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Some News from Around…

  • Texas Parks and Wildlife wins top social media award (Hispanic Business)
  • Grand Rapids considers a smoking ban in city parks (MLive)
  • Dallas City Council approves updated downtown parks master plan
    (Dallas News)
  • New York City’s parks get a passing grade, but problems remain
    (New York Times)
  • Toronto wants to make urban parks a priority (Toronto Star)

What is Your City’s ParkScore?

How many people in your city live within walking distance of the nearest park? In what neighborhoods should park improvements or additions be targeted to maximize impact? How well is your city’s park system serving the needs of its residents? Are there disparities between the inner-city core and the lower-density urban fringe, or between different demographic groups?

Today, with the launch of The Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore, it became easier to answer these questions – and more importantly, to begin to develop solutions to park shortages. ParkScore is the most comprehensive park rating system ever developed, combining advanced GIS analysis and data collected by the Center for City Park Excellence.

San Francisco came out on top of the ParkScore rankings, edging out Sacramento, Boston, and New York. Credit: Flickr user Phillie Casablanca.

The Trust for Public Land analyzed the park systems of the nation’s forty most populous cities, and ranked them according to three categories:

Acreage: a city’s acreage score is based equally on two data points – median park size and the percentage of the city’s area covered by parkland.

Access: a city’s access score is based on the percentage of the city’s population that lives within a half-mile walk of the nearest park, taking into consideration the layout of the road network and barriers to access such as railroads, freeways, and fences.

Service & Investment: a city’s service & investment  score is based equally on two data points – total spending per resident and playgrounds per 10,000 residents.

Park access in Dallas, which placed 21st overall in ParkScore. Areas without walkable park access are either red (very high need) or orange (high need), depending on three demographic factors: density, income, and presence of children. Interactive maps for all cities are available at the ParkScore website.

Combined, these factors provide a fair and comprehensive basis for comparison within cities, between cities, and over time. ParkScore is designed to help city residents quantify their need for more and better parks, and for city governments to craft effective and efficient plans to create excellent park systems.

There is a wealth of information in ParkScore that we will delve into in much greater detail in the coming months. For now, here’s an overview of the best urban park systems and those most in need of improvement. Visit the ParkScore website for all the in-depth rankings, maps, and information.

Benefitting From a Cover Up: How Concealing Urban Highways Can Create Parkland

A twelfth 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 concealing or burying highways.

Urban radicals want automobiles banned. Urban moderates can perhaps live with cars as long as they’re neither seen nor heard.

In European central cities the radicals have the upper hand. U.S. cities are increasingly settling for a compromise–an expensive compromise–by putting freeway segments underground and covering them with parkland. Whether called a lid, deck, bridge, or tunnel, there are already at least 24 of these parks in the country and a dozen more somewhere in the planning pipeline. Surprisingly, because of both undulating topographies and the fact that many cities are already operating on multiple above-and-below-ground levels, there are numerous opportunities to construct more freeway deck parks. As the impact of automobiles becomes ever less welcome in cities, these lids have moved from the novel to the accepted to, increasingly, the expected. The sometimes considerable cost has gone from being dismissed as “porkbarrel” to being redefined more positively as amenity investment with high economic payback.

Drivers passing through Seattle’s downtown core on I-5 go underneath the city’s five-acre Freeway Park, built in 1974.

In a study carried out by the Center for City Park Excellence in 2007, it was found that the average size of the nation’s freeway parks is about 8 acres and each covers about 1,600 linear feet of highway. Most famous is Seattle’s aptly named Freeway Park, designed by the Lawrence Halprin firm and opened with great fanfare in 1976, but the concept actually goes back to 1939 when Robert Moses constructed the Franklin D. Roosevelt Expressway along Manhattan’s East River, tunneled it under the mayor’s home at Gracie Mansion and constructed 14-acre Carl Shurz Park on top. In 1950 Moses did it again, in Brooklyn, when citizens rose up against a planned expressway through the center of Brooklyn Heights. As a compromise he added the 1/3-mile long Brooklyn Promenade with its supreme view of lower Manhattan, remarking self-satisfiedly at the ribbon-cutting, “I don’t know of anything quite like this in any city in the world.” The latest have been New Jersey’s innovative highway redesigns in Trenton and Atlantic City and the Rose Kennedy Greenway park blocks over Boston’s massive “Big Dig.”

The Interstate Highway System, when it was originally conceived in the early 1950s, was designed to link but not penetrate cities. By the 1960s, however, the distinction had been forgotten. Highways became the preeminent tool of urban renewal and redesign, and vast swaths of urban real estate were paved over. Waterfronts were blockaded in Portland, Cincinnati, Hartford, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. Nooses of concrete were wound tightly around the downtowns of Dallas and Charlotte. Trenches of noise and smog cut through Boston, Detroit, Seattle, and Atlanta. Stupendous elevated structures threw shadows over Miami and New Orleans. And wide strips of land were taken from large, iconic parks in Los Angeles (Griffith Park), St. Louis (Forest Park), Baltimore (Druid Hill Park), and San Diego (Balboa Park).

A few downtown parks actually survived the devastation thanks to the intervention of historic preservationists, including Lytle Park in Cincinnati and the National Mall in Washington, D.C. In both cases, citizen outcry forced the highway builders to tunnel underneath (although technically Lytle Park was leveled and then reconstructed three years later).

But it wasn’t until the construction of Freeway Park that the “deck the freeway” concept began getting some serious attention. Because of the constrained, hourglass geography of Seattle, Interstate 5 was a particularly damaging road, and the environmentally oriented populace was dismayed by the impact. “There was a large moat of traffic between downtown and historically residential First Hill neighborhood,” says Freeway Park Neighborhood Association President David Brewster. But the city was lucky–not only was I-5 sunk into a deckable trough as it passed downtown, but a former Seattle mayor, James “Dorm” Braman, had just been appointed assistant secretary of transportation for urban systems and the environment by President Richard Nixon. Braman was amenable to the deck, which was promoted by civic leader Jim Ellis and paid for under the city’s “Forward Thrust” bond initiative. Freeway Park opened in time for the bicentennial and garnered coast-to-coast attention. “It was a model for other cities to heal the scar that cuts right through a neighborhood,” says Brewster.

Freeway Park was beautiful and memorable, but it failed on one major count: acoustics. At 5 acres it couldn’t completely muffle the sound of traffic, and the park experience is accompanied by a constant white noise–not obtrusive, but not minimal, either. Phoenix’s 10-acre Hance Park seems to have solved the noise challenge (as has Seattle’s new, much larger Sam Smith Park). Labeled by the Phoenix New Times “a rare Phoenix instance of nature over traffic–in this case, literally,” Hance Park is decked over the Papago Freeway, uniting uptown and downtown and providing a park adjacent to the city’s central library. The freeway (Interstate 10) was originally planned as an elevated bridge through downtown but opposition by citizens and the Arizona Republic killed that idea in a 1973 ballot measure. Not until ten years later did the city finally accept a below-grade solution with the park as a key sweetener. Hance Park opened in 1992 and today is the site of a Japanese Garden. As a sign of success, it is gradually becoming surrounded by a growing number of upscale condominium towers.

By decking over a portion of I-35, Duluth, Minnesota, was able to save its Rose Garden and provide a park connection directly to its Lake Superior. Credit: Minnesota Dept. of Transportation.

Freeway parks have also bridged the divide between cities and their waterfronts. In Duluth, Minnesota, a plan to build Interstate 35 along the Lake Superior shoreline generated intense opposition from environmentalists and historic preservationists. By shortening the planned freeway’s length (and gaining the backing of powerful Duluth then-congressman John Blatnik) the city used the savings to pay for park covers. Ultimately, three different deck parks were built, including one that saved a historic Rose Garden.

Construction costs for deck parks can be wincingly high, but there is also an upside–the land itself is generally free, made available through air rights by the state transportation agency. In center-city locations this can amount to a multimillion-dollar gift. Land near the Santa Ana Freeway by Los Angeles City Hall, for instance, goes for between $2 million and $3 million an acre. In near-downtown San Diego by Balboa Park an acre is worth up to $13 million. Regardless of cost, the actual force driving–and making feasible–most deck parks is the opportunity for neighboring private development and redevelopment. In Trenton, the New Jersey Department of Transportation spent $150 million on the new 6.5-acre Riverwalk deck over U.S. 29, linking the city to the Delaware River. In response, notes Trenton Planning Director Andrew Carten, “The project resulted in a significant spike in interest and the sale prices of property. After all, would you rather look over 600 trucks barreling past every day, or a scenic park and river?” One lot, worth $120,000 preconstruction, was developed with six housing units that sold for $200,000 each. The presence of the park also helped recruit a new 82-unit market rate residential building.

The cost of the Boston Central Artery–the gargantuan project to bury the elevated Fitzgerald Expressway, which yielded as a surface byproduct the Rose Kennedy Greenway–has caused some people to doubt the feasibility of such parks in the future. But the Central Artery was primarily a transportation project that combined massive demolition along with even more massive construction. It also included major bridges and underwater tunnels. Of the $14-billion price tag, only an estimated $40 million was attributable to the mile-long stretch of four parks that opened to the public in October 2008. Certainly not inexpensive, but very much in line with many other new, showcase destination parks that are helping to redefine the nation’s premier urban centers.

The Woodall-Rodgers Park, planned over a three-block stretch of the Woodhall-Rodgers Freeway in Dallas, will connect the currently separated downtown and arts district from the Uptown neighborhood. Credit: Office of James Burnett.

Projects where freeways are already below-grade are more feasible, and four particularly high-prospect opportunities are currently being explored in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Dallas, and San Diego. In St. Louis, Mayor Francis Slay is promoting the “three-block solution,” a plan to cover a portion of I-70 between center city and the world-famous Gateway Arch. “We’re trying to get the annual 3 million visitors to the Arch into downtown St. Louis,” says Peter Sortino, president of the Danforth Foundation, which is handling the planning. “We’re also trying to help those already downtown more easily reach the Arch and the Mississippi riverfront.” An early estimate put the cost at a minimum of $40 million. Cincinnati faces the identical situation. An interstate highway, Fort Washington Way, is a barrier between downtown and the parkland along the Ohio River. Cincinnati had an opportunity to construct a five-block-long park deck during a road reconstruction (and narrowing) in 2007, but shied because of cost. As a compromise, the new Fort Washington Way was equipped with $10 million worth of steel pilings capable of supporting a future park.

Dallas, on the other hand, is plunging ahead with planning and funding a park over a stretch of the Woodall-Rodgers Freeway. The freeway separates the city’s downtown and arts district from the Uptown neighborhood, and a three-block park cover is seen as both improving the urban form and opening up new opportunities for development. A trolley line would run through the park, and condominium towers are expected to flank it on both sides. A developer of a nearby tower is enthusiastic, telling the Dallas Tribune that the park “will be a fabulous amenity to [my] building.” The park’s price tag is estimated at more than $60 million, but Dallas’s confident and ardent boosters are busily raising matching funds from private sources.

Trenton, New Jersey’s new 6.5-acre Riverwalk deck over U.S. 29 links the city to the Delaware River; it is credited with sparking development and reinvestment in nearby properties. Credit: Vollmer & Associates.

In San Diego, downtown interests are in the early stages of evaluating decking a few blocks of I-5 so as to forge a link with Balboa Park. The city has been in the midst of an unprecedented center city residential construction boom, and the highway presents a major barrier for the thousands of apartment dwellers who have little access to green space. Meanwhile, activists in Los Angeles are determined not to lose their “Freeway Capital of the U.S.” moniker and are evaluating eight different sites. “We want to now become the ‘Freeway Deck Park Capital of the World,’” said Don Scott, chair of the Hollywood Central Park Coalition.

Despite the cost of a park deck, there are numerous sources of local, state, and federal funds that can be cobbled together, particularly if an analysis shows that associated development will generate significantly more tax revenue. Often the deck superstructure is paid for by the federal government while actual park development is financed by the city: Phoenix spent $5 million landscaping Hance Park. The Trenton deck came about through reconstruction of a state highway and was paid for by the state of New Jersey. In Cincinnati, 20 percent of the narrowing of Fort Washington Way was financed through private dollars, including $250,000 from the Cincinnati Bengals football team.

Design Strategies for Downtown Parks: Dallas and Tampa

“Cities large and small are the most sustainable living models, and the viability of a sustainable city rests on the success or failure of its urban parks,” said Thomas Balsley, the landscape architect responsible for designing Main Street Garden in Dallas and Curtis Hixon Park in Tampa. But what kind of urban parks provide the best benefit to the health of a city? According to Balsley, “Smaller parks, not large destination parks, are the key to a vibrant city.”

Balsley, along with Willis Winters from the Dallas Parks and Recreation Department and Karen Palus from the Tampa Parks and Recreation Department, discussed their strategies behind designing Main Street Garden and Curtis Hixon Park in a session at the 2010 American Society of Landscape Architects Annual Meeting and Expo in Washington, D.C. The panel discussed their experiences and provided excellent insight into what it takes to develop a successful urban park.

Main Street Garden, Dallas. Credit: Neff Conner (Flickr Feed)

In 2001, Dallas was jolted by a decision unlike any other before. The Boeing Company chose to move its headquarters to Chicago rather than Dallas because there was a lack of vibrancy in the city center. At the time, only 240 people lived in downtown Dallas, all in a single apartment building. The numerous city employees vacated the area after their nine-to-five workdays and no real thought was given to attracting residents to live in the business district. This lack of a 24-hour tenant presence resulted in a stagnant city center, a place that Boeing did not want to call home for its new corporate headquarters. The decision was a wake-up call for city officials and a new emphasis was placed on revitalizing their downtown, with particular interest in urban parks.

In response, Balsley’s firm was selected to design Main Street Garden, a 1.7-acre park occupying a full city block on the east end of downtown. The site with its historic buildings offered an excellent opportunity to bring life back into the city’s center. As Winters said, “Main Street Garden served as the reason to revitalize the buildings surrounding the area.”

Main Street Garden was designed with an inviting streetscape encouraging people to stop and visit, not just pass through the park on their lunch break. Innovative lighting techniques such as study shelters encouraged use well into the evening hours. Other design elements included a large lawn that can be adapted to multiple uses, a green roof canopy over a concession kiosk, café and dining terrace, botanical garden, urban dog run, playground, stage and an interactive stream fountain that has proven to be popular with children of all ages.

As Balsley discussed the project, he explained that creating a successful design for the park is only part of the job. A large part of the work is managing an oftentimes-contentious public process. He offered some tips for success including:

  • Share your experiences: Be open about your past experiences, offering insight into your successes and setbacks.
  • Form client/designer collaboration: Work with your client encouraging communication and teamwork.
  • Advocate for a committee format: Be open to the idea of a community process.
  • Maintain reasonable expectations: Encourage stakeholders to understand what is possible and what may be unachievable.
  • Listen, and prove it: Encourage an open dialogue and act upon what you hear.
  • Avoid preconceived notions: Be open to all ideas and viewpoints.
  • Hang your ego outside the door: Avoid the “designer knows best” mentality.

Palus who shared the background behind the redevelopment of Curtis Hixon Park emphasized Balsley’s advice. “This is a story of a city that invested in its people by creating a meaningful public space,” she said. However, the park had many organizations and interested parties who had conflicting opinions as to how the park should be developed. Recognizing that differing ideas would be a challenge, the stakeholders agreed to be open to all options, yet keep in mind that the park would be developed for the benefit of the entire city, not one specific group. After navigating the public process, the result was a dynamic park that has proven to be a central gathering space for the entire city.

Curtis Hixon Park, Tampa. Credit: Graham Coreil-Allen (Flickr Feed)

Like his previous work at Main Street Garden, Balsley designed 6.0-acre Curtis Hixon Park with attention to incorporating the park into its present surroundings. Special awareness was given to connecting the park to adjacent cultural assets such as Kiley Garden and the Tampa Museum of Art. This was achieved through a terraced lawn and a promenade garden at the edges of the park. At the street entrance is a large Louver water fountain, frequently used by children and adults to cool down during the hot Tampa summers. When the water sprays upwards, it distorts the view of the park, revealing and hiding different features. The park also has a playground and dog park and even incorporates a segment of the Riverwalk, connecting the David Straz Performing Arts Center to the Glazer Children’s Museum and the Tampa Museum of Art. The paving along the Riverwalk contains a mechanism for misting and creates “fog clouds,” another clever strategy to promote cooling in the summers. Within the park is a large lawn sloping towards the river, featuring what Balsley described as “urban rafts,” large platforms rising out of the slope for sitting, lounging or gathering. These “urban rafts” have become a central part of the park, attracting both people watchers and visitors who want to be seen. People watching was a prominent feature in the design, with both overlooks and rotating chairs incorporated for users to choose views of the waterfront or park.

An attractive park is an essential part of a vibrant city. Both Main Street Garden and Curtis Hixon Park have strong elements that bring visitors to their parks. They also connect to the surrounding area, encouraging growth of businesses and housing. It would be interesting to see how usership has increased at these parks since their openings.

And for those who will be in Dallas today, Peter Harnik will be giving a presentation entitled “Rebirth of the City Park” at the 21st Century City Conference. Come learn more about the efforts the park movement has played in Dallas.

Trails and Transit: a Practical Combination

The trouble with light rail and subway, some say, is that it only serves a small area around each station, and that vast areas can be left to dependence on cars.  Planners consider mass transit service areas around light rail stations and subway stops to be about 1/4 mile — any farther and you’ll see significantly diminishing interest in making the trek.

But that’s for walking — and not biking.

DC Metro is easily accessible downtown, where most stations are within a 10-minute walk (light green circles). In the suburbs, however, convenient access by bicycle would tremendously increase service area (dark green area within 10 minutes bicycling distance of a metro station). RTC

In the DC Metro suburbs, convenient access by bicycle would tremendously increase service area (dark green area within 10 minutes bicycling distance of a metro station). RTC

A Rails to Trails Conservancy report from earlier this year addresses this very issue, noting that “bicycling in particular has great potential to allow more people to access public transportation conveniently. Accessing public
transportation by bicycle can shorten travel times significantly. Because bicyclists travel about four times as fast as pedestrians, convenient access by bicycle can increase the geographic area served by one transit station 16-fold (see map).”

Infrastructure can include on-street bike paths, bike storage facilities and off-street trails.

The New York Times just featured a story about bus rapid transit in Bogota, Colombia — noting that, terminal stations are equipped with huge bicycle parking facilities and a network of bicycle paths and sidewalks were built leading to the stations. (Transportation Alternatives provides more information on providing bike parking at transit stations.)

In Minneapolis, a bike trail runs alongside much of the Hiawatha Light Rail corridor and the city’s Midtown Greenway hooks up to the line. (The rail cars themselves feature interior bike racks.)

In Dallas, The Trust for Public Land has worked with the city to create the Chalk Hill off-street trail, which will directly connect to one of the city’s light rail stations. In fact, Dallas has a greater trail network plan in which there will be six different light rail stations directly connecting to trails currently funded and in the design process.  The trails also connect parks and neighborhoods. (A map showing the city’s trail plans with its existing and planned light rail routes can be viewed here.)