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May’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.

Boston, MA

Image Courtesy of Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy

Image Courtesy of Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy

The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway is a 15 acre, 1.5 mile long stretch of parks in the heart of Boston created as part of the mitigation plan for the massive public works project known as the “Big Dig.”  Developed and constructed by the State of Massachusetts, the project reworked both road and public transit systems in downtown Boston, adding bridges, two tunnel systems, multiple interchanges, and restoring a city street network.  The state worked with local neighborhoods to develop and implement plans for the 15 acres of parks, which are grouped by the neighborhoods they are adjacent to – North End Parks, Wharf District Parks, Fort Point Channel Parks, Dewey Square Park and Chinatown Park each has their own character and features.

Image Courtesy of Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy

Image Courtesy of Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy

Operation, programming, and maintenance for the Greenway are handled by the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, a model example of the type of public-private partnership emerging in cities across the United States.  Funding sources include private donations, grants, and earned income, as well as public funding for maintenance and operation.  The Greenway faces some unique maintenance challenges due to the fact that it is essentially a very long, large roof garden covering an interstate, which means that it has minimal soil depth.  Despite this challenge, the Greenway is one of the few organically maintained urban parks in the United States.  Some site furnishings in the park were manufactured by DuMor, Inc.

The Greenway has quickly become a hub for activity in Boston, hosting more than 350 events in 2012 alone, in addition to regular attractions like the Mobile Food program (food trucks and trikes), a seasonal carousel, and interactive water features that attract millions of visitors each year.

For more information on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, please visit:

Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy


City of Boston Parks & Recreation Department

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

A P3 Throwdown

Last week I had the pleasure of being in Boston for an afternoon discussion among park advocates talking about public-private partnerships (P3s).  The meeting took place during a two day visit of the City Parks Alliance board, of which I am a member, and on a couple of spring days with the parks so full of blooming tulips and blossom-laden cherry trees that even the tourism office couldn’t have done a better job of producing.

Credit: Emerald Necklace Conservancy

Credit: Emerald Necklace Conservancy

The discussion was arranged as two panels – one of public sector park agency representatives, and the other of private sector park partner organizations.  The goal of the discussion was to hear a bit from both panels about the benefits and challenges of partnerships between the two.  It turned out to be a revealing and meaningful discussion about the murky territory in which park partnerships now find themselves.

On the public side sat Ed Lambert, Jr., Massachusetts Commissioner for the Department of Conservation and Recreation; Toni Pollak, Boston’s Park Commissioner, and Liam Kavanagh, First Deputy Commissioner for New York City Parks.

On the private side sat Doreen Stoller, Executive Director for Houston’s Hermann Park; Tom Powers, Executive Director for the Boston Harbor Island Alliance; and Yvette Bowden, President of the Piedmont Park Conservancy in Atlanta.  Both Doreen and Yvette sit on CPA’s board of directors.  Jeff Cook, from the Trustees Collaborative for Boston Parks, moderated the panel.

Other than Tom’s relationship to the Massachusetts agencies, no other speakers had ties to each other, so the discussion flowed with the ease that distance from a home base provides.  This allowed the roomful of Boston park advocates and CPA board members a chance to hear, maybe a little more candidly, about the ongoing development of P3 relationships in parks – which for some is that often-recalled process of sausage-making.

Nobody disagreed about the value of private partners in advancing accountability and responsibility – and maybe most importantly, a better management protocol – for parks.  “In 1975, when Daniel Moynihan proposed giving Central Park to the National Park Service to manage there were more city staff working in the park than the Central Park Conservancy has today,” said Liam, “and yet it was considered a failing park.”

Much credit was given by the public agency representatives for the efficiency, flexibility, and enhanced design standards and funding brought by private partners to public parks in the last three decades.  On the flip side they noted that these benefits hadn’t come without challenges – privatization concerns, equity concerns, the added maintenance costs of new capital investments and the need for more guidance in inviting private partners and their demands into public parks.

“There is a continuing role for public agencies to broker a conversation about the role of P3s in parks management,” said Ed.  And from Liam, “There is a need for better ground rules.”

From the private partners on the panel we learned about the demands they face as the public agency budget gaps in their cities grow, along with the expectation that the private sector should fill it – and increasingly not just with capital investment dollars, but with funding for operations and maintenance.

Their challenge is that park donors want recognition, accountability, and a commitment from the city about their role and their investment, a commitment – at least for ongoing maintenance – that is getting harder to negotiate.  After all, it’s supposed to be a partnership.

The shift in thinking about funding for public parks in the last few decades has been monumental.  There is an increasing expectation that the private sector will share in the responsibility of taking care of public parks.  All of this change is occurring without the benefit of a playbook, and rapidly enough that the question was asked, “Have we given up on a strategy to raise more money from the public sector?  Are we now leaving it to the private sector to innovate around funding?”

Credit: Emerald Necklace Conservancy

Credit: Emerald Necklace Conservancy

Thank goodness there is an amazing amount of experimentation; for the moment, minimal guidance (intended or not) and the ambiguity that goes with it is allowing a period of learning in this important transition.  Some of the brightest moments in the discussion came in the form of war stories from both sides about how they managed to find solutions to funding challenges, donor demands, contracting and permitting snafus, and misguided policies.

“With complexity comes opportunity,” said Tom Powers.

In fact, in spite of the challenges, P3s continue to grow.  Toni Pollak cited the fact that Boston has 176 park partners and they are actively soliciting more.  And not just private partners, but partnerships with other government entities like public works, water departments, state agencies and the Corps of Engineers – many of which are now working with the city on a massive daylighting and restoration project for the Muddy River.

Not surprisingly, success breeds success: good parks are highly used and operational demands are increasing. Houston’s Hermann Park saw 6 million visitors last year, supported thankfully with 20,000 volunteer hours.  Visitation at the Boston Harbor Islands is up 160% since 2004.  Piedmont Park, once considered a park only for Midtown Atlanta residents, now serves visitors from 80 different zip codes across the city with a budget that is over 40% earned income.

This netherworld of parks transitioning from being publicly supported to being supported by a mix of public and private funding is, on the one hand, challenging both sides to distraction; but on the other hand, if you can live with a little ambiguity it is an amazingly creative moment in time.

The discussion touched on key questions for advocates and agencies as the parks movement grows.  How can private partners help to move donors from only making sexy capital investments (and the ribbon-cutting and naming rights that go with them) to a more sophisticated understanding of the value of different kinds of investments that will pay returns?  The value and opportunity, for example, in linking operations to programming or the leveraging of earned income from projects that can spin off funding to pay for more equity in parks and programs.

Can the private sector get more sophisticated in leveraging its gifts and investments to require more from the public sector?  How can the public sector get smarter about leveraging funds from outside the parks budget by making a stronger case for parks’ role in aiding transportation, housing, stormwater, and public health solutions?  How can both partners work harder on solutions to move money and other resources from the neighborhoods that have money to those that don’t?  And best of all, how can the growing number of P3s operating around the country get smarter and more competitive through networks like the one that City Parks Alliance offers?

Both sides shared their beliefs in the value of communication, constant dialogue, and a shared sense of mission, strategies and master plans, all with the end goal of building trust.  Without a playbook you have to trust that your partner is going to support you.

“Our work with the city every day is about establishing a new business model,” said Yvette.  “We are listening, talking and working to understand what the city wants – how can we leverage, create and get the resources we need to keep our parks successful.  And most importantly, we are working to assure that Piedmont Park is part of the city’s vision for what it wants to be.”

All the public agency representatives commented on their great appreciation for private partners and their often powerful board members.

“We have a robust committee structure to help our members direct their energies and help us keep moving projects along,” said Doreen.  And from Liam, “These guys have great access, great stories and a good understanding of the need to help push the conversation in a political discussion.”

In some ways the overflowing room was a testimony to the strength of belief in public-private partnerships for parks; when you added up the money, volunteer time, professional in-kind service, professional expertise, new park acreage and countless program schedules just for the parks represented in the room, it was a value of hundreds of millions of dollars.

For all the recognition of the value of ‘private’ partnerships, all of the panel members agreed on the need to continue to affirm that public parks are public, and “…that no nonprofit controls the space.”

“We are stewards for the public,” said Ed.   “Our goal is to protect public access to public parks while acknowledging that our parks need private partner contributions.”

Credit: Emerald Necklace Conservancy

Credit: Emerald Necklace Conservancy

In spite of the ambiguity that results from adding more stakeholders to the park planning and management process, private partnerships are resulting not only in more dollars for parks but a keener sense of management for parks – and the people who use them – turning all that energy and stirring of the pot into real outcomes around design, programs and the user experience.  These kinds of discussions and workshops hosted by the City Parks Alliance are a pleasure for those of us who care about public parks.  It’s a wonderful opportunity to have the chance to hear a bit of inside wisdom from leaders in the field, even as the field sorts itself out and morphs into something new.

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

Leadership Innovation

“Sixteen years ago I was labeled as the Urban Mechanic and described as a sort of one-man ‘Mr. Fix-It’ when it came to the basics that make our city work. The nickname was overstated then, but it’s outdated now – we are all urban mechanics.”
Tom Menino, Mayor of Boston

A few weeks ago I raised the idea of business model innovation with regard to running parks.  I see much applicability in the research on business innovation for city park governance.  There is a kind of Hi-Lo way of looking at governance and running parks as suggested by Mayor Menino that links the idea of innovation – big picture and cutting edge – with mechanics, the down and dirty of everyday excellence in operations.

I’ve also been reading Governance as Leadership by Richard Chait, William Ryan and Barbara Taylor.  (The Pew Charitable Trust has a nice summary of the book here.)  The book is mostly about reframing the work of nonprofit boards, but I see lessons for reframing the work of P3s, too.

I think that engaging in park partnerships drives the need to focus on governance and thus the ways that the work at hand can be done better; it’s really about finding ways that the partnership, with new resources, can innovate and do the job of running parks differently.

Leadership1According to our authors, there are two methods of leading which boards follow: task and structure based, or governance based. Most practitioners in the field know that focusing only on organizational structure and management processes won’t lead you to innovate, but it’s always a safe place to begin.

An approach focused on governance means thinking about it in a way that generates real leadership and innovation.  They suggest finding a common purpose before worrying about tasks and structure by looking back on the organization’s history and success, finding clues about its culture, and discovering a common purpose which can become a better starting point for goal-setting.  In the case of parks, it’s about looking at the park’s history and culture of operation with an eye toward sharing governance and what that means and looks like.

Peter Harnik, Director of the Center for City Park Excellence is forever asking, “What’s the problem?” in an effort to sort through the myriad challenges that park managers have.  Deciding on the nature of a problem before trying to solve it makes sense.

Given a common understanding of the problem, all the park partners can start from the same place.  For example, in the case of parks, rather than cut back on services in the face of budget deficits, local governments can engage partners to transform the way parks are managed – what are the ideas, how can we innovate? A successful partnership works because the reason for it is compelling, not coercive, to both partners.  Because, our authors suggest, “…posing catalytic questions and promoting robust dialogue right where the stakes and anxieties are high…” is the place where innovation begins.

This idea hit home for me in reading about some of this year’s winners to the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayor’s Challenge.  The Mayors Challenge was created, “to celebrate the creative problem solving and incredible innovation that is happening in city halls from coast to coast.”  The goal is to find innovation around the problems and challenges that face local governments in delivering services.  One means for this is linking issues, linking stakeholders and breaking down silos.

Leadership 2
While the overwhelming majority of philanthropic support is still issue-specific – e.g. education, health care, the environment, or the arts – the Bloomberg Philanthropies sees the first step in innovation as creating a city-wide strategy where all those issues come together.

Innovating in Philadelphia
One of this year’s winners is the Philadelphia Social Enterprise Partnership [PSEP] which provides opportunities for entrepreneurs who want to tackle traditional public sector problems such as storm water management, gun violence and education.  In March, the group’s proposal was one of five (out of 300) awarded $1 million.

Leadership 3PSEP partners include Good Company Ventures (GCV), the city’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (ONUM) – similar to Mayor Menino’s in Boston, the Wharton Social Impact Initiative and the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology. According to Bloomberg staff, PSEP’s inclusion of non-government leadership was unique among Bloomberg finalists.

PSEP has three core elements: (1) reframe challenges as opportunities for innovators; (2) bring the best ideas to Philadelphia to be developed and challenged with city government at the table; and (3) create a system that allows city government to serve as the testing ground for these new solutions. Each year they work on three major urban challenges.

Here’s the premise of the project in Mayor Nutter’s words:

Historically the tendency of government was to think it had all the answers. We defined problems and we prescribed solutions. You sent us taxes; we delivered services. But current economic and political realities require government to be more focused and strategic in our investments and actions – and though there has been a certain loss of trust in government to just get stuff done – it is at the local level that we are best placed to drive innovation and earn back the trust of our citizens, restoring a sense of hope and optimism about our future.

The role of government is evolving from problem-solver to partnership-builder and, as usual, that change is being driven by city governments. Cities are incubators of innovation…pursuing progressive policies and initiatives tackling some of America’s toughest challenges. Most exciting are not just the initiatives themselves – whether aimed at violence, clean energy, or education – but the ways in which cities are developing them, leveraging the enormous creativity of citizens, entrepreneurs, and other partners to transform the ways we solve problems.

The Takeaway
Philadelphia has essentially created a space outside the government structure that allows innovative ideas to flourish and take root through collaboration and partnership. Here’s an example from the Mayor:

In order to encourage the development of innovative solutions around neighborhood improvement, we’ll bring together the Police Department, Licenses and Inspections, 311, and our community engagement program, PhillyRising, to identify assets including open data, program knowledge, environmental resources, expenditures, and insights to define critical areas of need and opportunity. We’ll pool this information into a national call for ideas, and the 10 most promising will come to Philadelphia to turn these ideas into solutions with the relevant city departments, Good Company Group, a social enterprise accelerator, and the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, among others. The most viable solutions will be piloted inside city government – perhaps with Police or 311, or maybe both – creating a lab for urban innovations.

I like the idea of collaboration with a business innovator and academic and the practitioners whose job it will be to implement the new idea.  This approach has broad appeal for park advocates looking for innovative business models for running parks – everything from governance to linking to other city functions like transportation and housing on the park’s edge are critical to the park’s success.

One of the interesting aspects of this work is the discussion behind the timing of setting goals. Innovation gurus say hold off on committing to goals too fast.  Most of us like to believe that ‘thinking’ has to precede ‘doing’ but goals frequently emerge from action and can inform what the goals should be – I call my version of this the “ready, shoot, aim” approach.  Once a common understanding of the challenge between park partners is found, the next step is to experiment relentlessly to try out new ideas.  Testing ideas before committing to them can help refine them.

This makes a great deal of sense when you look back at all the park conservancies who didn’t start with contracts with their city partners, or MOUs, or even letters of agreement in some cases.  They just agreed on what needed to be done and began to tackle the job, learning in the process. They assumed that their actions would inform a bigger, longer term set of goals as well as a way of working with each that amplified their strengths.  One of the paths to innovation is through partners using their partnership to observe and to ask provocative questions and to find successful ways to address long term issues, not just the tasks at hand.

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 solutions

Rose Kennedy Greenway: Building a Three-Legged Stool

The Rose Kennedy Greenway in downtown Boston sits on land created from the Big Dig, a megaproject that rerouted the Central Artery (Interstate 93), the chief highway through the heart of the city, into a 3.5-mile tunnel.

Aerial view of the Greenway

Aerial view of the Greenway

According to Wikipedia, the Big Dig was the most expensive highway project in the U.S. and was plagued by escalating costs, scheduling overruns, leaks, design flaws, charges of poor execution and use of substandard materials, criminal arrests, and even one death.  The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway – a roughly 1.5-mile-long series of parks and public spaces – was one of the final parts of the project completed after Interstate 93 was put underground: an amazing creation of park space in a highly dense city born out of one of the most controversial infrastructure projects the city has ever seen. The Greenway is named after Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, the matriarch of the Kennedy Family, who was born in the neighboring North End neighborhood.

The Conservancy of the same name was created in 2004 with an agreement between the state of Massachusetts, the City of Boston and the Kennedy family to manage the Greenway.  In 2008, legislation established the non-profit Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy as the official steward of the Greenway, and by early 2009 they undertook operation of the site.

The Conservancy leases the Greenway from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) and is responsible for maintenance, horticulture, programming, and fundraising. The State committed to providing half of the annual budget and the Conservancy the other half.  Between 2004 and 2008, the Conservancy raised $20 million in endowment and other funds.

The Three-Legged Stool
Already you can see that this is an unusual partnership that includes not just the city and the Conservancy working together but a third partnership with MassDOT, a transportation agency – not a parks agency – that provides partial funding for the Greenway; the City provides no funding, though the Mayor is a big champion of the project.  All of this is complicated by the fact that MassDOT was only formed itself in 2009 with a merger of the former state entities, MassHighway and the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, along with four additional new divisions. The merger includes a fair amount of changes to the mission and leadership, including a new board of directors.  I’m guessing the MassDOT board members chosen were picked for MassDOT’s core mission, rather than urban parks experience.

The Conservancy is the first one of its kind in Boston and in some ways critical to the site’s success since MassDOT has little experience with managing city parks.  There are friends groups – and one Business Improvement District that is only two years old – but this is the first P3 for parks in the city.  Jesse Brackenbury, the Chief Operating Officer (and currently the acting Executive Director) says, “I used to work for the New York City Parks Department.  They’ve been doing park partnerships longer than everyone else.  But the idea of a private conservancy managing a public park is still a new idea here in Boston.”

Starting a new kind of park partnership in the middle of the recession, and following on the checkered history of the Big Dig has offered its challenges. In some ways the city has embraced the Conservancy, which has done very well in fundraising and drawing users to the park with its extensive programs. In other ways the city is struggling to understand how the partnership will work, especially with an agency that has no parks mission.  According to Jesse,

We have a good relationship with MassDOT. We understand how unusual it is for a highway agency to be working on parks – it’s not their core mission and not their expertise.  They have huge challenges ahead outside the Greenway.  But in the last year we have worked together to create a deeper understanding of the fiscal needs of the park and how it works.  Their staff has learned about costs and management responsibility for the Greenway.  They now understand how the Conservancy delivers value on cost effectiveness and fundraising.

Rose Kennedy Greenway is more than just another neighborhood park.  Because it was set up by the Commonwealth and not the city, it is actually a state park.  It runs from Chinatown to the Financial District to the Wharf District to the North End neighborhoods – two residential neighborhoods, a commercial/office area and a tourist area.  The Conservancy has a lot of different constituencies to serve and to balance and they try to manage parts of the park differently to respect the different populations along the way.

Not unlike the High Line, in which an elevated Greenway traverses one mile through Manhattan’s lower west side, spurring increases in property value and new real estate development along the line, the Rose Kennedy Greenway has the potential to do the same in Boston – and it is very much a goal of the City.  The Boston Redevelopment Agency is creating development guidelines for the new Greenway District that will guide new development.  Already, through the creation of the new Innovation District across the channel, some of the most significant development in Boston is a direct result of the highway coming down.

The Conservancy as a Leader
When you’re first out of the box, scrutiny and expectations are high regarding your performance and it’s no different for the Conservancy.  They have to meet their mission and do it really well.  And they welcome the challenge.  In 2012 they completed a five-year business plan – an attempt to propose a way forward with their partners in the 3-legged stool.  The business plan is a proposal for how the budget can become sustainable and they chose carefully in making their recommendations.  As Jesse says, “These are ideas that are tried and true; they’re more workable than something untried and unproven.”

RKG 3One of the ideas for supporting the work of the Conservancy is another BID, though the idea is on the back burner for now until their new lease is signed with MassDOT.  The area’s commercial owners understand that their future is tied up in the Greenway and they are keenly interested in making the Greenway work.  But they want to make sure that their dollars won’t substitute for the state’s funding. They want a true three-legged stool with the state, a BID and the Conservancy.

The one existing BID in Boston – the Downtown Boston BID, or Downtown Crossing – was created to help an area that had become run down.  It was meant to bring it back.  The Conservancy’s hope with the Greenway is that a BID can help before park is deteriorated.  “We want to look forward and see the need and make the right decision now,” says Jesse.

Earned Income
The Conservancy’s annual budget is about $4.5 million.  Historically, 40% of funds have come from the state.  The rest are raised by the Conservancy – from their endowment, earned income and philanthropy.  They see earned income as one way for the Conservancy to become more sustainable.

The Conservancy’s earned income comes from two sources right now – income from the carousel on the site and their food vending program.  Early in discussions about how the park could run there was apprehension and concern about privatization in the parks.  But this discussion only served to create a clearer focus on park amenities that could earn income with the carousel and food vending being two ways that all could agree on.

The carousel currently operates with a concession agreement worth about $75,000 to the Conservancy.  Multiple recent major gifts, along with a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, will allow the current carousel to be replaced with a new one that highlights Boston heritage.

The new carousel and plan for operations should double the net earned income to the Conservancy.  They will move from being renters to being owners of the carousel.  “This has been such a fun project for us,” says Jesse.  “It’s the right thing to do for our mission.  We’ve engaged school kids and local artists to design and carve the animals, and have designed the carousel in a way that will allow use by the disabled, too.”

The second source of income for the Conservancy is their Greenway Mobile Eats program.  In 2010, food vending brought in $26,000 toward their budget.  Contracts being signed now should result in more than $260,000 in revenue in 2013.  Their efforts have been the subject of widespread acclaim on both national and local news as well as creating long lines during lunchtime.

Counting Success
One thing that the food vending and carousel programs have enabled is an easier way to do customer counts – tracking attendance to the Greenway via the vendors and food trucks.

Counting users in a linear park is complicated.  There are no entry places and no fences.  So the Conservancy does a few different things – they get reports from food vendors and the carousel operators.  Secondly, they installed a Wi-Fi network and they measure unique log-ins.  And thirdly, they measure attendance at their events – just over 300 in 2012.  Attendance in the Greenway is up from 2011 by 66%.
RKG 5Now that they understand more about whose coming and when, they’re trying to find ways to enliven and activate other parts of the Greenway.  From Jesse, “For three years during the season we have taken photos from six different locations in the park four times a week.  We chose locations where we knew we were making investments to attract people, e.g., new tables and chairs.  We didn’t take pictures of the most crowded and already visited places.  We wanted to know whether we were getting results from the investments we were making.”

Sustainable Landscapes
Sustainability as a principle also extends from the budget to the landscape and the Conservancy is committed to maintaining all of the Greenway organically. They’ve learned a lot from their friends at Battery Park City in New York – “a real innovator” – and worked with them to learn their methodology.  Recently they worked with a team from the Harvard Kennedy School to review their protocol – could they be more efficient?  After a cost comparison of the organic approach and what would be a non-organic approach they found that the organic approach was less expensive.

“It’s the right thing to do.  Mothers can feel comfortable having their babies run across the lawns safely and it is cost-effective.  It’s a win-win-win,” says Jesse.

The Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy is less than ten years old – half the age of similar P3’s in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York or even Missoula, Montana – and so they are just hitting their stride. They are slowly turning this empty ribbon of green into one of the city’s best meeting places and winning over their toughest critics.  In 2008, Tom Keane of the Boston Globe called the Greenway the “…world’s most expensive median strip.”  Today he raves about it, saying, “…the parks are now meeting places, common ground between neighborhoods, and destinations in and of themselves.  The Greenway is a roaring success.”  That’s a lot of change in four years.

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 solutions.

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.