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Some News From Around…

  • To hasten its ambitious goal of a county-wide network of parks, trails and greenways, Miami-Dade parks administrators are looking to purchase cheap, disused commercial strips, buildings or car lots, and install a park on them while setting aside a portion for future development. (The Miami Herald)
  • Glendale and Peoria, Arizona grapple with park ranger shortages and look for alternatives to monitor the parks, including increased police presence and resident volunteers. (The Republic)
  • Arlington, Texas prepares to open three parks in May, including Crystal Canyon Natural Area, a 39-acre site saved from development more than 15 years ago by a group of vocal residents. (Star-Telegram)
  • A public-private partnership between Boston’s Esplanade Association and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation might be the key to implementing a vision for the Charles River Esplanade. (The Boston Globe)
  • Totaling nearly 4,000 acres, four interconnected parks, known collectively as the Parklands, would hug much of the northeastern and southern edge of the Louisville/Jefferson County line and include a variety of recreational areas and, hopefully, a major new civic realm in Louisville’s largely undifferentiated urban fringe. (The Atlantic Cities)

April’s Frontline Park: Discovery Green

Discovery Green is a 12-acre park created from a downtown parking lot by a public-private partnership between the City of Houston and the non-profit Discovery Green Conservancy. In less than four years, the site that became Discovery Green was transformed from an undeveloped, concrete eyesore into one of the most beautiful and vibrant destinations in Houston.

Screen on Discovery Green

The park features an outdoor concert pavilion, restaurants, a mist fountain for hot summer days, several distinct gardens featuring public art, and outdoor “reading rooms.” In its first three years, the park welcomed more than three million visitors and hosted more than 800 public and private events. The Discovery Green Conservancy works with hundreds of programming partners to present three dynamic seasons each year. The Conservancy raises all the funds needed for the programming and ensures that the park remains an accessible and inviting public gathering space in the center of the fourth largest metropolitan area in the United States.

Downtown Anchor

Discovery Green was conceived not only as a public park, but as a landmark to attract convention revenue to the City, and as an anchor for downtown development.  That goal was achieved as adjacent development, a residential high rise, a commercial office tower, hotel and a mixed-use development–a combined $500 million investment–all came to fruition. Since the park opened, the adjacent George R. Brown Convention Center has hosted major conventions such as Microsoft and Society of American Travel Writers.  The model has been so successful that new parks in Houston are being designed with Discovery Green in mind.

Discovery Green will be featured on the City Parks Alliance homepage until the end of the month.

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

Cities Can Have Health Promoting Park Systems Through Proximity, Accessibility, and Co-Location

The closer the park and the easier to get to, the more likely it will be used. Conversely, people who live far from parks are apt to utilize them less.

These obvious truths have implications for public health, but recognizing the problem does not automatically offer simple solutions for mayors, city councils, park directors, or urban planners. Creating new parks in a crowded, built-out city is a slow, arduous, and often expensive task. It can be done—it is being done in almost every city in the country—but it is not the only way to bring people and green space together. Much can be done outside the park fence, in the neighborhood, where the normal processes of urban construction, rehabilitation, and change occur at a faster pace.

Sometimes easiest to fix is the problem of accessibility. Some parks are underused simply because they are too hard to get to. Users may be blocked by steps, fences, walls, cliffs, railroad tracks, highways, waterways, or an unbroachable row of private residences. Some parks require a long jaunt to the other side just to gain entry. Others are literally visible from a home but unreachable by children without a chaperoned car ride.

Park access might be improved by constructing a ramp or pedestrian bridge in a key location, or by installing a traffic signal on a busy road. While such fixes might cost from $50,000 to several million dollars, that is a small price compared with what is routinely spent on highways and parking lots and would be more than offset by savings in health costs resulting from more frequent park use.

People are more likely to use parks that are close to places where they spend time: restaurants, shopping districts, libraries, gyms, and other meeting areas. In some cases parks can be sited close to such destinations. In other instances businesses and attractions can be allowed or encouraged to locate near existing parks. A mistaken Victorian sensibility sometimes holds that the “purity” of parks should not intersect with the “untidiness” of commercial areas. In fact, people like that proximity. They welcome the opportunity to buy picnic food or an ice cream cone to eat on a nearby park lawn or bench—and if that sojourn can be combined with a brisk walk, jog, or basketball game, so much the better.

Or, a large downtown destination park might be considered for a bike station, like the one offered at Chicago’s Millennium Park. There, for a membership fee, park users have access to one of 300 secure bike spaces along with lockers, showers, and a repair shop. For tourists, there are rental bikes. Completed in 2004 for $3.2 million, the facility today is so popular that it has a waiting list.

Best of all is the provision of plenty of housing near parks. This is an old concept with a new name: park-oriented development. From Lincoln Park in Chicago to Riverside Park in New York to Lake Harriet in Minneapolis, the parks surrounded by lots of people are the ones that can provide the greatest total amount of health benefits. But often U.S. cities are zoned so as to prevent that outcome. Some communities are averse to the look of taller buildings around parks; others may even think that the fewer people in the park, the better.

If denser development is not possible, park use can also be increased by improving accessibility through walking, bicycling, and public transit. (Automobile access is less desirable because it requires acres of parking and eliminates the health benefit of walking and cycling.) Ample park entrances, great sidewalks, and bike lanes on connecting streets; pedestrian-friendly perimeter roads with plenty of traffic signals and crosswalks; and easy grades and smooth trails for elderly and wheelchair-bound visitors: all these contribute to great access. In large parks, high-use destinations such as playgrounds, basketball courts, and swimming pools should be sited near the edge of the park, not deep in the interior.

"Catchment Circle." The area of a circle grows by the square of the radius. If a park is easy to reach by bicycle, 16 times as many people can get to it in the same amount of time it takes to walk from a mile away. Illustration: Helene Sherlock.

Bicycle access extends the “reach” of a park 16-fold over walking. This is because cycling is about four times faster than walking, and the “catchment circle”—the surrounding area from which park users can be drawn—increases by the square of the distance from the park (see diagram on right). Thus, improving bicycle access is an important way to get more people to the park (not to mention the health benefit from pedaling there and back).

Good public transit improves park access even more. It is no coincidence that eight of the ten most heavily used parks in American cities offer subway or light-rail access within one-quarter mile, and all of them have bus service that comes even closer. In New York City major parks almost invariably have subway service. Other parks well served by subway and rail include Boston Common, Forest Park in St. Louis, Millennium and Grant parks in Chicago, and the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

As new transit lines are built, it’s sometimes possible to align them with parks. Seattle’s new streetcar line terminates at 12-acre South Lake Union Park. The city is working to increase housing and commercial density in this near-downtown location, and the alignment of park and transit is particularly helpful in reaching the goal. “Especially at lunchtime,” says former Seattle Parks Foundation Director Karen Daubert, “you can see the crowds walking off the streetcar right into South Lake Union Park. It’s the perfect connection to this waterfront refuge.”

For larger parks, internal transit can also promote access. At 130-acre Washington Park in Portland, Oregon—home to the popular Rose and Japanese gardens—special Tri-Met buses not only connect to the nearest light-rail station but also make eight stops inside the park. The service is inexpensive (or free with a transfer), runs every 15 minutes, and is aggressively advertised by the park department, Tri-Met‚ and event promoters. The route gets about 500 riders per day on weekends and 420 on weekdays. From a health perspective, taking transit results in far more walking than accessing the park in a private automobile.

Here are a few examples of the ideas presented above:

Piedmont Park, Atlanta. Health-promoting park systems appreciate density. Credit: Ashley Szczepanski.

In recent years, Atlanta’s Piedmont Park has shown a marked growth in users. There are several reasons for this, including policies that have reduced auto traffic in the park, the rehabilitation of facilities, better signage‚ and additional programming. But also significant is the fact that more people now live in areas bordering or near the park. Unlike many other urban places, the Piedmont Park neighborhood is densifying, and the park itself is serving as a significant lure for development.

Between 2000 and 2009 alone, the City of Atlanta approved building permits for 16 new multi-unit rental and condominium apartment buildings within a half-mile of Piedmont Park, and the neighborhood gained nearly 100 single-family homes. All told, the park neighborhood gained 1,880 units, or about 4,500 people, over the decade. These people are the heaviest users of the park facilities. They compound their health benefit by often walking or running to the park rather than driving there.

“Piedmont Park is one of the single biggest assets we have in the neighborhood,” said Ginny Kennedy, director of urban design for the Midtown Alliance. “In everything we do, we encourage and try to reinforce access and visibility to the park.”

Perhaps most significant, the Midtown Alliance—whose goal is to make midtown Atlanta an “exceptional place to live, work, learn, shop, and play”—spearheaded the area’s 2001 rezoning. The changes enabled many more people to live and work near Piedmont Park and benefit from its health-promoting effects.

Midtown Greenway, Minneapolis. Health-promoting park systems locate parks and trails so as to benefit from other uses. Credit: Freewheel Bike Center.

Since its opening in 2000, Minneapolis’s Midtown Greenway has quickly become one of the best-used bike routes in the country, largely because it combines a park-like experience with true functionality. The mostly below-grade former rail line is quiet to ride, bordered with green, and unbroken by street intersections. Yet its almost six-mile length parallels a major commercial street only one block away, offering easy access to grocery and hardware stores, restaurants, video rentals‚ and pharmacies. “Fast, safe, and pleasant” is how Midtown Greenway Coalition Director Tim Springer describes the linear park—but it is also convenient. Instead of returning home from a bike ride and climbing into the car for errands, many Midtown Greenway users are able to multitask. The greenway leads them to their needs, and their needs lead them to the greenway.

The city has consciously helped. When a massive old Sears warehouse was converted into the Midtown Global Market, officials built a connection from the greenway and also landed a federal loan to create the Freewheel Bike Center‚ which provides storage, repair, rentals‚ and sales. Next door is a coffee shop. Nearby, the new Sheraton hotel has an outdoor patio overlooking the trail (and directs guests to rent bikes from Freewheel). The greenway also intersects with transit along the Hiawatha light-rail line, giving some Minneapolitans a car-free commute with morning and evening exercise to boot. All in all, the collocation of the park with diverse destinations has made this not only a greenway, but a “healthway.”

Want to know more ways urban park systems can best promote health and wellness?  Read this publication from The Trust for Public Land.

Food Trucks Bring New Patrons to City Parks

Visitors line up for food truck fare at the Prospect Park Food Truck Rally.
Credit: Elissa H. Izmailyan

The second season of the Prospect Park Food Truck Rally launched this Sunday in balmy spring weather.  On the third Sunday of each month from April through October, sixteen gourmet food trucks will greet crowds of eager New Yorkers at Grand Army Plaza, a paved area at the Park’s main entrance. Though the Food Truck Rally was initially designed to be a one-time event last May, it has become a monthly fixture in the park in response to its overwhelming success.

Across the nation, food trucks are increasingly popular in city parks.   A new type of vendor is energizing  park patrons, offering new options over and above the typical hot dog/pretzel fare, including everything from locally sourced Vietnamese cuisine (at Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway) to lobster rolls (at the Prospect Park Food Truck Rally).

Concession amenities of all kinds can support parks’ success by attracting attendance and extending the length of stay, creating concentrated hubs of activity.  A high quality and diverse food selection can increase these benefits, and food trucks can provide opportunities to enhance both.  With their inherent portability and commercial-grade kitchen equipment, food trucks can combine the flexibility of temporary concessions with the food quality of more permanent venues.  A rotating core of vendors can expand the variety of  concession offerings in a given location, and while vehicles of any kind can feel aesthetically out-of-place in park environments, food trucks can be positioned in highly trafficked hardscapes adjacent to or within parks.

Many parks have begun to host large, highly publicized food truck events with high levels of visitation. For example, the Food Truck Rodeo in Durham features approximately 30 trucks and live music, drawing activity to support the newly developed Central Park.  In Milwaukee, the downtown BID (EastTown) runs Food Truck Fridays in Cathedral Square, which offers a range of lunchtime options on summer Fridays, to support and sustain a lively downtown atmosphere.

Visitors congregate at the entrance to Prospect Park beside the Food Truck Rally.
Credit: Elissa H. Izmailyan

The Prospect Park Food Rally attracts thousands of visitors each month. According to David Weber, President of New York City Food Truck Association (NYCFTA), the organization that runs the Rally, “While just one food truck is more like a service to support another activity…you get 16 food trucks and it serves as a magnet and becomes a destination.”  Major events can overcome barriers to access and draw park users from a broad region; a NYCFTA event at Governor’s Island, which is accessible only by ferry, drew 17,000 people.

While events of this scale must be properly managed  to mitigate the adverse impacts of visitation, they can also generate a range of benefits to parks, including:

  • Attracting visitation:  In addition to drawing high attendance to concession areas, food trucks can increase attendance throughout parks.   Weber describes the Food Truck Rally as a “gateway into the park,” providing a node of activity at the park entrance that welcomes regular and first-time visitors.
  • Providing an amenity:  Park patrons enjoy the presence of food trucks and food truck events, as evidenced by their high levels of success. Welcoming food trucks to parks responds to patron preference and may sustain higher levels of park use and enjoyment.
  • Generating revenue for parks:   Food trucks typically pay rents to park managers in exchange for the right to vend on-site, which can be dedicated to support park operations.

Park Conservancy Models Part I: Buffalo Bayou Partnership and Detroit 300 Conservancy

Conservancies are private, non-profit, park-benefit organizations that raise money independent of the city and spend it under a plan of action that is mutually agreed upon with the city.  Conservancies do not own any parkland nor do they hold easements on it; the land continues to remain in the ownership of the city, and the city retains ultimate authority over everything that happens there.

Park conservancies are an outgrowth of private citizens wanting to do more for public spaces than government can do on its own.  Gaining steam across the U.S. over the past three decades, conservancies of varying sizes and models have been established out of concern for parks that government entities had neither the capacity nor the resources to maintain, program or enhance adequately.

This is part one of a three-part series looking at the histories of six different city park conservancies.

Buffalo Bayou Partnership, Buffalo Bayou, Houston

The Common in Sesquicentennial Park, Buffalo Bayou, Houston. Credit: Jim (Flickr Feed).

In 1976, after a lawsuit forced Houston to begin a massive upgrade of its sewer system, the water quality slowly began to improve in the city’s streams (known locally as bayous). By 1984 Buffalo Bayou, the city’s main waterway, was clean enough for visionaries to begin thinking of it as a valuable natural resource complete with parks and other waterfront opportunities – and as a node for downtown economic development.  Under the leadership of Mayor Kathy Whitmire, a blue-ribbon panel spent two years producing the Buffalo Bayou Task Force Report which outlined a concept for redevelopment as well as a proposal to create a non-profit entity to implement the plan.

Mayor Whitmire then exerted further leadership by stimulating an implementing entity, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership (BBP), a group of civic, environmental, business and governmental representatives, to transform and revitalize 10 miles of Buffalo Bayou into a park system “that joins land and water to become the green heart of Houston.”

The Partnership’s jurisdiction follows Buffalo Bayou from Shepherd Drive to the Ship Channel Turning Basin.  It includes approximately 250 acres of parkland on either side of the waterway.

The Partnership was created in 1986 to work on a major park project for Houston’s 150th birthday, but for its first nine years it operated as only a volunteer group.  In 1995, staff was hired and more projects were initiated, including acquiring easements for a hike and bike trail. The Partnership didn’t intend to purchase large tracts of property but that approach was thwarted when the majority of landowners rejected selling or donating easements in favor of full fee simple sales.  BBP had to rethink its strategy and undertake major fundraising.  Since its inception, the Partnership has raised and leveraged nearly $150 million for bayou enhancements, including $23 million for Sesquicentennial Park, $4 million for Allen’s Landing, $12 million for Sabine Promenade, and $20 million for land acquisition.  Being a property owner has allowed the Partnership to be a significant player in development decisions along the bayou.

Currently, BBP is leading a $55-million park improvement project to transform a 158-acre, 2.3-mile-long city park just west of downtown.  The vision is to develop a beautiful, natural green space with vistas of the downtown skyline, user-friendly access points and recreational areas.  A strong public-private partnership, including Houston’s Kinder Foundation, Buffalo Bayou Partnership, City of Houston and Harris County Flood Control District has been formed to carry out the ambitious project.  A Kinder Foundation catalyst gift of $30 million will fund basic park improvements. The Harris County Flood Control District is sponsoring a $5 million flood reduction/eco-system restoration project.  The remaining $20 million are being sought by the BBP.  Once completed in 2015, the park will be maintained and operated by BBP.

Detroit 300 Conservancy, Campus Martius Park, Detroit

Campus Martius Park, Detroit. Credit: Detroit 300 Conservancy.

A bright spot in the challenging economic situation in Detroit is Campus Martius, the new center-city park that attracts two million visitors a year and has helped stimulate almost $1 billion in nearby redevelopment. The entity operating Campus Martius is the Detroit 300 Conservancy.

Campus Martius (which means “Field of Mars” or “military ground”) had existed since 1788 but had not had a glorious history, eventually being asphalted over for streetcars and automobiles. In the late 1990s, when Mayor Dennis Archer was casting about for a suitably major project to serve as the centerpiece of the city’s tricentennial celebration in 2001, he selected it for re-creation. Detroit 300, Inc., the non-profit organization leading the celebration, adopted the Campus Martius reconstruction as part of its Legacy Project, and the park opened in 2004.

Only 2.5 acres in size, Campus Martius is a hub of activity with two retractable stages; the Woodward Fountain; waterwalls; monuments; lawns and gardens; a seasonal ice skating rink; a bistro café; seating for more than 3,000 people on walls, benches, steps, and movable chairs; and the “point of origin,” a medallion embedded in the stone walkway that sits over an early 1800s survey marker of Detroit’s coordinate system. Campus Martius plays host to over 200 concerts, events, and festivals each year, including the Motown Winter Blast and the Detroit Jazz Festival, each of which draws more than 100,000 people.  The innovative programming, pedestrian accessibility, strong connection to the surrounding neighborhoods, and availability of public transit make Campus Martius a distinct destination and a landmark downtown public space for residents, workers and visitors alike.

Designing and constructing the park cost $20 million. (There was no cost for land acquisition, and all roadway infrastructure expenses were covered by the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation.)  Funding came largely from corporations and the philanthropic community led by The Kresge Foundation.

The major reinvestment around Campus Martius includes street level cafés, retail shops and the new one-million-square-foot world headquarters of the Compuware Corp. (which told the city it would not have relocated if the park had not been built). Other companies are following suit: in 2010, Quicken Loans moved 3,000 employees into the area and has purchased over 2 million square feet of adjacent historic high-rise buildings. Additionally, GalaxE.Solutions announced it would spend $4.2 million to restore part of a nearby building and create 500 jobs over the next four years.  Other investments in the area include the restoration of the historic Westin Book Cadillac Hotel and Residences, new restaurants, a CVS Pharmacy, and residential lofts and condos on Woodward Avenue.

“Campus Martius is a huge economic driver of development,” said Detroit 300 Conservancy President Robert Gregory. “The park has transformed a desolate area into a vibrant, active and year-round space with residential, retail, and restaurants along its borders.  It’s a great place to be socially, right in the core of the business community.”

In 2010, Campus Martius received the inaugural Urban Land Institute Amanda Burden Urban Open Space Award and was also named one of the “Top Ten Great Public Spaces” by the American Planning Association.