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In the Age of the Creative Economy, Parks Boost Cities’ Competitiveness

Last month, Amazon.com spent more than $600 million to acquire three adjacent parcels in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood for its new headquarters campus. The parcels are within brief walking distance of South Lake Union Park, a new destination park and the focal point of the burgeoning neighborhood.

Creative and technology firms respond to their employees’ preferences by locating in vibrant cities near destination public spaces. This trend can be observed across the country, from the growing tech cluster in Boulder, CO to Google’s recently-opened New York City offices, located one block from the High Line.

Parks have long been regarded as anchors of excellent city neighborhoods. Historic parks like Boston Common are cherished public gathering spaces in established communities, while brand new city parks, like Washington DC’s Yards Park, serve as the hubs around which fledgling communities can grow.

More recently, parks have been regarded as economic assets that create value for their communities, attracting tourism, sustaining real estate values, and increasing public health and enjoyment in ways that can be quantified (as the Center for City Park Excellence does in its Economic Value of a City Park System reports).

In addition to creating near-term economic benefits, parks can generate and sustain long-term economic growth. Over the past several decades, technological change has shifted the national and global economy toward the production of ideas over goods and services. In its Creative Economy Report 2010, the United Nations Council on Trade and Development (UNCTD) reports that growth in the creative economy, including arts, technology, and media has significantly outpaced global economic growth. It states:

In 2008, the eruption of the world financial and economic crisis provoked a drop in global demand and a contraction of 12 per cent in international trade. However, world exports of creative goods and services continued to grow, reaching $592 billion in 2008 — more than double their 2002 level…

In the U.S., the technology sector represent 29% of all growth in the office real estate market in 2011 (as reported by The Wall Street Journal).

In this new economy, a talented workforce – including scientists, programmers, artists, designers, and entrepreneurs – is the most valuable economic resource a city can procure. In a recent report that ranked cities around the world by their economic competitiveness, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) found that human capital is closely correlated with overall economic competitiveness.

The EIU then explains that urban amenities and quality of life are the defining factor in attracting a talented workforce. All other factors equal, talented employees prefer living in cities that are socially, culturally and intellectually vibrant, with diverse and high-quality public amenities that include excellent parks. The UNCTD report affirms these findings:

…comprehensive cultural asset management is a prerequisite for sustained growth in the creative-industries sector and, in a wider perspective, for sustainable economic development and vibrant community life. It is therefore necessary to maintain the principle that cultural assets are intergenerational capital and that their viability may legitimately be sustained by public investment.

The private sector has, as expected, responded swiftly to market forces by relocating to vibrant urban neighborhoods near public spaces. Now, there are promising signs that cities, too, are beginning to view parks as sound, long-term economic investments:

  • Synchronous public investments in creative industries and public space. For example, significant public investment in the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, which unites downtown Boston with its waterfront district, was coupled with investments in a new public transit line (the Silver Line) and incentive programs to help technology companies move to the newly branded waterfront “Innovation District.”
  • Major investments in new “signature” parks. A recent survey issued by the City Parks Alliance found that 55% of independently managed signature parks, those parks that define their cities, have been built in the past decade.
  • Partnership with the private sector. Cities are increasingly partnering with the private sector to access additional resources for parks, from the significant private fundraising that supported Millennium Park’s construction to the corporate sponsorship that provides public programming in Bryant Park.

Bike with the Commish: Touring the Hudson River Greenway with NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe

The New York City Department of Parks & Recreation holds sway over 5,000 different properties encompassing 29,000 acres of land — nearly 15 percent of America’s largest city. The person who just passed the 10-year mark as NYC Parks Commissioner, Adrian Benepe, still lives with his wife and sons in the Upper West Side Manhattan neighborhood where he grew up in the 1960s. So the man knows his home turf.

That being the case, there may not be a better way to combine leisure with learning then the Hudson River Greenway Bike Tour that the Commissioner will lead, and which promises to be a highlight for a lucky few early registrants for the International Urban Parks Conference, Greater & Greener: Re-Imagining Parks for 21st Century Cities, being held from July 14 to 17 in New York City.

The three-hour tour on the afternoon of Sunday July 15 will traverse the longest continuous car-free bicycle and pedestrian path in New York City: the Hudson River Greenway, an uninterrupted 11-mile route between Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan, and north beyond the George Washington Bridge. The trail passes through Hudson River Park, Riverside Park South, Riverside Park and Fort Washington Park.

New York City’s historical legacy as a pioneer of urban park innovation in America will be both on visual display — and on display in the accompanying ruminations of the Commissioner. Bicycles and helmets will be provided and the stunningly scenic and informative ride will be at a relaxed pace with, Benepe promises, about a half dozen or so stops. “Hopefully the weather will cooperate, and there’s usually a breeze along the river and many places to stop, talk, get water and get a bite along the way.”

Sunblock and cool clothing are good ideas. Perhaps only an excessive fear of helmet hair should be a deterrence.

“I haven’t figured out the exact route yet that we’ll take,” the Commissioner says, “but we’ll see Battery Park and Battery Park City,  Hudson River Park and the new park that connects Hudson River Park and Riverside.  We’ll see some new parks on the Upper West Side and Harlem…we’ll pass by the state park on top of the sewage treatment plant in West Harlem, and [maybe] will see some of the improvements [underway] to Fort Washington Park.  If we have the energy, we can go as far north as the Little Red Lighthouse — the iconic structure underneath the great bridge, the George Washington Bridge. You know, the story as told in the children’s book is more or less true. The river didn’t come to life and we don’t know if it was exactly called back into action on one dark and stormy night — but we do know it was saved from demolition and restored.”

Hudson River Greenway, New York

Benepe points out that the necklace of parks and the continuous bike paths that now adjoin them, “the opening up of the formerly industrial waterfront for recreational use,” is felt by many to be one of the city’s two or three greatest urban planning accomplishments of recent decades. “I’m a recreational cyclist. I get out and ride on weekends,” he says, “and you can now do a continuous ride without ever having to cross a street, from the Battery [on the south end of the island] all the way up to Dyckman Street [in the Inwood neighborhood of most northern Manhattan] because all the missing links have now been filled in. That’s a distance of almost the entire length of Manhattan.”

This has all occurred during the biggest period of park investment, construction and expansion for New York City since the 1930s. “The waterfront parks and re-purposing the post-industrial and post-maritime landscape for public recreation has been a major focus in particular,” Benepe explains. “This is being done around the world and has been a particular emphasis here in New York.” As a signature program of the Bloomberg mayoralty, Benepe estimates the city has invested in excess of $1 billion dollars on waterfront parks alone, $3 billion on parks in total over the last 10 years. “Just look at Brooklyn Bridge Park and Hudson River Park — those alone are half a billion. Plus [the development] along the Bronx River, the Harlem River, the East River waterfront park south of South Street Seaport…so I think a billion is probably accurate. Certainly no one else in the United States is doing this much.

“New York City has become both a lab and a bellwether for urban park design, development, construction and management [with] all permutations of creative public-private partnerships,” he explains. Conference attendees will be able to see first hand “many examples of terrific landscape design by talented architects, and more varied models of park management in one place then you can find in 10 other cities.”

Presented by City Parks Alliance, Greater & Greener: Re-Imagining Parks for 21st Century Cities will feature over 100 tours and workshops.  Space for the Commissioner’s bike tour is very limited, so be sure to sign up soon.

Please visit www.urbanparks2012.org for full program and registration details.


March’s Frontline Park: Franklin Park

At 527 acres, Franklin Park is the largest greenspace in Boston, boasting a 220-acre forest, an 18-hole golf course, the regional zoo, tennis and basketball courts, baseball diamonds, a cricket pitch, miles of woodland trails, picnic areas, and playgrounds. It is the only park in Boston where one can bicycle and barbecue. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Franklin Park is the “jewel” of the Emerald Necklace, located in the geographic heart of the city and surrounded by Boston’s most diverse neighborhoods.

Dancing in Franklin Park

The park has hundreds of daily visitors, and thousands who come for cultural festivals and sporting events and is viewed by the city police department as one of the safest parks in the Boston. However, Franklin Park’s reputation as a popular community destination was shaken when, in late fall 2011, a woman walking through Franklin Park with her grandchild on a midweek afternoon was attacked, a victim of random violence. Some golfers in the area heard the woman’s cries for help and ran off her attacker, but the evening news seemed to confirm the worst fears of suburban denizens: urban parks are not safe. Regulars of the park had spent many years convincing their friends, neighbors, and colleagues of the beauty and safety of the area, and with one unlikely event, all that work could have been undone.

Three nights later, 200 people from the surrounding communities gathered with flashlights in hand to traverse a 2.5 mile path around the park in the dark. The statement was clear: people who used the park would not be scared away from their favorite place in Boston. Neighborhood organizations have now taken up park safety in their regular meetings with local police and buddy system walking groups have formed.

Franklin Park will be featured on CPA’s homepage through the end of March.

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

A Tale of Two Trails: Designs Released for New York’s High Line Phase III and Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail and Park

New York and Chicago are often pitted as rivals with regards to parkland acreage (38,060 acres vs. 11,959 acres, equating to 4.5 and 4.2 acres per 1,000 residents, respectively), and this month was no different.  Last week both cities released designs to the community for the next latest and greatest thing in the park world — elevated rail trails — and the designs couldn’t be more different.

A sneak peek at the High Line Phase III. This view shows the future 10th Avenue Spur. Credit: Brian Kusler (Flickr Feed)

New York’s High Line has been generating buzz since before its 2009 opening, and the overwhelming success of its first two phases (there were 3,000,000 visitors in 2011) have kept the public anxiously awaiting the last and final phase.  Held up by land ownership issues and fundraising nightmares in a struggling economy, Friends of the High Line scored an amazing win last fall with a record-setting $20 million donation from the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation, the single largest donation ever made to a New York City park.  The generous gift helped build up the park’s endowment and also paid for the design of the last section.

Phase III of the High Line, the last half-mile segment of the abandoned rail line, differs from the first two phases in that it is being constructed simultaneously with Hudson Yards, the 12 million square foot office and residential complex.  The park will be fully built out on the majority of the eastern section of the historic railway, and an interim walkway will be built over the western section.  The park will wrap about the redevelopment and will feature either amphitheater-style seating or an open gathering space with plantings, a spiraling “Guggenheim-esque” staircase providing access to the street level, Play Beams for children, walking paths, and the ever popular “peel-up benches” that are in the first two phases.

The estimated total cost of capital construction on the High Line at the rail yards is $90 million, with $38 million already raised by the conservancy.  A zoning text amendment is already in the works to set a framework and cover approximately 30% of the estimated total cost.  Construction is expected to begin this year and finish by the end of 2013, with a full public opening in spring 2014.

The Bloomingdale Trail and Park. This rendering shows a separate pedestrian zone and bike path.

Unlike the High Line, Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail and Park will be a multi-use trail as well as a destination linear park.  Steadily moving ahead despite fundraising challenges, the design plan for the entire 2.7-mile elevated rail trail was released last week, and included addressing the conflicting needs between speeding cyclists and slow-moving pedestrians.  While the High Line bans dogs, skateboarders, cyclists, and runners, the Bloomingdale Trail and Park will be an arterial connecting four different neighborhoods and providing alternative modes of transportation for commuters.

In addition to its urban views, the Bloomingdale Trail and Park would keep its retaining walls as a linear gallery with colorful murals and gritty graffiti.  There will be eight access points to the trail, spaced roughly a half-mile apart, and five of the entryways will be from ground-level parks.  Instead of modernistic stairways, berms would form gentle upward slopes from two of the parks, another two parks would have entries as ramps, and the last park would be an L-shaped berm at the trail’s western end.  The multi-use path would be 14 feet wide and have gentle curves and dips to serve multiple purposes, including ever-changing views for pedestrians and speed bumps for cyclists.  Trees and shrubs would also serve triple duty by providing shade, habitat for birds, and a separation zone for the pedestrians and bike path.  In fact, Chicagoans are so concerned about this separation (to avoid a repeat of the pedestrian-cyclist disasters that plague the Lakefront Trail), that there is a proposal for 1.5 miles of pedestrian pathways that would run parallel to the multi-use trail.  Of course there still needs to be room for the benches, art, and lighting on the 30-foot-wide trail.

So far more than $37 million has been secured in federal anti-congestion and air-quality funding for the project’s $46 million first phase, with the remaining $7 million to come from the private sector (Exelon Foundation is said to be giving $5 million, their largest single grant, while Boeing and CNA are each donating $1 million) and $2 million from the Chicago Park District.  Construction is expected to begin as early as next year, with the park opening in phases in fall 2014.

The High Line may only be 1.45 miles long, but it offers New York residents and visitors a completely different park perspective, a tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle of urban living.  The Bloomingdale Trail and Park, twice as long as the High Line, will be Chicago’s first elevated park and the longest elevated park anywhere in the world, and will offer its residents and visitors a connection to different neighborhoods and transportation opportunities toward and out of downtown.

Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory Discusses Downtown and New Riverfront Park

Smart Growth America recently completed video interviews with several mayors and other prominent elected officials nationwide, and will be releasing them over the next several months. The first is with Mayor Mark Mallory from Cincinnati — he speaks to the need to invest in downtowns and to make the right kinds of infrastructure investments to trigger job creation and community development.

Mayor Mallory discusses how the revised downtown will benefit from the new 45-acre John G. and Phyllis W. Smale Riverfront Park:

“We’re doing a lot of things in Cincinnati. In addition to building the streetcar, we are developing our riverfront with a project called The Banks. This is the space between our two stadiums. It’s going to be more than 300 apartments – this is just in the first phase – retailers, there’s a giant park that will be a part of it. This project will go in to its second phase in the next couple weeks actually, and before it’s over with we’ll probably spend a billion dollars on our riverfront.

Phases one and two of the Smale Riverfront Park are slated to open on May 15. The new park will feature fountains, walkways, gardens, event lawns, playgrounds and restaurants, including the Moerlein Lager House, which officially opened last month. There will also be restrooms, a visitor’s center and bike parking, for a membership fee. In addition to connecting to the bike trail, one of the more interesting features are bike runnels along the steps to the lower level, so bicycles don’t have to be carried up and down the stairs, but can be rolled along the side. This is a unique solution to a multi-level park that points to the investment and encouragement of alternative modes of transportation to reach a destination park.

Cincinnati Parks is overseeing the planning, development and construction of the park, and funding came primarily from the city of Cincinnati and the Smale family. Read more about the new park here and watch a video clip here.