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Benches Can Pay Their Way

This article has been adapted from the September 2016 issue of Parks & Recreation Magazine, the official publication of the National Recreation and Park Association. Through its pursuit of key issues, trends, and personalities, the magazine advances American parks, recreation, and conservation efforts. You can read the full-length article here.

This is the third and final installment in a series on park benches. Read the previous two posts here and here.

Benches are some of the cheapest park furnishings or landscaping items (even cheaper than trees), but the cost of purchase, installation and maintenance still adds up. Steve Schuckman, superintendent of planning, design, and facilities with the Cincinnati Park Board, says that buying and installing a practical, aesthetically pleasing, and durable bench costs between $1,500 and $2,000. In Kansas City the standard design comes to about $900. The 2002 master plan for Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Commons put the cost of modest benches at $1,200 each.

One way to cover expenses is through an adopt-a-bench program. Flourishing in many cities across the U.S., sponsorships take the shape of a small memorial plaque in return for the purchase, installation, and maintenance of a bench. (Many park agencies or conservancies stipulate that the memorial lasts for either the lifetime of the bench or for a certain number of years, whichever ends first). The cost varies by city and by park, but is generally around $2,000. In Austin, eleven of the city’s parks have already reached their bench donation limit. In New York’s Central Park, the Central Park Conservancy’s program (at $10,000 per bench) has yielded benefactors for over 4,200 of the park’s more than 9,000 benches. Kate O’Brien, development associate for the Broadway Mall Association, calls the Mall’s bench sponsorship program “a really good source of revenue.” Of the 340 benches from 70th Street to 168th Street, 39 are adopted.

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A plaque on a bench in Central Park. Photo credit: Flickr user gigi_nyc

Because of the popularity, some programs have had to institute rules. The Pittsburgh Park Conservancy gives wording guidelines, has a character count, and does not allow logos. “This program is a nice way to honor loved ones,” says the conservancy’s Susan Rademacher, “but if we have too many memorial benches, it may detract from the feeling that the park is a common space meant for everyone.”

For O’Brien, seeking bench sponsorships is a joy of her job. She says, “Donors always have a great story about their connection to the park. Something like, ‘I’ve lived here for 40 years and always drink my coffee on this bench.’” Benches often have an association with an important moment or a special person. There are plaques commemorating births, deaths, marriages, and everything in between, including pets. Beyond helping to fund conservancies or park maintenance, bench sponsorship programs allow people to interact with and form a special, and tangible, connection to a certain park.

As this series of posts has illustrated, benches can be both a joy and a bane for park-goers and parks departments. But it does seem to be clear that when a bench is removed, its park loses more than just a piece of furniture. Maybe Adrian Benepe, senior vice president of The Trust for Public Land and former commissioner of parks for New York City, is correct when he says, “It’s like everything else — you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.” Or maybe it’s more alarming, as put by Tampa Parks Director Greg Bayor: “If you start removing benches then you’re on the way to removing everything else too.”

Making Benches Work

This article has been adapted from the September 2016 issue of Parks & Recreation Magazine, the official publication of the National Recreation and Park Association. Through its pursuit of key issues, trends, and personalities, the magazine advances American parks, recreation, and conservation efforts. You can read the full-length article here.

This is the second post in a three-part series on park benches. Read the first post here.

When faced with citizen complaints and potential bench misuse, what are cities to do? Are park agencies simply doomed to be pummeled by anti-bench complainers and to then be criticized by outraged bench-lovers and park-lingerers when they remove the “problem”? Some cities have succeeded in saving their benches and maintaining parks that are safe and enjoyable for all, but it certainly requires creativity and resourcefulness, and no two cases are alike.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, when Baltimore’s Patterson Park faced the problem of inappropriate use of benches, they were steadily removed until none were left. This supposed fix didn’t actually meet park users’ needs; to the contrary, when users were asked in a 1995 survey what would make a “big improvement” in the park, 56 percent said more benches. Now, with the revived park getting much more visitation, the benches are gradually being brought back. The benefits are striking, according to Jennifer Robinson, director of Friends of Patterson Park. Patrons spend more time in the park, she says, and some are even putting the benches to use for strength-building. (That idea isn’t unusual; there is even an exercise book, 101 Things to Do on a Park Bench.”)  Not only did removing benches fail to fix the park’s problems, it actually did the exact opposite. Robinson feels strongly that the new benches were a factor in the park’s comeback.

But more isn’t all.

“Benches have to be located thoughtfully,” Robinson says. “They have to make sense with the flow of the park.” This means in areas of high activity (such as near playgrounds or sports fields), along pathways, and just inside park entrances. Putting them in well-trafficked areas helps ensure that they are used properly. There are now about 30 benches in Patterson Park – not enough, but an improvement.

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Benches thoughtfully located along a park pathway. Photo credit: Flickr user Pawel Pacholec.

The director of the Kansas City Parks Department, Mark McHenry, is even more explicit when he thinks about users’ needs, saying “Any feature that is traditionally put in a park, you’re going to want a bench to go with it.” In particular, he cites the need at dog parks (for owners to socialize), playgrounds (ditto, not to mention the quick snack or diaper change), and sports fields or courts.

In Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Commons, benches were removed from the central promenade because the community took issue with the noise and commotion that seemed to always hover around them. But the problem may have been more due to layout. With the benches directly facing each other across the pathway, groups often gathered on each side, talking loudly across the distance and making walkers feel threatened and uncomfortable. But the loss from the removal was keenly felt, and a new master plan calls for their restoration – this time in a new, staggered configuration that hopefully addresses the problem.

In the case of Norfolk, where many benches were removed from three different parks because of crime, the city first thinned the surrounding landscape, hoping that would solve the problem. In order to prevent sleeping, some places purchase (or retrofit) benches with obtrusive armrests at appropriate intervals. Both approaches can help, although the only true fix comes from a culture of heavy use, proper utilization, and the awareness that there are eyes on the park – including, every now and then, the eyes of rule-enforcing authority.

Urban National Parks: The 21st Century Face of the National Park System

The following is the first in a series of blog posts highlighting urban units of the National Park System.

By Beth Porter, National Park Service and Molly Anderson, Conservation Legacy Fellow

Urban national parks are often the unsung heroes of America’s national park system. As Americans continue their migration to cities in pursuit of economic opportunity, our national parks are rising to meet their needs. These ever-increasing urban populations are composed of longtime city residents, rural transplants, and newly arrived immigrant populations who cluster together in the urban core to cope with a country unfamiliar to them. Now, more than ever, America’s urban national parks are striving to serve these new, dense and diverse populations, while staying true to the National Park Service mission of preserving America’s special places for present and future generations.

The Urban Agenda is part of the National Park Service Centennial goal to connect with and create the next generation of park visitors, supporters and advocates. Today’s urban national parks are engaging with their surrounding communities in new and innovative ways and actively identifying opportunities to contribute positively to their quality of life.

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Rosie the Riveter/WWII Homefront National Historical Site
Richmond, CA

The National Park Service is not only in the business of caring for America’s special places, it is in the business of telling our special stories. The combination of these two roles can make a powerful difference to a community that is still working to become its best self.  An example of this power can be seen with Rosie the Riveter WWII Homefront National Historical Site in Richmond, California. In World War II, Richmond, California was a factory town. The factories employed African-Americans and women, most of whom were entering the workforce for the first time. This role is what defined the city and drew people to settle there. After the war, the factories were no longer necessary and Richmond slid into a long term economic slump that spawned high unemployment, high crime, and a general lack of community pride for many years.  Continue reading

Speaking for the Trees: The New Urban and Community Forestry Action Plan

“I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”

― Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

Tree1To be a tree in the city is very hard.  A tree that would live 80 years in the forest has a life expectancy of 20 years in the suburbs, and less than that in an urban setting where trees are often planted in sidewalk cutouts. Let’s face it; even if a tree gets planted correctly and watered, it faces a host of other environmental and human challenges ranging from storms, insects, air pollution, and low-quality soil to road salt and reckless drivers.

Thanks to the National Urban and Community Advisory Council (NUCFAC) and their newly released 10-year Urban and Community Forestry Action Plan, there is a clear outline of all the reasons we should nurture our urban trees. I recently spoke with Liam Kavanagh, NUCFAC’s Plan Chair and New York City’s First Deputy Commissioner for the Department of Parks and Recreation, about the plan’s goals.  Continue reading

Crowdsourcing Park History

Do you know when your childhood playground was created? How about when that large natural area at the edge of town was given benches and trails and turned into a state park? Or maybe the year they tore out the old railroad tracks downtown and christened the new bike trail park?

Here at the Center for City Park Excellence we are establishing the year of creation of every park in every big city in the U.S. That’s about 23,000 parks. This new database will serve as a priceless historical record of the growth and evolution of the American urban park system – its ebbs and its flows during different political periods, both on a national basis and city-by-city. We already have the “birth year” for 17,627 parks.

“You can’t figure out where you’re trying to go if you don’t know where you’ve come from,” said CCPE Director Peter Harnik. “There’s great documentation for national parks, but most city parks have been taken for granted. We aim to change that.”

In some cities, park departments responded to CCPE’s inquiry with enthusiasm and alacrity, either because they had already compiled the information on their own or because they had good retrieval systems and the capacity to answer our question. (New York, for instance, has an existing historical record on every one of its 1,978 parks; Philadelphia, in contrast, did not, but the agency saw the value of the research and specially brought on an archivist to carry out the work.) Other cities have struggled to find the information, either because the records have been misplaced or destroyed, or because the staff is stretched too thin to take on one more challenging project. Washington, D.C. proved to be a special challenge because every park there grew out of federal laws that sometimes preceded the building of a neighborhood. In some older cities, navigating the labyrinth of public records was just too much for the agency.

In Jersey, City, N.J., we had to come up with a completely different approach – crowdsourcing.

Jersey City’s Department of Recreation was able to supply a list of parks but not much more. It was Brian Platt, director of the city’s New Innovation Team, who had the idea to turn to the public for help. On June 1, Platt brought together local park organizations and members of a Jersey City park coalition to describe what information we were looking for and how to substantiate it.

Responses poured in, and 10 days later we had creation dates (and verifying sources) for fully half of Jersey City’s 64 parks. We still don’t have them all, but the picture of the city’s parkland evolution continues to become more clear.

Crowdsourcing is not free from challenges, of course, but it can prove valuable as a last resort. Currently, we are struggling to find park creation dates in Anchorage, Atlanta, Baltimore, Laredo and Newark. If you live (or have friends) in one of those cities and might be interested in joining a Crowdsourcing Park History project, please let us know by emailing max.ewart@tpl.org or calling Max at 202-330-4722.