• Who We Are

    City Parks Blog is a joint effort of the Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land and the City Parks Alliance to chronicle the news and issues of the urban park movement. Read more about us.
  • Urban Park Issues

  • Enter your email address to receive notifications of new City Parks Blog posts by email.

  • Archives

  • Urban Green Cover Ad

More Evidence of Kids in Downtown Neighborhoods

Gold Medal Park, nestled in the Mill District mixed-use neighborhood in Minneapolis has been a draw for downtown residents.

More parents with children are living in downtown Minneapolis neighborhoods, says a recent article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. We’ve reported on this trend in places such as Portland, and have made the case that cities need to provide the parks and playgrounds that parents want if they are to have truly diverse neighborhoods from young to old.

The article makes it pretty clear what downtown parents want — parks and playgrounds.  Given the lack of backyards and schools in the downtown Minneapolis area, a group of parents “agreed the single thing most necessary to make the neighborhood more livable was a playground” and they started lobbying the city. A playground is now being built. A city council aide says also that “there’s been a noticeable increase in the number of young children living downtown, which is supported by the number of calls we’ve gotten requesting family-friendly areas.” (The city also recently built Gold Medal Park along the riverfront, which is cited as another draw.)

There is an issue of space — and developers and planners may be reluctant to take land away from buildings. But a lot of recreational activity can fit into a one or two-acre site (i.e. about one square block), more units can be added to buildings to make up for it and more people — parents in this case — will want to live in this setting. In the end, perhaps the real test of what makes a neighborhood livable is whether it is kid-friendly — and parks are necessary to making that happen.

Smart Growth Means Intelligently Including Parks, Green Features

How can parks fit into the smart growth movement? Kaid Benfield, director of NRDC’s Smart Growth Program writes two nice posts about what he calls the environmental paradox of smart growth. He notes in his first post:

Environmental impacts will occur with development; to limit them, we must concentrate them, and this can mean increasing them in some places.  This is what I call the environmental paradox of smart growth.  Only if we understand the paradox can we address it.  Only if we address it can we really create better places in which to live, work, and play – and surely that, not just lowering pollution numbers, must be our real goal.

Kaid goes on to describe how parks, stormwater mitigation and other efforts can make smart growth a more complete movement. He uses Ballston, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. as an example of a neighborhood that infilled and increased density and population (by 10,000 people) but didn’t add any green space.

In a second post, examples of “green density” are provided. Anyone who is a smart growth advocate would find these two posts worthwhile. Also, anyone who supports a more pleasant and environmentally friendly public realm, especially those who are skeptical of density, would benefit in seeing these examples of how it can work.

Rezoning for More Density Around Trails, Parks

Midtown Greenway, Minneapolis

There is a symbiotic relationship between parks and population density. For those living in compact housing around a park’s borders, there is respite, a place to recreate, a back yard where little private outdoor space exists and an amenity that increases property values. For the park, there’s the “eyes” that make it safer, more property taxes to keep it maintained, nearby users to keep it vibrant and able to maximize its value as a public amenity.

While many parks are historically located in dense urban surroundings, the relationship of compactness and greenspace has not been an area of much attention in urban planning circles.

That may be changing to some extent. In Minneapolis, the city appears to be close to rezoning land along the Midtown Greenway, a 5-mile crosstown trail and linear park that links the city’s lakes to the Mississippi River. If passed in its proposed form, according to the Star Tribune:

Population density likely would increase along the popular Midtown Greenway…… One major reason for installing recreational paths was to spur redevelopment in blighted areas along the corridor. The proposal would raise residential zoning for some parcels, while rezoning some industrial parcels to residential.

Mostly located inside a former railroad trench, the bike and hike trail is largely undisturbed by cross streets, making it the fastest way to get across town and a popular place for recreation. (The Midtown Greenway Coalition is also helping build pocket parks with public performance spaces and gardens along the route.)

The Star Tribune also reports that a group of concerned citizens would like “additional protections, expressing concern that shade from taller housing developments and added advertising from commercial development could hurt recreational use of paths.”

These are legitimate concerns, and hopefully they can be dealt with in a way that ensures that density can be increased. As David Owen has pointed out in his book Green Metropolis, compact cities are the most carbon friendly. Concentrating more development along the greenway would: help the region decrease its reliance on the automobile, increase safety and usership of the trail and increase property tax revenue to the city. The key is balancing the concerns of residents.

If it does so, the city would be setting a great example of the kind of density-trails, yin and yang relationship (we’ve mentioned before) that has its roots in this country’s early urban green spaces.

David Owen: City Living is Green Living

The greenest cities are the most compact cities, says David Owen in his recent book Green Metropolis, pointing to New York City’s urban form as a model for sustainability.

For the most part, Owen is right on and the book is a good read. Citing high transit use, walkability and tightly packed buildings, he notes that “the average New Yorker annually generates 7.1 metric tons of greenhouse gases, a lower rate than that of residents of any other American city, and less than 30 percent of the national average, which is 24.5 metric tons.”

While the author has many strong arguments that will help change people’s view of dense cities, sometimes his thinking contradicts what actually is happening. First is the inference that New York is so compact, that biking is a common occurrence. The fact is that New York City ranks 32nd among U.S. big cities in bike commuting, and density alone does not guarantee high biking rates. Only under recent leadership has the city built substantial bike facilities, which requires taking away car space. Yet Owen disparages Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to institute a congestion charge, even though it would have provided additional funding and roadway for bicycle and bus lanes. And he oddly objects to the city’s “Summer Streets” program, which banned cars from about seven miles of streets for three Saturdays in August, saying initiatives like this “treat pedestrians and bicyclists the way Robert Moses used to treat cars, by segregating them on expressways of their own.” What’s the problem with that?

The Central Park Mall, New York City.

The book also seems to veer off a bit when Owen infers that Central Park and Prospect Park are too big. While concerns about safety need attention, in most people’s view it’s wrong to say that these parks should not exist as they do. Meandering within the parks’ natural settings and enjoying the hundreds of things to do there is a joy to many who live in the city. In fact, Manhattan is still as densely populated and energy-saving as it is even with Central Park. Without it, probably more people would prefer leaving for sparsely populated New England hamlets as Owen did. A better point would be that the number of large parks should be limited and that they are more successful with packed housing around their perimeters — something exhibited by Central Park in any aerial picture.

But Owen nails it when he says that in built out cities, what is really needed to entice density are smaller parks within walking distance of residents. He has some wonderful points about the value of places such as Washington Square Park and how recreational space should be “distributed around the city” and placed “toward outer edges,” such as waterfronts.

In this lies the key to environmental sustainability: livable compactness. And on that is one of the most important points of the book, that “environmentalists tend to focus on defending places where people aren’t rather than on intelligently organizing the places where people are.” This means thinking just as much about creating pleasurable and compact cities for families as much or more about protecting land on the urban fringe. Because by doing so, curbing sprawl and reducing energy use is exactly what can be achieved.

Savannah’s Squares: a Model for Today’s Planners?

An AP reporter takes a trip to Savannah, Georgia, the historic city on the Atlantic coast and provides some background on the its famous network of public squares:

But the reason for those public spaces might surprise modern visitors: British General James Oglethorpe designed them as part of a military grid so his troops could set up camp and have shaded meeting spots. The soldiers were there to keep the Spanish from advancing north to the English colony in Charleston, S.C., and Oglethorpe’s statue faces south, as if still keeping a watchful eye on things.

Originally the city had 24 squares. It’s a remarkable feat of preservation that 22 are still in existence and one more is being restored.

Today the squares are home to great old Oaks, benches for people to sit, gardens, meandering pathways and attractive fountains that invite people in and make the city such a pleasant place to be.

Much of their success also has to do with the street layout, in which the squares usually occupy a square block and streets intersect but do not pass through — essentially encouraging through pedestrian traffic. (See figure below.) Via PPS, a submission on the squares quotes Allan Jacobs, author of the definitive book Great Streets, who wrote “. . . [T]he grid pattern of Savannah . . . is like no other we know in its fineness and its distinguishable squares. . . . [O]nce seen it is unforgettable, and it carries over into real life experience. See it . . ., in person, on the ground, and it is not difficult to draw. See it in plan, on a map, and you will recognize it on the ground.”

As cities have rebounded, and walkable urbanism has emerged again as a priority for planners, creating the day-to-day park experiences found in the pedestrian green spaces of Savannah is surely one model to consider.