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Using Funding From Water Agencies to Help Parks

The following is an excerpt from City Parks, Clean Water, a report by the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence that examines the role of urban parks in managing stormwater. This is the eighteenth installment in a series of 19 posts.

Some city water agencies financially reward park agencies for collecting stormwater and keeping it out of the sewer system. That’s the procedure in Cincinnati, Minneapolis, and Chesapeake, to name just a few, with credit programs being planned in other cities across the nation. In Austin, where the water utility often uses parkland to manage stormwater, the Parks and Recreation Department has a formalized procedure to charge mitigation fees based on the level of damage to the park and the length of time that the park is impacted. Fees range from 35 percent of the park’s calculated annual value if a park is temporarily inaccessible (such as for underground utility work) to 75 percent if future park development is severely precluded, to 100 percent if the park becomes fully subsumed by an installation. Calculations are based on the number of square feet involved and the going price per square foot of private property adjacent to the particular park. Funds generated are spent to improve the affected park or a nearby site.

“Our mitigation fees aren’t popular with the other agencies,” admitted Parks Director Sara Hensley, “but this policy makes sure we take care of residents when their parks are temporarily closed.” The mitigation requirement has been used to acquire more land or install needed improvements. “We wanted to install a reclaimed water irrigation system at Hancock Golf Course – where we were irrigating with precious and expensive potable water – but we couldn’t afford the upfront costs to build the separate pipes,” she explained. “The water utility covered the $300,000 for us in exchange for easements to construct sewer lines under parkland.”

In Gilbert, Arizona, where parks (just like residences and businesses) must keep stormwater on site, every park includes a detention or retention pond to reduce flash flooding in nearby washes. When the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) recently widened Route 202 through Gilbert, the park department leveraged the water treatment requirement to acquire three new parks. ADOT sold the city parkland at a nominal price in exchange for handling the road’s runoff. Today the new Cosmo, Discovery, and Zanjero parks include a dog run and sports fields that have been engineered to double as detention basins to handle runoff from a 100-year storm.

Cosmo Dog Park, Gilbert, AZ - Seepage Control, INC

Cosmo Dog Park in Gilbert, AZ features a reclaimed water pond that provides a lot of fun for doggy patrons. (Seepage Control, Inc.)



There’s a similar story in Texas, where catastrophic floods in 2006 pushed El Paso to turn to parks for stormwater management. Using money from stormwater fees, the El Paso Water Utility (EPWU) worked with the parks department to create several “park-ponds”– sports fields that double as detention basins.  A concrete holding basin and pumping systems are closed to the public and maintained by the utility while El Paso Parks and Recreation maintains the fields.

The largest is Saipan-Ledo Park, a low-lying tract where poorly planned residences were wiped out by a 2006 flood. The site now has three stepped terraces; the lowest is a fenced-off detention basin maintained by the water utility while the upper two hold regulation-sized sports fields which hold rising water in extreme rainstorms. EPWU built the fields; El Paso Parks and Recreation Department paid for picnic shelters and outdoor fitness equipment, and it now covers the maintenance. The fields flood once every year or two, often requiring aeration afterwards, but, says assistant park director Joel McKnight, the tradeoff is well worth it. “This city has only about half the fields we need, so a little extra maintenance in exchange for two new sports fields has been a very good deal.” (The department petitions the city council for increased maintenance funding based on increased acreage, which has so far worked.)

In many cases, stormwater projects may actually be a venue for park agencies to strike a deal with other players that can greatly benefit the park system in the long run.

How Cleveland is Paying For Water-Smart Parks

The following is an excerpt from City Parks, Clean Water, a report by the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence that examines the role of urban parks in managing stormwater. This is the seventeenth installment in a series of 19 posts.

Installing natural stormwater controls within a park is not inexpensive and is usually not a quick process. But the relevant comparison of costs and impacts must be made against any typical park improvement project, as well as against traditional gray approaches, which are usually much more expensive and take far longer. How much a water-smart park costs and how long it takes to build depends on innumerable factors of geography, geology, weather, bureaucratic rules and, often, city and neighborhood politics. Nothing about urban water management is easy, but the evidence shows that the natural approach is more economical.

A survey of 20 stormwater park projects in 13 states, carried out by The Trust for Public Land, illustrates the variety of forms a water management project can take, as well as the relative cost effectiveness of green versus gray infrastructure. The parks ranged in size from half an acre to more than 300 acres, with stormwater management features ranging from only a small corner of some facilities to the whole park in others. The median size of the parks is 8 acres, and the median size of the stormwater portion is 2.5 acres. The following charts compare some of the costs of traditional gray infrastructure vs. green infrastructure in selected projects.

CSO cost

(The Trust for Public Land)

Continue reading

Kalorama and Kemp Mill: Two Parks Where Compromise Proved Too Difficult

The following is an excerpt from City Parks, Clean Water, a report by the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence that examines the role of urban parks in managing stormwater. This is the sixteenth installment in a series of 20 posts.    

It isn’t always possible to reach a compromise when it comes to different uses within a park. In Maryland, when 2.5-acre Kemp Mill Urban Park, with its ornamental pond, came up for renovations, the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) asked the park agency to consider treating runoff from the adjacent street in the water basin. It would become one of many sites where the county planned to reduce neighborhood runoff to meet water quality standards. Continue reading

Can Parks Do Double Duty? Philadelphia Shows How

The following is an excerpt from City Parks, Clean Water, a report by the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence that examines the role of urban parks in managing stormwater. This is the fifteenth installment in a series of 20 posts.

Can a park be both a stormwater management unit and a recreation area? With proper negotiation, conversation, and careful planning, yes! However, it’s not common that goals easily jibe and that multiple benefits are received enthusiastically by every constituent. A rain garden can be beautiful, but if it replaces a soccer field, it might raise objections unless that sports venue is replaced. Philadelphia handles this problem with a Stormwater Plan Review Team, which brings together water department and parks department staff to evaluate green infrastructure projects for potential conflicts with park uses.

The city has not canceled any stormwater management projects because of recreation conflicts. However, Jessica Brooks, manager of the Green Stormwater Infrastructure program at the water department, says, “We’ve definitely moved them, made the surface portions smaller, or made them completely subsurface in order to allow for other uses to be maintained.” She notes, “We need to be very sensitive that we’re not taking out a space that is used for picnicking, sports, or other gatherings. This is often less obvious than you might think. It requires us to talk to the park users to really understand what they do and what they love.”

Cliveden spring rain 6 - credit Jessica Brooks

Terraced weirs in Philadelphia’s Cliveden Park slow water during a rainstorm. (Jessica Brooks)

Continue reading

Maintaining Water-Smart Parks

The following is an excerpt from City Parks, Clean Water, a report by the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence that examines the role of urban parks in managing stormwater. This is the thirteenth installment in a series of 19 posts.

Finding space isn’t the only difficulty in designing water-smart parks. Green infrastructure needs to be kept green in order to function properly and to remain attractive. Swales, rain gardens, and detention ponds are critical components for stormwater management. Long-term aesthetics may take a back seat, especially for wastewater utility staff focused primarily on regulatory compliance, but many such landscape components that are beautiful in initial design renderings will over time start to look mangy. To keep these park areas attractive, experts must choose plants carefully and support good maintenance. Smart planting design (choosing a mix of woody, evergreen, and perennial plants, for example) and rigorous attention and maintenance—especially in the first few years—are important to the success of a water-smart park.

Buffalo BAyou flooding - cred Melissa Phillip, Houston Chronicle

Buffalo Bayou in Houston is designed to flood – and the parks department is prepared for that. (Melissa Phillip, Houston Chronicle)

And what about maintaining the rest of a park’s green infrastructure? Continue reading


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