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An Interconnected Park Web: How Greenways Create Healthy Communities

We recently came across an article by Randall Arendt discussing how greenway networks are the “useful bridge between ‘new urbanism’ and conservation design.”  His article talks about using greenways as the connector to parks, neighborhoods, schools and mixed-use centers, allowing for urban and rural ideas to merge and produce a superior hybrid community form.  He argues that only when blending urban and rural designs can there be successful opportunities for improved public health and wellness.

Indeed, elements typical of rural environments can – and must – be part of any truly livable urban design, as Olmstead and Vaux‘s plan for Central Park in Manhattan demonstrates, and as further proven by the Olmstead firm‘s five-mile long “Emerald Necklace” around Boston, encompassing 1000 acres of parkland, connecting the Boston Common with the 527-acre Franklin Park.

We know that the better connected parks are, the more a park system can provide healthful recreation—and transportation, too. A recent publication from The Trust for Public Land shows how interconnected trails, greenways‚ and parks support bicycling, running, walking, skating, skiing‚ and even wheelchair travel—reaching all the way from home to work for some users. And several small parks can be connected to create a “large-park experience,” with a tennis court in one park, a basketball court in another, a swimming pool in a third. Connections can be a system of sidewalks or bike lanes, complemented by outstanding signage and perhaps dressed up with a catchy name, such as the Wellness Walk or the Fitness Funway.

The easiest way to create interconnections that also extend a park system is in stream valley parks, particularly where a small stream flows into a larger river and both are flanked with trails. This kind of intersection, comparable to a highway interchange or a train junction, more than doubles the usefulness of a given route. An even more effective connection can be made by bridging a river with a pedestrian crossing, either a new bridge or a repurposed old one. Wherever this has been done—including in Austin, Cincinnati, Chattanooga, Little Rock, Minneapolis, Nashville, Omaha, Pittsburgh, and Tampa—the bridges have become instantly popular attractions.

Another great connector is a rail-trail, a park path constructed out of an abandoned train track. Most of the more than 15,000 miles of U.S. rail-trails are rural, but an increasing number are in cities, including Atlanta; Chicago; Dallas; Houston; Portland, Oregon; Orlando; Seattle; and Washington, D.C.

Platte River Greenway, Denver. Credit: Darcy Kiefel.

Even without a stream or an abandoned railroad, it’s sometimes possible to create a linear corridor. It happened in San Francisco after the public utilities commission decided to retire an underground water main through Visitacion Valley, a lower-income immigrant neighborhood. The corridor had been kept free of weighty construction over the pipe, resulting in a six-block swath of weedy lots through the heart of the community. When the commission tried to sell the land, neighbors objected and worked with The Trust for Public Land to turn it into a park and garden. Today the Visitacion Valley Greenway supports both physical exercise and improved nutrition—and introduces visitors to the exotic Asian medicinal plants growing there.

Another example of a successful city creating connectors is Denver.  In 2009, the American Obesity Association rated Denver residents the least obese of big city Americans. The reason, in part, is their sporty lifestyle. Supporting that way of life is the Platte River Greenway.

It took 30 years to create the Greenway from a former industrial backwater. Today its 15 parks linked by 100 miles of trails attract hundreds of thousands of users. The middle 12 miles—which stretch on either end deep into the suburbs—are operated by the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation, with support from the private Greenway Foundation. Its centerpiece is 22-acre Commons Park, constructed as part of a new walkable neighborhood on a former railyard on the edge of downtown.

Not only does the Greenway lure a continual stream of cyclists, runners, and walkers, the South Platte River itself was reengineered with rocks, riffles, and inflatable dams so that it offers whitewater rapids for kayakers and rafters.

Public investment in the Greenway totaling about $70 million has fueled $2.5 billion in residential, commercial, retail, sports, and entertainment projects along the corridor. Denver, which for several decades was losing population, is now growing again—and recreational opportunities are one reason why.

Randall’s article appeared in the August/September 2011 issue of Planning magazine, available here.

Some News from Around…

  • “Parklets” are undeniably one of the hottest trends in urban parks, and the epicenter of the movement is San Francisco.  This article provides some insight into the design process, with profiles of the designers of some of the city’s notable parklets. (The Bold Italic)
  • This piece from Next American City details some of the changes that have been made in the plans to revamp the grounds of the Gateway Arch, and to create stronger connections with the surrounding cityscape. (Next American City)
  • Tulsa’s park director explains the political and economic context of the dramatic turnaround of that city’s park system. (Tulsa World)
  • The Washington Monument, closed since being extensively damaged in an August earthquake, just got a huge boost towards re-opening, in the form of a $7.5 million donation from a local philanthropist. (Washington Post)
  • Two stories of well-loved botanical gardens in Seattle and Vancouver, facing struggles with governance and funding. (King 5 Seattle) (Vancouver Sun)

Hudson River Park is the First Frontline Park for 2012

Each month, City Parks Alliance recognizes a “Frontline Park” to promote and highlight inspiring examples of urban park excellence, innovation, and stewardship across the country.  The program also seeks to highlight examples of the challenges facing our cities’ parks as a result of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures, and urban neighborhood decay.

“We selected Hudson River Park for recognition because it exemplifies the power of public-private partnerships to create and maintain urban parks that build community and make our cities sustainable and vibrant,” said Catherine Nagel, Executive Director of City Parks Alliance.  “We hope that by shining the spotlight on this park that we can raise awareness about both the necessity and the promise of these kinds of partnerships to spur investment in our nation’s urban parks.”

“Hudson River Park is the realization of more than a decade of work to restore Manhattan’s waterfront into a true community resource and model for public projects,” said A.J. Pietrantone, Executive Director of Friends of Hudson River Park, “We are proud to be selected as a Frontline Park, a testament to the positive results that come from partnerships between citizens and city government.”

Pier 45 before renovation

Hudson River Park stretches the five miles from Battery Park City to 59th Street, making it the second largest waterfront park in the nation and the largest open space project in Manhattan since Central Park was completed. It is the first in a series of waterfront revitalization efforts in New York, and is currently one of the most visited urban parks in North America.

“It is an honor to receive recognition from the City Parks Alliance for innovation and leadership in this field,” said Madelyn Wils, President and CEO of Hudson River Park Trust. “As the first project of its kind, Hudson River Park provides an exciting glimpse at what the future holds for all of the City’s waterfront parks.”

The renovation of Hudson River Park has improved quality of life on Manhattan’s West Side, helped spur the boom of families living downtown, and served as a catalyst for economic development in surrounding neighborhoods. For instance, over the past decade, there has been $3 billion in new construction in the blocks surrounding the Park.

In total, more than 17 million residents and tourists take advantage of the bike path, walkway and  piers, enjoy a cruise, or attend a concert each year. More than 7,500 children a year participate in the Park’s free educational programming and almost 120 different organizations use its recreation fields.

“It’s hard to overstate the impact of Hudson River Park on the city’s waterfront and on the quality of life of the park’s neighbors,” said Hudson River Park Trust Chair Diana L. Taylor. “Once a dilapidated remnant of New York’s industrial past, the Hudson River waterfront is now a blue and green playground for the whole city to enjoy.”

Pier 45 after renovation

Hudson River Park is being featured on CPA’s website during the month of January.

The “Frontline Parks” program is made possible with generous support from DuMor, Inc. and PlayCore.


Cities with Health Promoting Park Systems Provide Mixed Uses and Adequate Programming

An excerpt from The Trust for Public Land’s report From Fitness Zones to the Medical Mile: How Urban Park Systems Can Best Promote Health and Wellness. We wrote a preview of this report in an earlier postIn this post, we look at a mixture of uses and a maximum amount of programming.

Mixing uses in parks has its challenges and requires good design, adequate signage, and clear rules. Trail use, for example, can create conflict between walkers, skaters, and fast cyclists. Many cities appropriately prohibit fast cycling on trails shared by pedestrians. On the other hand, hard pedaling and fast running provide more health benefit than casual spinning and jogging. Other than putting bikes on roadways, the only safe solution is to provide parallel treadways for fast and slow users—and to clearly mark the allowed uses by location or time of day. Then, too, the alternate trails need occasional enforcement.

Even if a park system offers varied spaces for physical activity, not everyone will know how to take advantage of them. Some users need to learn new skills, some need encouragement, some need an exercise regimen, some need social support. Even with all this, many require other assistance—partners, equipment, referees, timekeepers, music, safety paraphernalia, and more. In a word, programming. Good programming can increase park use many times over, make activity more enjoyable, and increase its benefits to health and fitness.

Credit: Phil Schermeister.

Traditional park  programming consists of league sports, exercise routines, children’s camps, and oldies-but-goodies such as ballroom dancing. More recent additions have been Jazzercise, tai kwon do, tai chi, rock climbing, and bicycle “roadeos.” But in response to changing technologies and new immigrant cultures, innovative ideas come along all the time. In Minneapolis, the park department offers open gym periods to play sepak takraw, a remarkable kick volleyball game brought to this country by Hmong immigrants from Cambodia. Raleigh, North Carolina, uses the reward of a free pedometer for diabetic children who sign up for special athletic programming that includes nutrition instruction. Seattle has launched monthly Women of the World swims at two pools at the request of Muslim women whose faith bars them from recreational activities with men. Women of all faiths are welcome, and the sessions are privately funded. Overseen by female lifeguards and held at pools without street-facing windows, the swims provide some women with exercise they otherwise would not get.

Of course, programming has a health impact only if people know about it, and that requires promotion and marketing through advertisements, program pamphlets, TV and radio public service announcements, flyers, email‚ and social networking services such as Twitter. Outreach is difficult in times of tight budgets, but creative park departments attempt to find private sector collaborators in fields such as health, media, banking, and public utilities to help them spread the word.

Finally, every new program and every new facility needs to be evaluated, particularly when dealing with health, since this approach is standard in the medical community. It is not enough to assume that an activity has a positive impact. The only real way to know is through monitoring and before-and-after measurement. Sometimes the research can be done by the park agency itself. But when this is prohibitively time-consuming or expensive, it may be possible to partner with a local university, college‚ or high school whose student researchers can observe usership and even measure such health indicators as body mass index, heart rate‚ or muscle strength.

Credit: Susan Lapides.

When it comes to programming, Cincinnati—the nation’s 56th-largest city—packs a wallop. On a per-capita basis, Cincinnati ranks in the U.S. top ten for its number of ball diamonds, recreation centers, swimming pools, tennis courts, basketball courts‚ and golf courses. More important for public health, the Cincinnati Recreation Commission’s programs attracted over 3.2 million participant-visits in 2009, some 691,000 of which were visits by youth. All this in a city of barely 330,000 residents—giving Cincinnati the highest per-capita recreation participation rate of all cities reporting information to The Trust for Public Land.

Among the hundreds of programs offered are youth and adult league sports ranging from soccer and basketball to track and field and kickball; senior programs such as golf, swimming, tennis‚ and the Senior Olympics; programs for the disabled, including wheelchair football and basketball; and such offerings for youth as afterschool programs, summer day camps, and bike outings. In addition to the formal programming, most of the recreation commission’s 29 recreation centers offer fitness centers and open gym hours. Residents can use the recreation centers and the city’s 26 pools for a yearly membership fee of $25, or $10 for seniors and youth.

The Cincinnati Park Board—a landowning and land management agency separate from the recreation commission—plays a part, too, by working to make Cincinnatians feel safer in their parks. In Burnet Woods, a place with a mixed reputation, the board thinned out invasive vegetation and installed a disc golf course through the forest. The sport, which is growing in popularity throughout the country, drew so many more people into Burnet Woods that the park became safer and more appealing even for visitors not there for the game.

Credit: Rich Reid.

Fitness zones are easy-to-use, accessible outdoor gyms designed to promote general  health within a park experience, creating a supportive social context for getting fit. Using only a gravity- and-resistance weight system, fitness zones require no electricity and employ their users’ body weight to engage different muscle groups. The exercise equipment is durable, vandal- and weather-resistant, and appropriate for people 13 years of age and older of all fitness levels.

Working under the leadership of The Trust for Public Land and with funding from health insurer Kaiser Permanente and the MetLife Foundation, the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation Department have installed 30 fitness zones across the region, including six in existing Los Angeles city parks.

Fitness zones are often placed in areas of high need, including communities with high rates of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. Some are located adjacent to playgrounds to encourage adults to exercise while keeping an eye on children. Others are placed near administrative offices to reduce safety worries.

The El Cariso Regional Park in Sylmar is one example of a successful fitness zone. It includes nine pieces of easy-to-use outdoor gym equipment along with bilingual health and fitness information panels.

“The bottom line is that fitness zones attract new users to parks,” says Dr. Deborah Cohen, a researcher with the RAND Corporation who carried out an exhaustive before- and-after study of the facilities in 12 parks. “We also know that fitness zones are used throughout the day, that fitness zone users increase the amount they exercise, and that they use the parks more frequently than other park users.”

From Bluebelts to Greenbelts: Converting Wetlands and Stormwater Storage Ponds to Parkland

An eleventh 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 cities who have created parkland from wetlands and stormwater storage ponds.

For environmental, financial, and legal reasons, urban stormwater management is getting much more attention – and the result is helping to build the urban parks movement. Gone are the days when flood-control engineers would prescribe the construction of straight, deep concrete channels, and one stream after the next would be converted into sterile spillways. (The poster channelized waterway, the Los Angeles River, was used for a spine-tingling truck chase scene in the movie Terminator 2 and was once also proposed–seriously–for use as a highway.) Cities that still have extensive natural wetland areas are now carefully protecting them to contain and filter stormwater; many others are now also creating artificial swales and other storage areas to slow down and capture the sheets of water running off streets and asphalt surfaces.

When it comes to water management and recreation, parks-as-ponds and ponds-as-parks are two sides of the same coin. Although the former doesn’t technically add parkland, it makes existing parks more environmentally productive; the latter can add to a city’s de facto parkland inventory and, of course, adds a second bin of funding opportunities–all the state and federal water protection programs–to the fundraising arsenal. There is no question that the marriage of stormwater retention and parks will become more common in the coming decades, for both ecological and economic reasons.

Staten Island Bluebelt. A man-made extended detention basin after a single growing season. Credit: City of New York.

New York City, in addition to the thousands of acres under Department of Parks and Recreation control, has another 480 acres of so-called Blue Belt land under the jurisdiction of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The Blue Belt, located largely but not entirely in Staten Island (the least built-up of the city’s five boroughs), consists of mapped wetlands that DEP acquires for stormwater management. The Blue Belts are zoned as open space and are protected from development, although the protection is not as stringent as for mapped parkland. Parkland can only be de-mapped and “alienated” from the park system through a vote of the state legislature; DEP lands can be sold to a private party if the buyer agrees to protect the official drainage corridors that traverse it–no property owner is allowed to modify a watercourse. Although the Blue Belt lands are partially fenced (to help focus the points of ingress and egress), they are fully open to the public. “Since we’re spending Water Board money and aren’t supposed to be spending it on recreation uses,” said Dana Gumb, director of the Staten Island Bluebelt, “we don’t specifically build any walking trails or other features. But we do have lightly used maintenance access pathways which we’re happy to let people utilize, if they do so appropriately.”

The converse occurs when DEP utilizes official park property for water management and water purification. “We’ll install a storm sewer system under a street to catch rainwater from a neighborhood, and then we’ll daylight it–bring it up to the surface–in a park,” said Gumb. “We’ve done that in Conference House Park, Lemon Creek Park, Wolf’s Pond, Bloomingdale Park, and others.” The department constructs a pond-like water detention and treatment facility that holds the rainwater for about twenty-four hours, absorbs much of the destructive energy of the rushing torrent, allows sediment to settle out, and then permits the cleaned water to seep gradually into Raritan Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. “We’re usually able to locate the holding ponds in areas that had previously been degraded,” Gumb explained. “Places that had been disturbed with fill or were overrun with invasive vines. We use the opportunity to fix them up. When we’re done the community ends up with something beautiful that also cleans the water.”

Although many other municipalities regulate how individuals and commercial entities impact stormwater, almost none currently uses a municipal agency to construct and operate control facilities, and no other city has an agency as sensitive to public recreational use as New York’s DEP. Of course, it’s not always smooth sailing. There are times when DEP’s ecological requirements conflict with the community’s desires and the aesthetics of a park. In neighborhoods with combined sewers that mix household wastewater with street stormwater for joint processing, huge underground holding tanks with pumps and smokestacks are required to cope with the influx from large storms. In the worst of those cases the facility can be a blight on a corner of a park. Even in the best cases with successful restoration, a park may be closed for several years during construction.

“There’ve been instances where DEP has had to pay dearly for the use of parkland,” said Gumb. Perhaps most famous was a multiyear battle over the installation of a mammoth underground drinking water storage tank in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Although the tank was to be completely buried and invisible to park users, the construction project was so large and was slated to take so long that the courts ruled that it was effectively an “alienation” of parkland and would need to be approved by the state legislature. After protracted negotiations, DEP agreed to pay the Parks Department $200 million for the temporary loss of parkland; the money was used to buy and improve dozens of other parks in the Bronx.

As public awareness grows, potentially even more could be done with water detention facilities. In some cases boardwalks, benches and interpretive signage could be added to these natural and manmade marshy areas to put them to double use for walking, running and cycling. Some stormwater storage areas could conceivably also be used as dry-weather playing fields, or skateboard parks if they are fitted with proper warning signage, fencing, and a commitment to hosing down residue following each high-water incident.

High Point Pond in Seattle's Viewpoint Park. Additional amenities in the park include an overlook, trails, benches, a playground, and an artificial boulder-strewn stream. Credit: Seattle Housing Authority.

When the Seattle Housing Authority planned the demolition of the distressed High Point public housing site and its transformation into a new mixed-income community, the authority was required to capture all stormwater to keep it from running off the property. The water was required to be released gradually rather than being funneled destructively into a nearby salmon-bearing stream. But when it considered the aesthetics of the standard, unadorned, chain-link-surrounded holding pit, the authority balked. Instead, it created an extensive 130-acre drainage system culminating in one-and-a-quarter-acre Viewpoint Park with benches, a boulder-filled stream, a pond, a trail, a grass lawn, stairs, a playground, and gardens. “We turned what could’ve been a huge liability into an incredible asset for the community–in a place with a direct view of downtown Seattle,” says Tom Phillips, project manager. Constructed by the Housing Authority, the park has been turned over to the Parks and Recreation Department for management and maintenance.