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For Most Americans, Their Closest Park is a City Park

By Catherine Nagel, Executive Director City Parks Alliance

For many Americans, access to the outdoors is not a long drive away but can be found close by in their neighborhood park. As more people are moving back to urban areas without the luxury of a backyard the importance of close-to-home parks is only increasing. Parks are where people gather on weekends to spend time with family, exercise, and connect with their community. They are where children first experience nature. But beyond their role in recreation and social well-being, city parks also help grow local economies, create new transportation options, combat crime, and reduce environmental impacts such as storm water runoff. Urban planners, elected officials, and community advocates recognize these benefits and are taking a fresh look at parks as an important part of city infrastructures.

philly-stormwater-lwcf-graphicOne of the critical funding sources for parks, playgrounds, urban wildlife refuges, greenways, trails, and open spaces in all 50 states is the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). LWCF is funded through revenue from offshore oil and gas drilling royalties. Those funds are leveraged with state and municipal funds—public and private—to  provide close-to-home recreational opportunities and open space, which in turn benefit urban communities even more: attracting investment, creating jobs, spurring tourism, reducing public health expenditures, mitigating storm surges, and keeping the air and water cleaner. Permanent reauthorization and full funding of this important piece of legislation is critical for our nation’s future health and growth without tapping U.S. tax dollars.

Philadelphia’s 10,334 acre park system, for example, was developed in part with $12 million in LWCF funds and is saving the city $6 million per year in stormwater management costs. As part of its Green City, Clean Waters initiative, over the next 25 years Philadelphia will be investing $2 billion in parks and green infrastructure to capture 85% of the city’s stormwater, saving the city $16 billion that would otherwise be spent on underground pipes and tunnels. LWCF grants can match these water utility investments to ensure that stormwater management investments are simultaneously creating outdoor recreation opportunities.

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Catherine Nagel presents award to Secretary Jewell, photo credit Julie Waterman

This week, I was able to thank Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell for her leadership in supporting urban parks around the country. She has been a strong advocate for permanent reauthorization and full funding of the LWCF, and an active participant in many Mayors for Parks Coalition events.

Mayors for Parks, a project of City Parks Alliance, is a national bipartisan coalition of mayors who understand the importance of urban parks in their communities, and are advocating for a strong LWCF.  Secretary Jewell participated in events around the country with Mayors for Parks Coalition members Mayor Betsy Price of Fort Worth, TX, Mayor William Bell of Birmingham, AL, Mayor Jim Brainard of Carmel, IN and Mayor Greg Stanton of Phoenix, AZ to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passage of LWCF. Secretary Jewell also joined me and fellow mayors in a press event for the release of City Parks Alliance’s report “A Smart Investment for America’s Economy:  The Land and Water Conservation Fund.”

Urban parks are dynamic institutions that play a vital role in the social, economic and physical well-being of America’s cities and their residents. Secretary Jewell understands the multiple benefits of urban parks and the critical role they play inspiring and offering youth in particular a chance to interact with nature. As development pressures on urban land continue to grow, we must find new and innovative ways to make sure that our parks have the funding they need and the benefits of green space are integrated in development decisions. For most Americans, the closest park will continue to be a city park.

Denver Parks on Parade

Earlier this month, more than 30 park professionals from the US and Canada were hosted by Denver Parks and Recreation Department in collaboration with City Parks Alliance for a tour of their park system. Eighteen cities were represented, including teams from Los Angeles and Pittsburgh.

Photo courtesy of Hope Gibson

Photo courtesy of Hope Gibson

The Denver team put on a first class demonstration of their expertise in planning, design, construction and programming – from the smallest neighborhood park to Red Rocks Amphitheater, a part of Denver’s mountain parks system – and in every case showing us how a twenty-first century city parks department operates: seamlessly.

From the neighborhood partnerships to the collaboration with their own city departments to alliances with social service providers, arts and music organizations, and other parks programmers, Denver’s parks department uses and leverages all the value that parks offer and its mission can muster. Citywide partners like the Trust for Public Land – perfectly exemplifying its urban mission – and the Colorado Health Foundation are working closely with the department on many of its projects; as are local developers, transit, and bicycling partners. On some of our park visits it was hard to tell who worked for whom; in fact, most simply said they worked for the parks.

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Mexico City Parks Revival: Partnerships in Action, Part II

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Downtown Mexico City, with one of the world’s largest collections of seventeenth to nineteenth-century architecture, is working hard to reconnect its buildings and parks with pedestrians.  When our group of City Parks Alliance board members traveled to the city in October, we headed downtown after our visit to Chapultepec Park and passed through much construction – the narrowing of streets, the widening of sidewalks, and the remaking of downtown parks such as the Alameda Central.  We also had the chance to climb to the top of city hall to see its rooftop garden, and then gazed down on the main plaza in the historic center of the city, the Zόcola, a gathering place for Mexicans since the Aztec era and filled that day with a giant book fair.

In the Alameda, made iconic in the Diego Rivera mural “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda,” concrete sidewalks have been replaced by marble, and tarp-covered vendor stands were kicked out – a renovation that cost about $18 million.  The newly opened park, anchored by the Palacio de Bellas Artes, is green, walkable, and a respite in the midst of a bustling city.

But the most impressive re-creation we saw was the Parque Bicentenario.  With over 50 acres, the park is ten times as large as the Zόcola and sits on a former refinery site.  It was named Parque Bicentenario in recognition of the 200th anniversary of Mexico’s independence.
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The True Stars of Southern California (Part I)

By Catherine Nagel, Executive Director, City Parks Alliance

Recently, a group of City Parks Alliance members  visited a dozen park projects in Los Angeles and Orange County, as part of CPA’s 2013 Summer Tour of Parks.  We met with experts and learned about new approaches to park management, programming, funding and stewardship.  Our local hosts from the Los Angeles Park Foundation, Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Department, California State Parks Foundation, Orange County Great Park, and The Trust for Public Land led the 35-person group from 12 cities through neighborhoods, along the Los Angeles River and down to Irvine.  Scholarships and support for this year’s tour were also provided by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.
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Brooklyn Bridge Park: New York’s Latest Innovative Harbor Attraction

One of New York’s newest parks, Brooklyn Bridge Park blends the historic with the latest in landscape innovation to create what the weblog Gothamist calls “the most spectacular and stunning addition to the city’s parks system in recent memory.” Located on the site of a former port that shuttered in the 1980s due to dramatic shifts in shipping practices, the work-in-progress park opened its first two sections in 2010, the culmination of more than 20 years of sustained community advocacy to persuade elected officials at the city and state level to support and implement an 85-acre park plan.

Sunset on the pier. Photo Credit: Julienne Schaer

The resulting master plan mixes active and passive recreation in a sustainably designed site that incorporates vestiges of its industrial past and capitalizes on the singular vistas to the harbor, bridge and Lower Manhattan skyline. With a 50-yard-line view of nearly every architectural marvel and monument New York City has to offer, it’s no wonder the park averages 60,000 visitors per summer weekend, even though its first phase of development won’t be fully completed until 2013.

Beyond the views, the park has also drawn favorable attention for its lush plantings and innovative playgrounds. The park is further distinguished by its self-sustaining financial model, which uses carefully selected development sites within the boundaries to generate revenues for its ongoing maintenance.

At this summer’s Greater & Greener: Re-Imagining Parks for 21st Century Cities, the international urban parks conference being presented by the City Parks Alliancefrom July 14 to 17, park professionals, environmental advocates and attendees from all over the world will get to see all this first hand, with several featured events taking place at Brooklyn Bridge Park to show off its various aspects, including a guided tour with planners and designers, and an outdoor screening of the documentary “Olmsted and America’s Urban Parks.”

Jane's Carousel.
Photo Credit: Julienne Schaer

New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe has stated a particular fondness for Brooklyn Bridge Park, referring to it as a “true 21st Century park model,” and praises the partnership behind it. “It [the public-private model] doesn’t work in all applications, but particularly in the case of Brooklyn Bridge Park [and Hudson River Park on Manhattan’s west side], the properties were formerly shipping piers, so they used to be income-producing. So when the city and state no longer needed them, the land could have been just sold off to the highest bidder. But we didn’t.  We have parks instead…. Hundreds of millions of dollars in public investment [was spent] to build fabulous waterfront parks. And when you see a beautiful park, you also see growth in property values, and then that spurs more new development.”

To learn more about Brooklyn Bridge Park, visit www.brooklynbridgeparknyc.org

For more information on how to register for Greater & Greener: Re-Imagining Parks for 21st Century Cities, please visit www.urbanparks2012.org.