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An Interconnected Park Web: How Greenways Create Healthy Communities

We recently came across an article by Randall Arendt discussing how greenway networks are the “useful bridge between ‘new urbanism’ and conservation design.”  His article talks about using greenways as the connector to parks, neighborhoods, schools and mixed-use centers, allowing for urban and rural ideas to merge and produce a superior hybrid community form.  He argues that only when blending urban and rural designs can there be successful opportunities for improved public health and wellness.

Indeed, elements typical of rural environments can – and must – be part of any truly livable urban design, as Olmstead and Vaux‘s plan for Central Park in Manhattan demonstrates, and as further proven by the Olmstead firm‘s five-mile long “Emerald Necklace” around Boston, encompassing 1000 acres of parkland, connecting the Boston Common with the 527-acre Franklin Park.

We know that the better connected parks are, the more a park system can provide healthful recreation—and transportation, too. A recent publication from The Trust for Public Land shows how interconnected trails, greenways‚ and parks support bicycling, running, walking, skating, skiing‚ and even wheelchair travel—reaching all the way from home to work for some users. And several small parks can be connected to create a “large-park experience,” with a tennis court in one park, a basketball court in another, a swimming pool in a third. Connections can be a system of sidewalks or bike lanes, complemented by outstanding signage and perhaps dressed up with a catchy name, such as the Wellness Walk or the Fitness Funway.

The easiest way to create interconnections that also extend a park system is in stream valley parks, particularly where a small stream flows into a larger river and both are flanked with trails. This kind of intersection, comparable to a highway interchange or a train junction, more than doubles the usefulness of a given route. An even more effective connection can be made by bridging a river with a pedestrian crossing, either a new bridge or a repurposed old one. Wherever this has been done—including in Austin, Cincinnati, Chattanooga, Little Rock, Minneapolis, Nashville, Omaha, Pittsburgh, and Tampa—the bridges have become instantly popular attractions.

Another great connector is a rail-trail, a park path constructed out of an abandoned train track. Most of the more than 15,000 miles of U.S. rail-trails are rural, but an increasing number are in cities, including Atlanta; Chicago; Dallas; Houston; Portland, Oregon; Orlando; Seattle; and Washington, D.C.

Platte River Greenway, Denver. Credit: Darcy Kiefel.

Even without a stream or an abandoned railroad, it’s sometimes possible to create a linear corridor. It happened in San Francisco after the public utilities commission decided to retire an underground water main through Visitacion Valley, a lower-income immigrant neighborhood. The corridor had been kept free of weighty construction over the pipe, resulting in a six-block swath of weedy lots through the heart of the community. When the commission tried to sell the land, neighbors objected and worked with The Trust for Public Land to turn it into a park and garden. Today the Visitacion Valley Greenway supports both physical exercise and improved nutrition—and introduces visitors to the exotic Asian medicinal plants growing there.

Another example of a successful city creating connectors is Denver.  In 2009, the American Obesity Association rated Denver residents the least obese of big city Americans. The reason, in part, is their sporty lifestyle. Supporting that way of life is the Platte River Greenway.

It took 30 years to create the Greenway from a former industrial backwater. Today its 15 parks linked by 100 miles of trails attract hundreds of thousands of users. The middle 12 miles—which stretch on either end deep into the suburbs—are operated by the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation, with support from the private Greenway Foundation. Its centerpiece is 22-acre Commons Park, constructed as part of a new walkable neighborhood on a former railyard on the edge of downtown.

Not only does the Greenway lure a continual stream of cyclists, runners, and walkers, the South Platte River itself was reengineered with rocks, riffles, and inflatable dams so that it offers whitewater rapids for kayakers and rafters.

Public investment in the Greenway totaling about $70 million has fueled $2.5 billion in residential, commercial, retail, sports, and entertainment projects along the corridor. Denver, which for several decades was losing population, is now growing again—and recreational opportunities are one reason why.

Randall’s article appeared in the August/September 2011 issue of Planning magazine, available here.

Olmsted Park and Potomac River Waterfront Park Selected as “Frontline Parks”

Each month, City Parks Alliance recognizes two Frontline Parks to promote inspiring examples of urban park excellence, innovation and stewardship across the country in the face of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures and urban neighborhood decay.

March’s selections celebrate historic design and new innovations.

Olmsted Park, Brookline, Mass. Credit: Brookline Parks and Open Space Division.

Depending upon where you live in the United States, the culture of parks and open space can vary according to when the system was established and who planned it. It is not unusual to hear envy for those parks and systems designed by Frederick Law Olmsted or Daniel Burnham. Indeed, many of these parks were constructed before the cities that now surround them, shaping urban form in profound ways. Similarly, it is not unusual to hear the stewards of those legendary parks and systems struggle with how to make those spaces relevant for contemporary users. New parks have an advantage in embracing the most current engineering and technologies from the outset, rather than a retrofit. This month’s featured parks demonstrate how both old and new parks achieve relevance in cities today.

Olmsted Park in Brookline, Massachusetts began construction in 1890. As a gem in Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace in Boston, the namesake park includes three ponds and a meandering stream that were, at that time, engineered solutions to the problematic Muddy River. Olmsted linked the man-made improvements with natural formations, creating a scenic ribbon of groves, lawns, and water features. Thanks to the hard work of the Brookline Parks and Open Space division and its four partners, the historic landscape has been restored with new plantings, better views, and easier access. Click here to read more.

Woodrow Wilson Bridge Trail, Oxon Hill, Md. Credit: Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

Nearly 120 years later, the Potomac River Waterfront Park in Oxon Hill, Maryland opened in 2009. The site along the Potomac River features a landscaped superstructure – a deck over I-95 that links trail systems in Maryland and Virginia via a connection to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac River. It also features a unique solution to moving trail users from the ground to the deck by means of a helix of “foamed concrete.” In addition to the trail opportunities, the park features a panoramic view of Washington, D.C. and its environs. As you can imagine, this kind of project includes many local, state, and federal partners committed to creating 21st century park solutions. Read more.

Frontline Parks is generously supported by DuMor, Inc. and PlayCore.

San Juan: The Walkable City

Credit: Municipality of San Juan

 San Juan, Puerto Rico recently released a new plan to make the city more liveable and walkable. Titled The Walkable City, the plan calls for a redesign of the Isleta district, an island which is home to Old San Juan, the oldest planned city in the Americas. Isleta is separated from mainland Puerto Rico by a series of bridges and a ferry.  

The plan focuses on 10 strategic actions. Most significant is the introduction of the “Tren Satour”, a 5.3 mile light rail system to connect the historic center with the mainland. An integrated public transit system would also include buses and shuttles, water taxis, commuter ferries, and extensive park and ride facilities on the mainland. Other interesting features of the plan include mixed-use development, a waterfront loop for pedestrians, cyclists and joggers, and creating green corridors to connect the north and south waterfronts.  

The idea of including better public transportation options and connectivity to parks in urban design plans is nothing new. Many U.S. cities, including Houston, St. Louis, and Phoenix have recently been adding light rail or bus stops in parks as part of redevelopment plans. San Juan’s The Walkable City uses many U.S. as well as international cities as example success stories. View the full plan here.

Is There Room for Wildlife in City Parks?

ASLA’s The Dirt recently covered the 2010 Dumbarton Oaks Garden and Landscape Study Symposium. This year’s focus was “Designing Wildlife Habitats,” which looked at ways to preserve biodiversity in rural and urban environments. America’s cities are an appropriate laboratory for such a movement, given that many city-dwellers’ encounters with wildlife are limited to rats, raccoons and pigeons.

The inherent traits of the urban environment: warmer and drier air, poor nutrient cycling and high levels of pollution hinder efforts to attract and sustain wildlife populations. The forest fragmentation that accompanies urban development displaces species which require large swaths of contiguous habitat, including many mammals and forest interior songbirds. Even where large preserves exist, suitable habitats must be connected by park corridors to other wild places to maintain wildlife  populations. On the other hand, a park system of smaller, scattered parks close to neighborhoods is more accessible to humans than one of a few, large, concentrated parks. Additionally, many of the features of parks which attract wildlife, like multi-level vegetative canopy and tall, unmowed grass, are incompatible with park amenities like athletic fields, playgrounds, and manicured gardens.

In spite of these challenges, access to wildlife has significant benefits for park users. Spending just a few minutes in a natural setting is correlated with improved cognitive function and emotional outlook. Additional research suggests that bird watching improves mood, promotes social cohesion, and can slow or reverse the onset of Alzheimer’s. Park designers need not pit the needs of ecosystems against the needs of users; ecosystem integrity is an important amenity for many park-goers.

Wetlands at Jamaica Bay, New York City (Wikipedia)

Urban nature preserves, like Jamaica Bay in New York and oil-threatened Bayou Sauvage in New Orleans are wild treasures. But even small designed parks can provide important wildlife habitat while supporting recreational use, through park connectivity like in Boston and Minneapolis, or careful plant selection, like in Chicago’s green roofs or Washington D.C.’s butterfly garden. The connection with our natural heritage is a cherished privilege for city dwellers; one which merits inclusion in our vision for livable cities.

Educating the Public on Cycle Tracks

Portland, Oregon has begun to install separated bicycle lanes called cycle tracks, a move that has also recently taken place at varying levels in New York City, Washington, D.C., Minneapolis and Indianapolis.

We’ve promoted the idea of using cycle tracks to provide safer and more bicycle-friendly routes to parks, and to connect parks and other places to each other. (The Indianapolis Cultural Trail essentially does this in the city’s downtown vicinity.) A shibboleth of many European cities (especially in the north) has been to use cycle tracks to connect places and people, but in the United States some believe that these facilities will not work, partly because drivers and bikers are not used to them. The City of Portland just released the below video that begins to educate the public on how the lanes work. Other cities might be interested in such outreach efforts. It can pay off; in places with separated lanes, there has been shown to be a ten percent increase in the number of bikers compared to using regular striped lanes.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “On the Right Track“, posted with vodpod