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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.

benches along pathway.jpg

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.

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.