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Getting to Park Connectivity in Built-Out Cities

Planners have long held up the idea of connectivity – links between people and places that tie everything together.  Within park systems, the concept goes back at least to when the walls of European cities came down, as many of them (e.g. Paris), were turned into grand boulevards ringing their cities and linking up places. And when the American park movement was in full swing in the late 1800s, park planners in nearly every city were laying down parkways between green spaces — think Boston’s Emerald Necklace, the Grand Rounds of Minneapolis, and others in Louisville, Denver, Kansas City and Chicago to name a few.

We’ve written before about how many of these spaces have been retrofitted probably too much for automobile use, and described the ways to refit them back for more rambling and two-wheeling. But another issue is present today — that many places still aspire for connectivity between parks but seem unable to do it because streets have been laid and the city built out. For instance, in Hartford, Conn., a parkway system was once envisioned but never implemented, and the dream of connections seemingly lost.

But this isn’t necessarily the case. There are a variety of ways to make connections that even the most built-out cities can do. Based on what we’ve seen, here are a few ways:

  1. Rail corridors. Often these run right through core areas of cities. One of the best examples of this is Atlanta’s BetlLine, which will use 22 miles of abandoned railway to create a circular trail connecting several parks in the heart of Atlanta. A similar effort is also taking place in Santiago, Chile, with the Anillo Interior, which will ring the city’s core.

    The Anillo Interior uses new boulevards and old rail corridors for a Santiago belt line.

  2. A conceptual plan shows how a network of riverfront trails (partially completed), easements and street upgrades could connect Hartford's parks.

  3. Waterfronts and stream corridors. Many of these areas were used for industry when cities developed, but now are being turned into recreational space. In Hartford, Conn., the entire Connecticut Riverfront is being turned into a series of parks connected by a trail in a partnership with the group Riverfront Recapture. And by developing a trail along the city’s Park River on its west side, the long lost plan for an interconnected park system could be realized.
  4. Easements. These are strips of land within cemeteries, schools, ports, private properties and the like. A number of easements were used to create the 14-mile Gwynns Falls Trail in Baltimore.
  5. Upgrading Streets into Parkways. Sometimes a wide street can be turned into a boulevard with a center median, separated bike trail and other features. That’s exactly what Minneapolis is planning to do to finish a piece of the “missing link” in its Grand Rounds.
  6. Bike Boulevards. If a street isn’t wide enough to turn into a full-fledged parkway, a bike boulevard can act as a trail connection. These facilities have only appeared recently in Davis and Berkeley, Calif., Eugene and Portland, Oreg. and Minneapolis, but the concept could easily be applied to connecting parks.
  7. The Indianapolis Cultural Trail uses an off-street trail and other landscape features to define itself.

    Cycle Tracks & Pedestrian Improvements. Similarly, separated bike facilities known as cycle tracks along with upgraded pedestrian features and signing can turn regular streets into key park and public space linkages. Such a configuration is being done in downtown Indianapolis for the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, which just received $20 million in Recovery Act “TIGER” funding.

All of these ways can be used to create linkages — one system may include an old rail corridor, a stream or river, an existing parkway and upgrading streets where none of those are possible.

Years ago, Frederick Law Olmsted remarked that no one should be a long walk’s time from parkways, and that the citizens using them, whether going to and from a park, or to and from some form of business, may gain some “substantial recreative advantage.” Today, it’s not that different of a story. Using the many different forms of connections can give great value to residents — in pleasure, recreation, health and lessened carbon output — and help create excellent park systems.

Could Parks Alleviate a Commercial Real Estate Crisis?

A newly-formed group out of Atlanta is proposing that the federal government assist local communities by taking troubled commercial real estate properties off the hands of banks and convert them into public parks. An article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution describes how Michael Messner, a Georgia Tech alum commissioned the school’s Research Institute to investigate ways to help Atlanta avert a coming commercial real estate crisis.

Roughly $3 billion of the $5 billion proposed for metro Atlanta would buy land. The rest would go for demolition, design, construction and maintenance of the parks. If $3 billion were spent just inside the Perimeter, it could create 15 Piedmont Parks, Georgia Tech says. Roughly 13,000 acres of green space outside the Perimeter could also be created.

But parks are only part of the package. Say, for example, 100 acres of blighted property is bought. Maybe 30 acres is set aside for a park, the rest to be developed later. A park, Georgia Tech notes, increases the value of surrounding property.

“So maybe in five years, when the market bounces back, that property that was sold for $20,000 an acre may be worth $100,000 an acre,” said Caravati, adding that the not-for-profit would control the properties until they’re turned into parks or redeveloped.

Kevin Caravati, a researcher at Georgia Tech noted that “the original stimulus money took care of the big banks by bailing out their paper assets. But we haven’t taken care of the physical assets — the vacant Circuit City store, strip mall, apartment complex or warehouse.”

Why not take some of these properties and help them become drivers (via parks) for smarter development of our cities?

City Parks: No Stimulus Funds Despite Job Creation Benefits

The green part of this emblem is not meant to imply parks.

The Community Development Block Grant has been one of the most effective vehicles for creating jobs under the Recovery Act (or stimulus), according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution and posted at The Avenue. The review indicates that “some 820 CDBG grants traceable in the [Recovery.gov] database are delivering a job for every $7,000 of federal outlay while for the rest of ARRA’s programs jobs are resulting at the rate of one for every $56,000 spent.”

This news comes shortly after we learned that the administration essentially barred any money from going to park rehabilitation and renovation, despite a long-standing such use of annual CDBG allotments. According to the Vice President’s Recovery Act Year End Report, approximately 116 submitted projects were redirected, including the following:

  • 48 submitted proposals to renovate, rehabilitate, or upgrade parks;
  • 52 submitted proposals to renovate, rehabilitate, or upgrade recreation centers, playgrounds, athletic fields, or other similar facilities;
  • 12 submitted proposals for funding to support youth–centered recreational activities; and
  • Four submitted proposals for funding to build or upgrade skate parks.

According to the report, funds were re-directed to “infrastructure” projects, housing assistance, job training centers, and street improvements. These may also be worthy investments, but what seems evident is that the projects cut out were directly related to people doing work, and job creation. (They certainly did so in the 1930s WPA.) Most people would probably say that parks are “green,” especially if money is spent on rehabilitating them — something the stimulus bill was meant to foster.

Recovery CDBG Funding for Parks?

City officials across the country are now determining which projects to fund under the Community Development Block Grant portion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). If they meet certain standards established under ARRA, park projects are eligible to receive funding but will need to be placed on a list by local officials.

According to the Architectural Record:

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has announced how it will divide $980 million that the economic-stimulus legislation—the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—provided for Community Development Block Grants. The CDBG aid will be split among about 1,200 state, city, and county governments.

CDBGs, established in 1974, can be used for many different purposes. Over the program’s history, the most popular uses have been affordable-housing rehabilitation and upgrades to infrastructure such as streets, sewers, and community centers.

But for the stimulus CDBGs, HUD says in a technical guidance document released May 5 that it “strongly urges grantees to use funds for hard development costs associated with infrastructure activities that provide basic services to residents, or activities that promote energy efficiency and conservation through rehabilitation or retrofitting of existing buildings.”

The economic-stimulus legislation says that localities that receive the grants should place a priority on projects for which contracts can be awarded within 120 days of the grant agreement.

Cities and counties currently prepare “action plans” outlining how they will use CDBG dollars. They are being asked to file amendments with HUD to their action plans to list added Recovery Act projects by June 5. States have until June 29 to file their amended plans. The Act specifically prohibits the use of stimulus funds for casinos, aquariums, zoos, golf courses, or swimming pools.

Park agencies and advocates seeking to persuade their Mayors and city officials to include park projects on the amended action plans may find success by specifically and convincingly showing the benefits of a project. This may include job creation (and more importantly, green jobs), basic infrastructure, smart growth, economic development and the like.

D.C. National Parks Set for Some Improvements

Rock Creek Park, Washington, D.C.

The Interior Department just announced that some of Washington, D.C.’s parks will receive funding for improvements and rehabilitation under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, including the National Mall and the large and maintenance-backlogged Rock Creek Park, the city’s largest park. The Washington Post:

The District of Columbia War Memorial, the domed temple to the city’s World War I veterans and once one of the jewels of the Mall, has since fallen into crumbling neglect, forgotten with the passage of time and generations.

Yesterday, the Department of the Interior announced that the government will spend $7.3 million on its restoration, along with $69.5 million in the Washington region to fix other eyesores, repair the Jefferson Memorial seawall and rehabilitate infrastructure in Rock Creek Park.

More than $30 million will go to fix the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool, and several million will go to the Jefferson Memorial, where the seawall has been slowly slipping into the Tidal Basin for years.

The government will also spend $12 million on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, about $3 million on Arlington House, the historic mansion in Arlington Cemetery, and $5 million on Rock Creek Park, the department said.

As the article points out, however, this is only a drop in the bucket for rehabilitating the capital’s beleagured national parks (which constitute most of the city’s parkland). The Mall alone has a $400 million improvement backlog – and anyone who visits can easily see the need. Regardless, this seems to be an important first step.