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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.

Atlanta’s Historic Fourth Ward Park

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 second installment in a series of 19 posts.

New plants and water fountain at the Historic Fourth Ward Park

One of several water features in the park. (Darcy Kiefel)

One of the nation’s most celebrated marriages of recreation and green infrastructure,
Atlanta’s Historic Fourth Ward Park is a $23-million triumph of engineering over flooding and landscape design over stop-gap asphalt.

Continue reading

September’s Frontline Park

Each month, City Parks Alliance recognizes a “Frontline Park” to promote and highlight inspiring examples of urban park excellence, innovation, and stewardship across the country. The program also seeks to highlight examples of the challenges facing our cities’ parks as a result of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures, and urban neighborhood decay.

Atlanta, GA

4WPInt1Though not as large or well known as nearby Piedmont Park, Historic Fourth Ward Park has quickly become a symbol of Atlanta’s changing downtown, and is currently the most visible component of the Atlanta BeltLine.  Formerly a flood-prone brownfield dotted with abandoned warehouses and parking lots, this 17.5-acre park serves a stormwater retention facility, event space, and community greenspace for the surrounding neighborhoods. Continue reading

Piedmont Park – The Central Park of the South

Piedmont 1

There is an enormous amount being written these days on creating public parks and spaces – designing them and planning for their context within a community including connecting them to other things, like housing or schools.  Just as important – and interesting from my view – is their management.  How do you run a public park so that it is interesting, attractive and, well…public?  Meaning devising a management strategy that attempts to serve everybody, not just one market segment or demographic group.
Continue reading

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.

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