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February’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.

R.V. Burgess Park

R.V. Burgess Park

R.V. Burgess Park is a small greenspace located in the middle of a dense high rise tower development called the Thorncliffe Park Community.  Built in the 1970s, the community and its amenities were meant to serve a maximum population of 12,000 people.  The area now has more than 30,000 people, mostly recent immigrants, and such a large number of children that the elementary school located next to the park is the largest in North America, with 900 enrolled in kindergarten alone.  As the main recreation area for the community’s youth population, R.V. Burgess Park was woefully inadequate, made even more so when the only playground equipment was torn down in 2006 after being deemed unsafe.

Community garden

Community garden

The park’s downslide was halted when six women from the community – professionals and mothers who met in the park – formed the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee in 2008. Initially, the Committee focused on bringing playground equipment back into the park, but the organization now advocates for development and implementation of a variety of public space enhancement projects. Thanks to the work of the committee and a partnership with the City of Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation Division, R.V. Burgess Park not only has a playground, it has a splash pad, a community garden, new turf and programming such as weekly bazaars and arts and cultural events. This small park has become a playground, a cultural center, an arts center, a market, and common meeting space for thousands of people.

The R.V. Burgess story is just beginning. There are plans to install a community tandoor oven in Spring 2013, and a playground with brand new equipment in 2015. The Committee hopes to establish recreation-focused programs, like walking clubs and swimming groups. And the appeal of the park is reaching beyond its neighborhood borders, bringing people from all over Toronto to its weekly bazaars and winter carnival.

For more on R.V. Burgess Park and the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee, please visit:

Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee

City of Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation Division

The Miracle of R.V. Burgess Park

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.

Growing Community Gardens in Cities

An eighth 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 created parkland by adding community gardens to underutilized spaces.

Community gardens are a vastly underappreciated and underprovided resource for cities, both at ground level and on rooftops. As reported by University of Illinois Landscape Architecture Professor Laura Lawson in her excellent book City Bountiful, surveys from the 1970s and 1980s revealed that while gardening was Americans’ favorite outdoor leisure activity, somewhere between 7 million and 18 million people wanted to garden but weren’t able to because they did not have the space. With today’s higher population, including millions of immigrants who live in cities but still have deep cultural attachments to agriculture, the situation is now unquestionably more severe. In a nation engulfed by profligate use of land, the irony is hard to miss.

Not only does the Central Bainbridge St. Community Garden produce thousands of pounds of vegetables, it also serves as a hub of activity in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant community. Credit: Avery Wham.

Community gardens do not have full-fledged pedigrees as parks, but they are certainly members of the extended family, and they are overwhelmingly urban. Coming in a diversity of forms, they can provide beauty, supply food, educate youth, build confidence, reduce pesticide exposure, grow social capital, preserve mental health, instill pride, and raise property values. In 2008, The Trust for Public Land’s survey of the park systems of the seventy-seven largest cities revealed 682 gardens (and 12,988 individual garden plots) specifically owned by park departments and located on urban parkland.

The national movement has a great deal of exuberant vitality, demonstrated even by place names and their fostering organizations: the Garden of Eatin’, Queen Pea Garden, Harlem Rose Garden, Jes’ Good Rewards Children’s Garden, Paradise on Earth, Garden Resources of Washington (GROW), Denver Urban Gardens (DUG), Boston Urban Gardeners (BUG), San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG), and Los Angeles’ Gardening Angels. But the movement is also severely underfunded, poorly organized, and subject to a bruisingly high level of burnout and turnover. (GROW, SLUG and BUG have all gone out of business.)

Put simply, between the legalities, the neighbors, and the typical challenges of soil and weather, urban agriculture is extraordinarily difficult, even more difficult than running normal public parks. But, community gardens make extremely efficient use of space. An area that could barely fit a single tennis court might hold 75 garden plots; a soccer field might be replaced with 300 or more. Moreover, gardens can be placed close to streets and railroads because they have no errant balls bouncing into traffic.

Most cities have plenty of underused or even unused chunks of parks that could be developed into community gardens. Even super-crowded places like Jersey City and San Francisco have parkland that is essentially unvisited. That doesn’t automatically mean it’s perfect for gardening–it may be too shady or too deep within a big park to be reachable by potential gardeners–but those drawbacks might be fixable through tree trimming or park redesign. Gardens need to be near edges where they can be seen and where people, vehicles, and irrigation water can easily reach them. But putting a garden near an edge helps open up the next internal ring of the park to greater use, thus gradually reclaiming what might be a no-man’s land in the interior.

On the other hand, putting a community garden into an existing park could well mean not putting in a soccer field, dog park, or memorial grove that some other constituency wants. Thus, developing a new, standalone community garden leaves existing parkland unmolested and raises the tide for everyone. (It also provides a boost to home values in the surrounding community; a 2007 study by the New York University Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy found that gardens in New York’s poorest neighborhoods lifted property values by up to 9.4 percent after five years.)

A community garden program cannot be left to operate reactively. It must be designed to protect gardens at the beginning of the process, not at the end. Gardens must be clearly recognized as an integral part of a city’s park system, and they should be included in all redevelopment projects–particularly those that are high-density and that are marketed to former suburbanites who may love all aspects of the city except its lack of gardening space. As of 2009, the only city that has a truly sophisticated garden structure is Seattle. Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and several other places have relatively strong private-sector agencies or public-private partnerships that own, hold and support significant numbers of community gardens, but only Seattle’s P-Patch program proactively plans, sites, negotiates, sets rules, and protects gardens throughout the city.

With 68 gardens totaling 23 acres and containing 1,900 plots cultivated by 3,800 gardeners, Seattle's P-Patch is the national model for a city-run community gardening program. Credit: Seattle P-Patch Program.

P-Patch, which began in 1973 and was named after Rainie Picardo, the farmer who first allowed residents to begin gardening on his land, once even counted as a gardening member Mayor Wes Ulhman. Today P-Patch has sixty-eight gardens, an annual budget of $650,000 and a staff of six, and Seattle has more garden plots per capita than any other major city. Even more impressive, Seattle’s City Council passed a formal resolution supporting community gardens and recommending their co-location on other city-owned property. The city’s comprehensive plan calls for a standard of one garden for every 2,000 households in high-density neighborhoods (known in Seattle as “urban villages”). Nevertheless, despite this abundance, P-Patch still has a waiting list of 1,900 persons; in crowded neighborhoods that translates to three to four years.

Standalone gardens need not be slotted only to old home sites. One particularly promising locale is along rail lines, both abandoned and active. Community gardens have already been created alongside the Washington and Old Dominion Railroad Trail in Arlington, Virginia; the Ohlone Trail in Berkeley, California, and the Capital City Trail in Madison, Wisconsin. In Queens, New York, the Long Island City Roots Garden was created directly over the tracks of the unused-but-not-abandoned Degnon Terminal Railroad. (To prevent official abandonment the railroad required that the tracks be retained, so the gardeners bulldozed out 140 cubic yards of garbage and covered the rails with 160 cubic yards of clean dirt; the garden is a train-shaped 26 feet wide and 145 feet long.)

While gardens alongside rail trails are fine, they don’t actually increase the amount of parkland in a city. To do that requires moving up to the next level: creating community gardens alongside non-abandoned rail lines. This is a tougher challenge but has an added benefit since there are few parts of a city less attractive than the edges of a railroad. Some analysts are convinced that rail ridership would jump up a few notches solely if the view was pleasanter. Back in the 1960s, Lady Bird Johnson spearheaded the remarkably successful highway beautification program, but no subsequent first lady (or anyone else) has taken on what might today be called an extreme track makeover program. Could gardens lead the way?

One notable success is in Madison, Wisconsin, where the St. Paul Avenue Garden operates under a license with the Wisconsin Central Railroad, a subsidiary of Canadian National Railways. The line is lightly used by low-speed freight traffic, so there is not even a fence alongside the tracks. The 72-plot, 25-foot-wide garden runs for about two blocks in an intense utility corridor that includes a buried fiber-optic cable and an overhead high-tension line. “It used to be a dumping ground sort of place,” explained Joe Mathers, garden specialist with the Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin. “Then, in the early 1980s Madison got a lot of Hmong refugees from Southeast Asia so we started looking for land for them to farm. We were in a recession so there was land available. When the economy improved development resumed and we lost some spaces. But we should always be able to hang on to this garden–nothing is permitted to be built here.”

There are a scattering of community gardens alongside rail lines in Chicago, some consisting of flower gardens to beautify station areas, and there is a garden in the Bronx, New York, alongside a large railroad storage yard. In both those cities, the rail owners are public agencies–Metra and the MTA, respectively. Public rail agencies may be more amenable to leasing or licensing trackside space than private train operators, although no detailed study of opportunities has yet been carried out.

Read more about the benefits of community gardens in an earlier post.

“Greening Cities, Growing Communities” Offers Lessons on Community Gardens

A P-Patch Garden in Seattle (City of Seattle)

The community garden movement, born in the 1970s, has gained momentum throughout the past decade. According to the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence, there are at least 650 community gardens under park agency jurisdiction alone in major U.S. cites. Jeffrey Hou, Julie Johnson, and Laura Lawson provided insight on the movement during a  presentation this Wednesday sponsored by the Landscape Architecture Foundation.

They detailed the findings from their new book Greening Cities, Growing Communities, which profiles six community gardens in the Seattle Area, describing the benefits they provide and ideas for their improvement. Among those were three gardens from the P-Patch program, a partnership between the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, which provides land and staff support, and the P-Patch Trust, a non-profit which provides funding for gardening efforts.

Lawson began the presentation by noting that community gardens are often designed for temporary use – founded in vacant lots and other unclaimed places. Despite their cherished status, they are at risk of eventually losing out to development. According to Hou, community gardens are “still at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to urban land use.”

Hou listed a host of benefits that community gardens provide. Among these were:

  • Improved health and well being: Gardens foster active living for people of all ages. Caring for plants also improves mental well-being and outlook, while the gardens yield low-cost, healthy produce for their communities.
  • Ecological sustainability: Gardens preserve scarce urban open space. Additionally, gardeners are often at the forefront of sustainable landscaping. All of Seattle’s “P-Patch” gardens are organic, and many sites have implemented resource-conserving measures like rainwater harvesting.
  • Cultural sustainability: For many of Seattle’s immigrants, gardening is an opportunity to connect with their agrarian heritage. Additionally, gardeners can grow vegetables specific to their cultural cuisines.
  • Place-making value: Good community gardens anchor neighborhoods. They provide aesthetic benefits to all residents, and many include tables, benches, and chairs for all to enjoy. The process of collectively managing a garden increases community capacity.

In the final chapters of Greening Cities, Growing Communities, the authors share their recommendations for strengthening gardens, from enlisting design professionals to designating city funding and encouraging networking between garden groups. With praise for the present value of community gardens, they chart a feasible course for their long-term improvement. As one of the garden managers observes in the book, “The garden is never done. It’s a work in progress.”

Community-Based Gardens (& Groups) Help Renew Cleveland

Stockyards, Cleveland: a new way to use tires in vacant lots.

We just read a nice story about residents and a community group working to revitalize the Stockyards neighborhood in Cleveland, which has recently had homes going for as low as $1,500, an increasing supply of empty parcels and no viable plans for redevelopment.

Writing in Communities and Banking (pdf) (the magazine of the Federal Reserve of Boston), Matt Martin and Zachariah Starnik of the Stockyard Redevelopment Organization describe a number of initiatives to stop the downward spiral, from gardens/plantings on city Land Bank parcels with grants and other financial assistance; a collaborative effort between Stockyard and the Ohio State University extension to conduct phyto-remediation (using different types of plant life to cleanse soil) on lots with soil contamination; and a plan that calls for a neglected urban street and adjacent vacant parcels to be developed into a viable green space and corridor. (Stockyard developed a plan that shaped these efforts earlier.)

Most of the article, however, is about a group of citizens in the 48th Street Block Club that led the creation of several gardens on private lots. First, the group pressured the city to tear down abandoned and troublesome buildings and then, without city approval or denial, it started planting gardens on the properties, giving the empty areas an aesthetic turnaround and growing some food for locals in the process. As the article notes:

Revitalization of the lots has improved their appearance and removed a number of former safety risks. The lots have become not only a valuable food resource but also a wellspring of pride. They have united the neighborhood in a single cause, becoming a visible symbol of the neighborhood’s collective power. “We’ve done a lot with a little,” says one club member…….

While no one would claim that merely planting gardens will save a neighborhood, in an area hit by multiple foreclosures every little bit helps. As Art Ledger says, “It’s progress. You’re going to have things that go backwards, too. But we’re ready.”

Just stopping the downward spiral (or “cumulative causation” in economic terms) is in itself a start on the path to revitalization. It is not at all impossible that demand may increase again in this centrally located, historic and “old urbanist” neighborhood in a metro area of 2.3 million people.