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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.

Getting Creative to Fund Water-Smart Parks

This is the final installment in a 19 part series on urban parks and stormwater. The following is excerpted from City Parks, Clean Water, a report by The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence.

Parks can help solve some city stormwater problems, and sometimes stormwater agencies can actually contribute funds to redesign or upgrade parks. However, stormwater funding alone is rarely sufficient for an entire park project, so it is usually necessary to piece together funding from multiple opportunities.

In many places, small-scale construction happens frequently and with little fanfare. Philadelphia’s water department routinely pays for park upgrades in conjunction with stormwater projects – from basketball courts to splash-pads to quaint pedestrian bridges. So do agencies in Austin, the Boston area, and Milwaukee (even if the water bureaus sometimes do so on their own land and avoid using the word “park” for legal reasons).

In Baltimore, a small but unusual source of funding is the Maryland Port Administration, proving that the number of possible cooperators is limited only by people’s imaginations. Because the Port of Baltimore is unable to operate without maintaining a vast acreage of paved surfaces, and because the state has a strict law protecting a 1,000-foot buffer around Chesapeake Bay, a compromise needed to be worked out. Thus, after doing everything possible to capture storm runoff on-site, the port agreed to remove hardscape elsewhere, depaving an acre for each acre it surfaces at the port. After experimenting in a rural state park’s parking lot, the port implemented the program in Baltimore, tearing out swaths of asphalt in nine schoolyards, trucking in good soil and providing the students with green ballfields and play areas. Next on the greening list may be venerable Patterson Park which over the years has accumulated more than an acre of miscellaneous asphalt that is ugly, unneeded, and adding to the runoff burden in the city and in Chesapeake Bay.

“We do a good job,” said Phillip Lee, a consultant to the port. “We’ll spend up to about $150,000 an acre taking out pavement and replacing it. Sometimes we put in swales, too. The rules are that the land has to be public and they have to promise that it will stay unpaved in perpetuity.”


The Port of Baltimore requires extreme amounts of paved land. (Portstrategy.com)

In order to reduce delays to its own construction program, the port has gone a step further and created a “bank.” Now, when it completes a pervious project in advance, it puts the credits into the bank, allowing it to pave another acre of port land when needed without delay.

Funding may often pose a challenge for water management projects, but with some creative thinking there may actually be a win-win solution for everyone involved.

One More Time: Entrepreneurial Governance

In the past few weeks, I’ve heard too many stories about incremental change and bureaucratic hurdles when it comes to rethinking city park management, and am reminded again how the business labs in many of our cities have lessons for not just our business culture but our civic culture.  Entrepreneurship is about change.  Big business and bureaucracies tend to resist change, forcing entrepreneurs to start new organizations in order to pursue innovative activity – pursuing opportunity without regard to power. We can see evidence of this when we look across the parks world at the number of new park conservancies.

But getting there takes more than a capital campaign.  Public policies and a civic culture that promotes entrepreneurship play a central role not just in driving small business but in driving new models for the parks business, and the engagement of private partners.  Entrepreneurial thinking is key to revitalizing park management and park investment in a world where government can no longer pick up the whole bill.  Good public policy around innovation and entrepreneurialism can help to build a new and more thoughtful generation of civic leaders, and a new way of working that links public policy and private management to visionary giving.

In last week’s blog I talked about Boston and its focus on innovation and invention.  I also talked about Philadelphia winning the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayor’s Challenge for its efforts to link private entrepreneurs with public policy challenges.  And this week comes the news that Baltimore is in the game too, with a more direct focus on making the link between innovation and parks.  The Greater Baltimore Tech Council – gb.tc – is using its innovation platform and angel investors to promote “hacking” its parks:

The power to make Baltimore’s parks (and the city, as a whole) sustainable, livable and vibrant lies with us. So we are calling on the citizens of Baltimore to “hack” the city’s parks. By hacking we mean citizens develop their own applications (whether they be technology-based or not) which create simple, tangible benefits for the community.

gb.tc has partnered with the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology and Baltimore’s Department of Recreation and Parks to give Baltimoreans a real opportunity to change our urban green spaces. The goal isn’t just to better life in Baltimore, but to give citizens the chance to build real, sustainable businesses which help achieve this end.

Hack the Parks is making grants available to support the most innovative park improvement proposals. We encourage you to think small, at least to start. The funded projects are all pilots. In addition to seed money, the selected pilot projects will also be given park space or other Rec and Parks resources to test their plans, pivot, and evolve into truly viable products.

GBTCThe gb.tc effort is about understanding the link between private sector innovation and public sector innovation policy, facilitating interaction among not only the tech community but potential investors and community stakeholders who care about the public realm.  In government, control is vested at the top much more so than in almost any business. If you want an organization to become more entrepreneurial and alert (in this case, to park users), you must give a lot more control to the people who understand the parks ‘market’ and deal with park users.  Connections create innovation.

Once again our friends in Canada are thinking two steps ahead of us in looking at how to blend our public and private leadership for a more potent result.  David Wolfe, in his work looking at economic development and civic governance, talks about building collaborative leadership:

The essential criterion for success in building these new collaborative relationships is finding the right mechanisms to engage members of the community in a sustained effort to advance its economic opportunities. The recruitment of a committed, creative and collaborative leadership is the most essential element for the success of these efforts. These kinds of collaborative leaders invariably share certain characteristics:

  • They can see the opportunities;
  • They exhibit an entrepreneurial personality, in both a business and a ‘civic’ sense;
  • They are willing to cross functional, political and geographic boundaries in pursuit of their strategic goals;
  • They demand a sharing of both responsibility and results, and consequently are trusted as credible intermediaries; and
  • They are committed to and comfortable working in teams (Montana, Reamer, et al. 2001).

Right from the start, the founders of the Central Park Conservancy understood that a successful park partnership was as much about management as it was about money.

In 1976, Gilder and Soros funded a study of how Central Park could be revived, calling for a private board and modern management. The idea went nowhere; at the time, many thought the park was beyond rescue. Then they met a young landscape planner named Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, whose Central Park Task Force was likewise struggling. In 1978, newly elected Mayor Ed Koch took an interest in this handful of citizen-activists. To capitalize on their opportunity, Gilder and Rogers merged their organizations, creating the Central Park Conservancy in 1980.

“You don’t throw money at the problem,” Rogers realized. “You throw management.”

Photo courtesy of the Central Park Conservancy

Photo courtesy of the Central Park Conservancy

The conservancy gradually took the driver’s seat in New York and has become a model for countless other efforts.  A new private partner that raises funds for parks or provides other resources won’t be nearly as successful as one who can take the reins and change business as usual.  For a private partner to provide benefits, they must have the flexibility to bring entrepreneurial ideas to the table and the authority to implement them and make change.

As cities, park departments and friends groups struggle to find a new way of working together, it is important to remember that much depends on the ability of cities to develop the organizational capacity and the civic culture for formulating and implementing new management strategies.  Some cities are trying – because they have parks that are failing or new parks that need private support to get off the ground – but others haven’t figured out that parks are part of a city’s business strategy and to be successful, must be operated in a way that ‘hacks’ the old methods and experiments relentlessly until it finds a new normal.  There is no single blueprint for how this should be done; ultimately, it involves a process of social learning for the civic leadership in each city.

KBlahaKathy Blaha writes about parks and other urban green spaces, and the role of public-private partnerships in their development and management. When she’s not writing for the blog, she consults on advancing park projects and sustainable land use solution

April’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.

Baltimore, MD
Patterson Park is one of the oldest parks in Baltimore, but an urban renewal campaign and devoted community groups are giving it new life.  Since 1827, when William Patterson donated the first six acres to the city of Baltimore, the park has expanded to more than 135 acres and serves as the only green space available to residents of the surrounding neighborhood.

Patterson Park1INTIn the 1970s and 1980s, both the park and neighborhood fell into decline.  Theft, vandalism, and drug dealing were rampant.  Several attempts to save the park were started and then abandoned.  Patterson Park’s fortunes began to change in the early 1990s with the creation of a stable, active organization called the Friends of Patterson Park, which got to work on restoring and improving the park amenities and structures that had fallen into disrepair.  Site furnishings in the park were manufactured by DuMor, Inc.

Patterson Park 2INTIn addition to fundraising and forming partnerships, the Friends of Patterson Park have been very effective in community outreach, particularly with the growing Hispanic community around the park.  Outreach to this population has resulted in increased participation in FPP programs and events, as well as additional volunteers and support. In 2009, FPP’s Katie Long – Program Director and Hispanic Liaison – paved the way for the formation of the Friends Consejo Hispano. The Consejo was formed to provide input and ideas for park programs, encourage the community’s participation in the park, and produce the new annual Día del Niño event, which attracts over 1,000 participants.

The Consejo provides the opportunity for leadership and empowerment of the local Latino community, resulting in park projects and programs that bridge cultural and language barriers in one of Baltimore’s most diverse neighborhoods. Programs range from park stewardship work (cleaning playgrounds) to tamale and pinata making classes, to Dia del Nino and other special events that attract people from all cultures and socio-economic levels.

For more information on Patterson Park and the Consejo Hispano, please visit:

Friends of Patterson Park

Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks

The “Frontline Parks” program is made possible with generous support from DuMor, Inc. and PlayCore.

Cities with Health Promoting Park Systems Reduce Stress by Calming Traffic and Emotions

As beautiful, peaceful islands of greenery, parks can help reduce stress and promote mental health. But this is the case only if parks provide a safe and welcoming environment. An empty, frightening park, or one overrun with activity that requires constant vigilance, can increase stress and damage mental health. This is a complex issue. On the one hand, parks need active public use to provide the safety of “eyes and ears”; but well-used parks need rules and enforcement to ward off stress from overcrowding and inappropriate behavior.

San Antonio Bike Patrol.

Activities that may provoke stress include panhandling, behaving raucously (including playing loud music), riding bicycles at high speed on crowded trails, and, of course, leaving trash and litter from picnics. Such actions need to be controlled by setting clear rules and then enforcing them. Just because parks are green spaces doesn’t mean they can serve as urban jungles. Despite agency cutbacks it is essential that there be some kind of uniformed presence to allay park users’ concerns—if not police, then uniformed maintenance workers, or perhaps even an “orange hat” group of volunteers who patrol in pairs and carry communication radios. For every person who may be annoyed by the “petty” enforcement of park rules, many more will be grateful knowing that civilized, thoughtful behavior is being enforced. Research shows that this is particularly true among lower-income and minority park visitors.

A special stress factor is automobile traffic, particularly for parents with children. An excess of park roads and parking areas not only reduces field space and the number of trees in a park, it also adds unhealthy noise and smog and may create real and perceived dangers from vehicles. Park managers who recognize the problem have instituted slow speed limits, speed humps, or circuitous routings—all designed to calm traffic. But some cities permit or even encourage fast, unimpeded traffic and even high-speed commuting through their parks. (Perhaps the most outlandish case was in Detroit, where for several years Belle Isle Park—designed by world-famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted as a pristine getaway—was annually the site of a Grand Prix auto race.)

Automobiles also increase stress in parks by pushing many bicyclists and most roller skaters off roads and onto pedestrian pathways. This can convert a pleasant walking experience into an annoying or even frightening one and decrease the total number of park users.

Credit: Seattle P-Patch Program

A completely different parklike space that can reduce stress and promote health is the community garden. Community gardens have been around for more than a century, but only in recent decades have city park departments comprehensively moved into this field. Many departments have designated garden areas within existing parks. A few have acquired established gardens and officially added them to the park system. The resultant spaces benefit public health in numerous ways: by promoting physical activity, social connections, and mental relaxation; by fostering feelings of self-worth and self-reliance; and by producing healthful food—of particular importance in low-income neighborhoods, where residents may have less access to fresh produce.

At the far unhealthy end of the spectrum, both mentally and physically, is outright violence in a park—either through injury from assault or through reduced park use from fear of an attack. Occasionally‚ a park gets a reputation for danger that is worse than the reality, such as when a homicide is committed elsewhere but the body is found in the park. But making parks feel safe is a complicated interplay between culture, rules, enforcement, design‚ and programming, one that also involves socioeconomic factors in the surrounding neighborhoods. Although much about crime and violence is not yet understood, better-used parks are generally safer, particularly if some of the users are engaged in organized programs.

Importantly, not everyone perceives parks in the same way. Residents of wealthier neighborhoods, where danger and personal safety are not overwhelming concerns, frequently prefer leafy, natural parks. Residents of poorer neighborhoods often shun forested areas and prefer open areas with lots of activity. There, enlivening parks is a high priority—from sports leagues to festivals, cultural events to cleanup activities, tree planting and vine pulling to outdoor classrooms and exercise cooperatives, “screen-on-the-green” movie nights to volunteer safety patrols. High-capacity park departments may be able to organize many activities without help; others should at a minimum have an outstanding volunteer coordinator to encourage and support partnership efforts to make events happen.

One effective way of increasing park use in dangerous areas is through “park-pooling”—group travel from neighborhoods to parks. Pennsylvania State University Professor Geoffrey Godbey interviewed a group of black women in Cleveland who walked together to a park, initially joined by a police escort. They told Godbey that they liked to see police, although as more women joined the group the escort eventually was not needed. In New York’s Central Park, there is an established meet-up time and location for females who wish to jog together for safety.

Credit: Friends of Patterson Park

Though Patterson Park is now considered the most successful park in Baltimore, this was not always the case. There was a time in the 1970s and 1980s when the city came close to losing the park and, with it, the surrounding Patterson Park neighborhood. Demographic changes to the neighborhood, crime, vandalism‚ and drug dealing began tipping the 135-acre park from amenity to liability. Structures were damaged and vegetation was killed; arson destroyed the beloved Music Pavilion. The nadir came in 1985, when a youth was severely beaten in the park in a widely publicized racial incident.

The first few save-the-neighborhood efforts sputtered and died. Finally, in 1993, community leaders produced a plan that included a vision for improving the park. Under guidance from a University of Maryland urban studies professor and funded by a federal grant, a student spent two years inventorying all the park’s physical features, measuring erosion, and also organizing a park festival and an ongoing friends group. At the same time, a visitor survey threw up two red flags: Patterson Park’s users were overwhelmingly male, and almost half of the community’s residents never went there at all. It became clear that any effort to maximize the park’s value—including social and health benefits—depended on attracting new users, especially women and girls.

What turned the tide was the Friends of Patterson Park, which quickly grew in effectiveness, in part because it received staff support from two local organizations working on housing and senior services. The Friends began by tackling infrastructure improvements—raising private funds and lobbying public agencies to renovate the park’s iconic pagoda, install new perimeter ighting, and reconstruct playing fields and two ark entrances.

But the real turnaround was due to programming. Thanks to the Friends, the park gradually became the favored site for a wide variety of family festivals and events, including such longtime local favorites as the Turtle Derby (in its 70th year), Preakness Frog Hop, Doll Show, and Fishing Rodeo. Early years saw a canine extravaganza called Bark in the Park and a monthly Art Market Fair. Newer events include the Great Halloween Lantern Parade, the BikeJam Race and Festival, and the eye-popping Kinetic Sculpture Race of homemade human-powered vehicles.

Summer now brings concerts every other Sunday night, Shakespeare in the Park, outdoor movies, and four large cultural gatherings—Polish, Ukrainian, Hispanic, and African. Youth soccer leagues are ever present. Occasionally there are even more unique happenings, like 1999’s Synchronized Swimming Water Ballet by an ethnically and physically diverse cast of neighborhood residents ages 8 to 52.

“One of our goals was to do as much outreach as possible in the parts of the neighborhood that were less connected to the park,” said Kini Collins, former events coordinator for the Friends. “The main thing was to have fun!” Along with the fun, Patterson Park is delivering improved health for its neighbors and other Baltimore residents. Two health-related items on the Friends’ wish list are a children’s farm to teach about gardening and nutrition and a collaboration with nearby Johns Hopkins School of Public Health to capture specific health data for children and other park users.

Want to know more ways urban park systems can best promote health and wellness?  Read this publication from The Trust for Public Land.


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