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Adding Hours Rather than Acres: Extending Playing Time to Create Parkland

A fourteenth 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 added parkland by extending daylight hours using lighted fields, synthetic turf, and video cameras.

If not enough parkland can be amassed in dense cities by using the three physical dimensions, there is always a fourth dimension: time.

Cities are finding that, through the use of technology, the time that parks are available to the citizenry can be extended. For sports and other recreational activities, buying time can literally be the equivalent of buying land.

The two principal time-extending approaches utilize sports field lights and artificial playing surfaces (synthetic turf). Both are growing in importance in crowded environments.

Soccer players take advantage of the turf fields and lighting at Cal Anderson Park, in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Credit: Flickr user JeanineAnderson.

Lighting has the longer history, and most cities already have numerous lit facilities, including tennis and basketball courts and baseball, football, and soccer fields. Oakland has seventeen lit fields and a policy that all new fields will include lights. Atlanta has forty-four. Miami, which has an extreme park shortage plus a 365-days-per-year playing season (and which, during the summer, is much more pleasant at night) illuminates almost everything: twenty-six baseball diamonds; eleven soccer, six football, and five combination fields; and even one cricket pitch. On the other end of the climate spectrum, Minneapolis lights a golf course for nighttime cross-country skiing in the snows of winter.

Because of lights, usable playing time can be extended by about two hours in the height of summer and up to five hours in the depth of winter. (Most park agencies have an outdoor nighttime sports curfew of 10:00 or 10:30 p.m.) Even ruling out the very coldest months, the average city might pick up almost 1,000 hours of extra sports playing time for every lit field.

And, despite the energy crunch, night lighting is still economical in comparison to land acquisition–at least wherever land is expensive. Installing an illumination system on a field costs about $150,000 (or half that for tennis or basketball), to which must be added an hourly operating cost from about $5 to $20, depending on electricity rates in each city. Most cities tend to reserve the lit fields for permitted high school and league competitions, although they allow pick-up games at other times. Some allow free use, others don’t. Miami charges $10 per hour, Atlanta has a sliding scale all the way up to $71 per hour, depending whether teams are nonprofit and whether they are composed of city or non-city residents. The lights have a variety of operating systems, from old-fashioned manual control by onsite custodians to the latest in cellphone-activated, passcode-protected remote electronic management.

Lights can be controversial with neighbors, depending on the location of the park and layout of the fields. However, new technology seems to be helping there, too, thanks to the invention of better methods to focus the beam and reduce ambient light and glare. Fortunately, on this score there are no trade-offs: the less light “spillage,” the less the operating costs. A major sports illumination company, Musco Lighting, claims that it can cut both hourly costs and unwanted glare by 50 percent simply through the use of better designed luminaires, the bonnets that direct the light onto fields and away from others’ eyes. (Reducing the cost means less electricity used and less pollution generated, although lights, of course, do have a somewhat negative environmental impact.) There are still issues of activity, noise, cars, and ambient nighttime light, but for every complainant, someone else approves of a park that is busy and activated in the evening and that does not serve as a dark gathering place for clandestine, antisocial uses.

Lighting can also extend the hours for other parkland uses beyond traditional competitive sports on fields. The Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis and the Lieberman Exercise Trail in Houston’s Memorial Park are both lighted for bicycling and running, and both facilities are approaching round-the-clock use — the Midtown Greenway because it gets lots of purposeful transportation use, and the Lieberman Trail because parking at Memorial Park is so difficult that runners start showing up at 4:30 a.m. just to get a space.

The cross-country ski trails at Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis are lit, allowing for use even during long, dark Minnesota winters. Credit: Scott A. Schneider for the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board.

Synthetic turf is a much newer development that can also dramatically increase a park field’s usable hours. This is not “astroturf,” the first-generation artificial material that was created to deal with the problem that grass wouldn’t grow in the domed baseball stadium built for the Houston Astros in 1965. Early products were more rug-like and drew complaints for injuries, ambient temperature, ball handling, and water runoff. Several technological generations later, current synthetics come much closer to mimicking real grass, cause far fewer athletic injuries than older versions, and seem to be strongly supported by coaches, players, and park department officials. By allowing a field to be played upon continuously without any rest, artifical turf extends playing hours on a morning-to-night basis as well as month-to-month.

“Our natural grass fields are so old and so heavily used that in many places they’ve turned to bare dirt,” explained Mark Oliver, special assistant to the director of the Oakland Department of Parks and Recreation. “In dry weather that means dust, in wet weather it means mud.” Artificial turf has no such limitation. “We can use them twelve months a year,” Oliver said.

In Boston, with cold and snow sometimes keeping players out of parks in the depth of winter, the season for artificial turf is a bit shorter–generally March through December. But again it is significantly longer than with grass. “Up here, grass fields are unplayable in the spring,” said Stanley Ivan, director of design and construction with the Boston Parks and Recreation Department. “March and even April are very iffy for us with the wet weather.”

The hour-by-hour use is also extended.

“We are real happy with the FieldTurf as it is virtually maintenance-free,” said City of Miami Park Manager Jose Leiva. “The high schools love it and we increased our number of games we can hold on the turf by almost four times compared to what we were able to accommodate with natural grass, which is incredible.”

The downside is that synthetic turf is expensive–as much as $1.5 million per field, counting the price of preparation, materials, and installation. On the other hand, once the initial cost is covered, day-to-day maintenance is easier and cheaper. There is no mowing, no use of fertilizers or herbicides, and no irrigation (although the fields do need occasional hosing down and washing). Healthwise, the new technology seems to be a trade-off: more injuries due to foot-twisting, fewer due to falling into holes; more injuries from “turf burn,” fewer from concussions. As for its environmental ramifications, the verdict is still out. The latest synthetics are designed to allow much rainwater to percolate through the matting to the ground underneath, although they are probably not quite as pervious as natural lawns. Not needing fertilizer and herbicides is a major bonus for clean water and human health; on the other hand, the dust given off by embedded pulverized rubber granules, or by painted nylon fibers, may be harmful to users, and several state health departments have been monitoring the air around some of these fields.

Another technology that is helping to extend the hours of park use, both daytime and evening, is the video camera. Obviously, cameras in parks are not an ideal solution, but their presence does help people feel more secure in rougher neighborhoods, and anything that keeps parks more populated begins a virtuous cycle of use and safety. In MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, police credit the installation of cameras (plus a partial park renovation) with reducing drug dealing and crime and bringing more of the community into the famous and iconic park.

Almost every other aspect of city life is moving toward a “24/7” schedule, so it is not surprising that recreation and park use is, too (although we will probably never again see a time when thousands of residents grab pillows and sheets to sleep out in city parks on hot summer nights, as they did in the 1930s, and as was portrayed in the movie Avalon). The scarcity of land and facilities inexorably pushes park managers to maximize the efficiency with which scarce resources can be used, and adding hours to the day, and days to the year, is another way to please the crowds.

Park Conservancy Models Part III: The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway and Discovery Green Conservancies

This is the third installment of a three-part series looking at the histories of six different city park conservancies.  Read part one here and part two here.

The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, Boston

The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, Boston. Credit: Bill Ilott (Flickr Feed)

When Boston’s “Big Dig” Central Artery/Tunnel Project was completed in 2007, the city found itself with 15 new acres of designated park space in the heart of the metropolis – land that had formerly lain under the elevated Fitzgerald Expressway. But figuring out how to develop, manage and program these new parks became almost as great a challenge as tearing down the old expressway in the first place.

From the start, citing budget issues, both the Boston Department of Parks and Recreation and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation declined to take operating responsibility for the property. Several initial efforts to create a new conservancy for park maintenance and programming failed. Finally, in 2004, with prodding from the Kennedy family, a memorandum of understanding was executed between Governor Mitt Romney, Mayor Thomas M. Menino and former Massachusetts Turnpike Authority Chairman Matthew Amorello to create the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy.

The Conservancy, modeled after New York’s Central Park Conservancy, was charged with the responsibility to raise $20 million for an endowment and operating funds by the end of 2007. An initial goal of $5 million prompted a matching gift of $5 million from the Turnpike Authority (now the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT)), and with the active support of an original ten-member board that included two appointments by the city, two appointments by the state, five by MTA and one appointment by the Kennedy family, the Conservancy met the goal.

Because the 1.3-mile long Greenway lies over the interstate, MassDOT retains ownership of the land, which it leases to the Conservancy. Neither the city nor the state parks departments have any role with the facility.

Construction of the Greenway, which contains five separate parks, began in 2005; it opened in phases in 2007 and 2008, at which time the state legislature passed enabling legislation, signed by Governor Deval Patrick, that designated the Conservancy its official steward with responsibility for management, maintenance, programming and improvement.  This includes fountains, lawns, planting beds, and paved surfaces.

In 2010 the Conservancy provided new tables, umbrellas, free WiFi, and food vendors; added signage; mentored youth through the Green & Grow youth workforce development program; and hosted 150 free events. In 2011, National Park Service and the Boston Harbor Island Alliance, opened the Boston Harbor Islands Pavilion, a visitor center featuring canopies over a granite map of the islands and descriptive panels.  Other accomplishments by the Conservancy included installation of the temporary Urban Green sculpture exhibit at Fort Point Channel Parks in collaboration with the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum; and the provision of 12 food vendors offering diverse lunch options in six locations. This year saw a 70 percent increase in attendance at park events, including approximately 100,000 riders enjoying the rented carousel. (A permanent custom-designed carousel, inspired by the imagination of Boston’s schoolchildren, is planned for 2013.)

The Greenway has begun spurring redevelopment on its edges. In October 2011, ground was broken for a 12-story, 286-unit apartment building with 17,000 square feet of retail space.  Completion is set for early 2013. Also announced that month was funding to advance a 345-unit housing project in Chinatown whose first phase is expected to be complete in 2014.

Discovery Green Conservancy, Discovery Green, Houston

Discovery Green, Houston.

Discovery Green is a new 12-acre park located in downtown Houston.  Created through a public-private partnership between the City of Houston and the non-profit Discovery Green Conservancy, the park is home to two interactive water features; an outdoor stage/amphitheater; two promenades; theme gardens; a jogging trail; a library; two reading rooms; two restaurants; two lawns; a playground; two dog runs; and numerous works of art. It also contains Kinder Lake, with an adjacent water garden, pier and model boat basin, which turns into a winter ice-skating rink.

Discovery Green was conceived not only as a public park, but also as a landmark to attract convention revenue to the City, and as an anchor for downtown development. Discovery Green Conservancy’s mission is “to operate an urban park that serves as a village green, a source of health and happiness for our citizens, and a window into the diverse talents and traditions that enrich life in Houston.”

In the late 19th century the park’s site was a high-end residential neighborhood, but construction of Union Station in 1911 permanently altered the area and it remained industrial for most of the 20th century.  In the 1970s, Texas Eastern Corporation purchased 32 blocks to build Houston Center, a “city-within-a-city” complex featuring offices, luxury lodging, restaurants, shopping, banking, health and fitness, and residential high-rise living – all linked to Houston Center Gardens, a small strip of private green space within the development.  However, even with the 1987 construction of the nearby Houston Convention Center, Houston Center was never a financial success, and in 2004 the entire complex was put up for sale.

It was the Houston Center Gardens that became the catalyst for creating Discovery Green. When the community realized the Gardens would likely be destroyed for a parking garage or some other use, they leapt into action. A group of philanthropists from The Brown Foundation (established by one of the co-owners of Texas Eastern), the Kinder Foundation, the Wortham Foundation, and the Houston Endowment, Inc. suggested to Mayor Bill White that the city purchase Houston Center Gardens to create a permanent downtown public park.  The Mayor liked the idea and became a strong supporter. At his request the property owner agreed to delay the sale to give the city and the foundations an opportunity to raise the funds and make an offer.

In short order, $57 million was raised to acquire the four-acre Gardens and several adjoining parcels. The city augmented the site by donating two adjacent parking lots (totaling 5.5 acres) and also closing part of a street (adding another acre). At this same time Discovery Green Conservancy was established to create the park and operate it. Project for Public Spaces was involved in the intensive public process.

Unique among park conservancies, Discovery Green Conservancy has a 50-year management contract with the Houston Downtown Park Corporation, a Local Government Corporation that remains the legal owner of the park. The Conservancy is responsible for all aspects of management and programming. Neither the city of Houston nor Harris County has any operational role with Discovery Green.

Building Discovery Green cost $182 million, with $125 million used to build and outfit the park. Remediation of industrial pollution on the site cost $1.2 million, funded in part by $500,000 from the seller and $395,000 from the City. The City paid for all of the parking garage costs. But Discovery Green has already repaid that investment: since opening in 2008, it has stimulated over $500 million in downtown development, including a 37-story, 346 unit luxury high-rise building; an office development that has already leased all of its space; a 262 suite urban hotel; and a new 28,000 square foot gourmet market, with a dedicated restaurant, coffee shop and bar. In its first two years of operation, Discovery Green hosted more than 800 free public and private events and had been visited by 1.7 million users, many of them out-of-towners attending convention events.