parks is expected to create 580 construction jobs and generate $1 million in sales and income tax for the city. (The St. Louis American)
  • The Los Angeles Times documents an unfortunate miscommunication between city departments that resulted in a nearly-finished and highly anticipated new park being bulldozed and turned into a school. (Los Angeles Times)
  • The success of the High Line has rekindled hopes of turning a 3.5-mile section of unused city-owned railway tracks in Queens into an elevated trail. (ABC Local)
  • A utilities company will pay for the remediation of four highly contaminated acres alongside Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia River, a significant step in the ongoing work to transform the riverfront into an urban park and trail system. (The Washington Post)

Signature Park Survey Released

City Parks Alliance and HR&A Advisors surveyed 58 dedicated park stewardship organizations across North America to understand their role in park management and the opportunities they create for signature city parks.  Among the findings were that these organizations augment public investment with substantial private funding to improve public spaces.

The typical organization sponsors 60 programs each year and provides park maintenance, volunteer recruitment, and other key functions. These parks are resourceful in securing funding, spending an average of $160,000 per acre managed, but real estate value capture remains a substantial, often untapped opportunity to support signature city parks.

To read the full report, click here: Signature Park Survey

2011 City Park Facts Released: Urban Parks Grow as Employment Declines

The Trust for Public Land has released its most recent data on city park systems from across the country, showing that the 100 largest cities added more than 120 parks in the past year.

2011 City Park Facts

Despite aggregate increases in acreage and facilities across the U.S., many city park departments are struggling with funding shortages. Operational spending shrank by 0.6 percent overall, with close to half of cities experiencing cuts.  Full-time employee counts fell by 3.9 percent, a loss of 935 jobs nationwide. The impact on seasonal jobs was particularly severe, with a decrease of 11.04 percent, or more than 8,000 jobs. Overall though, the rate of employment cuts has slowed since the previous year, which witnessed a 7 percent drop in employment.

The 22,493 city parks profiled in the report serve 62 million urban residents with a wide array of facilities, including 419 public golf courses, 569 dog parks, 9,633 ball diamonds, 11,678 playgrounds, and 14,415 basketball hoops.

Budgets grew slightly overall, but not enough to sustain jobs or overcome increasing – and often deferred – maintenance costs. Peter Harnik, director of the Center for City Park Excellence, noted that “cities are still saddled with a reported $5.8 billion in deferred repairs and improvements.” That figure is only slightly smaller than the total parks expenditure of the 92 cities that provided financial data for FY 2009, which equaled $6.1 billion.

The enthusiasm for great parks among city dwellers hasn’t suffered. Nearly half the primary park and recreation agencies reported more than 1 million visits during the year, and 14 boasted more than 10 million annual visits. Topping the list were New York (123 million visits), San Diego (72.3 million), and Chicago (50 million). Park directors welcome this popularity, though heavy usership can also be a burden, with 1,261 parks categorized as “overused.”

Madison, Wisconsin has the most parks per capita, with 12.7 per 10,000 residents, followed by Cincinnati, St. Petersburg, Anchorage, and Buffalo. Madison also has more playgrounds per capita than any other city, with seven for every 10,000 residents. The next five are Virginia Beach, Corpus Christi, Cincinnati, and Norfolk.

For the set of cities which provided data in both FY 2009 and FY 2010, the only major facility type to decrease in number was swimming pools, dropping from 1,337 to 1,227.

There are almost 20,000 community garden plots in the parks of the 100 largest cities. Despite being two of the coldest cities, St. Paul, Minnesota and Madison, Wisconsin were tops in the number of garden sites per 10,000 residents, with 35.6 and 32.9, respectively.

Spread-out cities such as Anchorage and Albuquerque usually offer the most park acreage per resident. Older, denser cities that still manage to offer residents large swaths of open space include Minneapolis (13.3 acres per 1,000 residents), Oakland, Washington, D.C., and Seattle. But operating quality parkland in dense cities does not come cheap – Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., and Seattle each spent $200 or more per resident, compared to a median of $84.

Read the entire 2011 City Park Facts report here.