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Maintaining Water-Smart Parks

The following is an excerpt from City Parks, Clean Water, a report by the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence that examines the role of urban parks in managing stormwater. This is the thirteenth installment in a series of 19 posts.

Finding space isn’t the only difficulty in designing water-smart parks. Green infrastructure needs to be kept green in order to function properly and to remain attractive. Swales, rain gardens, and detention ponds are critical components for stormwater management. Long-term aesthetics may take a back seat, especially for wastewater utility staff focused primarily on regulatory compliance, but many such landscape components that are beautiful in initial design renderings will over time start to look mangy. To keep these park areas attractive, experts must choose plants carefully and support good maintenance. Smart planting design (choosing a mix of woody, evergreen, and perennial plants, for example) and rigorous attention and maintenance—especially in the first few years—are important to the success of a water-smart park.

Buffalo BAyou flooding - cred Melissa Phillip, Houston Chronicle

Buffalo Bayou in Houston is designed to flood – and the parks department is prepared for that. (Melissa Phillip, Houston Chronicle)

And what about maintaining the rest of a park’s green infrastructure? Continue reading

Houston’s Park Partners: Greening for the Future

Something is up in Texas.  Philanthropy has discovered parks.  In Dallas, the Belo Foundation, looking to build on the success of Klyde Warren Park, Belo Garden, and Main Street Garden, has just announced an ambitious plan – and $30 million in funding – to realize a vision for downtown by creating 17 acres of new green space through the construction of four major parks.

And in Houston, Hermann Park recently opened McGovern Centennial Gardens after a $31 million renovation.  Memorial Park has a new master plan and funding stream; and the Kinder Foundation, which provided substantial funding for Discovery Green, has also funded the new Buffalo Bayou Park and the Bayou Greenway 2020 Plan.

HPB1Discovery Green changed the way people think about parks in Houston, and making the transition from being a city known for having the widest freeway in the world to a city that understands parks is fundamental to its prosperity.  Leading the charge has been the philanthropic community which sees that “green is good” for health, recreation, and the economy, allowing the city to enhance its quality of life in order to attract and retain engineers, scientists, and other professionals.   Continue reading

A Centennial Celebration

Each month, City Parks Alliance names one “Frontline Park” as a standout example of urban park excellence, innovation and stewardship from across the country. The program identifies city parks that find innovative ways to meet the unique challenges faced as a result of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures and urban neighborhood decay. In recognition of its innovative practices in community engagement and fundraising, Hermann Park has been named a Frontline Park.

“Broad community support has been vital to the renaissance of Hermann Park.  Volunteers have been vital to every aspect — from guiding the planning and construction process to devoting over 20,000 hours each year to caring for the Park,” said Doreen Stoller, Executive Director of Hermann Park Conservancy.  “We are grateful to the City parks Alliance for recognizing the value of community engagement in the public-private partnerships that have created magic in so many urban parks.”

Continue reading

Transforming Houston with Bayou Greenways

The following article is a guest blog post by Jen Powis, Advocacy Director, Houston Parks Board

Imagine Atlanta’s Beltline meeting Portland’s Master Bike Plan, and you’ll get a strong sense of what the completed Houston Bayou Greenways will look like over the next decade.  And that’s why there is so much excitement over what the City of Houston is doing for its urban parks.

Houston is a sprawling, cosmopolitan city of over 650 square miles and 2.3 million people.  But this November, if citizens approve $166 million parks bond, Houston will also have over 150 miles of connected biking and walking paths along nearly 2,000 acres of new parkland, completely separated from cars.

The bond dollars will help complete a system of connected parks throughout Houston known as the Bayou Greenways.  Bayou Greenways are linear public parks along the major bayous flowing towards the Gulf of Mexico that connect many of Houston’s signature parks like Herman Park and Eleanor Tinsley Park.  Much of the land along Houston’s bayous are either in the floodway or the floodplain, and thus not suitable for major development.  By leveraging this otherwise natural land for the development of a connected park system, we accomplish multiple goals for less than half the cost.  These lands are first and foremost parks: places to walk and bike, exercise or sit under a tree.  But they also provide wildlife habitat, help our water quality and flood control, and unite our communities with safe, off-street, and connected access to our existing bus lines and sharrows.

Houston currently has 75 miles of shared use paths and nearly 40,000 acres of parkland.  With the addition of another 2,000 acres of parks directly along the bayous, Houston is poised to have a one-of-a-kind, off-street trail system that re-envisions transportation while at the same time, completing an urban park system like no other.

100 Years Later
In 1912, one of Houston’s first visionary architects recommended to the city that it should take advantage of its natural ecology—the bayous, creeks and ditches that make Houston the swampy port city that it is today.  Since that time, countless individuals and stakeholders have slowly been crafting a system of parks that are connected along the major bayous that flow directly through the city center, making their way to the Gulf of Mexico and the Houston Ship Channel.

There are 10 major bayous in the Greater Houston area.  Many of those bayous currently have sections of trails, linear parks and other larger parks sprinkled throughout each corridor.  Because these linear parks and trails are not connected and continuous, the greenways lack the transformative impact they could potentially have on the area.

So far, the investment in existing trails and parks along our bayous conservatively exceeds $2.4 billion. The only remaining task is to connect them all.  The cost to complete the greenways, trails and new parks within the city limits is $205 million.  The bond would provide approximately $100 million to make those connections and private individuals and community groups have pledged to match the public dollars to complete the job in Houston.

Transformative and Beneficial
Parks play an anchor role in an urban environment, and with the Bayou Greenways completed, Houston will have one of the best systems around.  The health, environmental and economic benefits associated with a project like this are all aspects of a citizen’s quality of life.  They feed into whether a city can attract new talent, and keep its retirees.  It also feeds into larger business relocation decisions, as a company often wants to be associated with a city—like Houston—that was recently named the “coolest city” in America.

We were so sure that implementation of the Bayou Greenways Initiative would have positive economic, environmental, and physical and mental health benefits, that we commissioned a study by a well known professor at Texas A&M University.  Conservatively, the benefits that were assessed a dollar value demonstrate a returning annual benefit of $117 million a year.  That’s a pretty amazing return on investment and another example of why urban parks are so important in today’s fast paced world.   For Houston, there is unlikely to be any other investment that will transform its image from a “cement city” to one that embraces green.

For years, the City, the County, non-profits, and community organizations have been working on different segments of the Bayou Greenways, completing segment by segment and connecting park to park. It’s time to finish the job of uniting the bayous with greenways, trails and parks. That is why the Bayou Greenways Initiative was born.  And this November, it will finally be on its way to completion.

Adding Hours Rather than Acres: Extending Playing Time to Create Parkland

A fourteenth 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 added parkland by extending daylight hours using lighted fields, synthetic turf, and video cameras.

If not enough parkland can be amassed in dense cities by using the three physical dimensions, there is always a fourth dimension: time.

Cities are finding that, through the use of technology, the time that parks are available to the citizenry can be extended. For sports and other recreational activities, buying time can literally be the equivalent of buying land.

The two principal time-extending approaches utilize sports field lights and artificial playing surfaces (synthetic turf). Both are growing in importance in crowded environments.

Soccer players take advantage of the turf fields and lighting at Cal Anderson Park, in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Credit: Flickr user JeanineAnderson.

Lighting has the longer history, and most cities already have numerous lit facilities, including tennis and basketball courts and baseball, football, and soccer fields. Oakland has seventeen lit fields and a policy that all new fields will include lights. Atlanta has forty-four. Miami, which has an extreme park shortage plus a 365-days-per-year playing season (and which, during the summer, is much more pleasant at night) illuminates almost everything: twenty-six baseball diamonds; eleven soccer, six football, and five combination fields; and even one cricket pitch. On the other end of the climate spectrum, Minneapolis lights a golf course for nighttime cross-country skiing in the snows of winter.

Because of lights, usable playing time can be extended by about two hours in the height of summer and up to five hours in the depth of winter. (Most park agencies have an outdoor nighttime sports curfew of 10:00 or 10:30 p.m.) Even ruling out the very coldest months, the average city might pick up almost 1,000 hours of extra sports playing time for every lit field.

And, despite the energy crunch, night lighting is still economical in comparison to land acquisition–at least wherever land is expensive. Installing an illumination system on a field costs about $150,000 (or half that for tennis or basketball), to which must be added an hourly operating cost from about $5 to $20, depending on electricity rates in each city. Most cities tend to reserve the lit fields for permitted high school and league competitions, although they allow pick-up games at other times. Some allow free use, others don’t. Miami charges $10 per hour, Atlanta has a sliding scale all the way up to $71 per hour, depending whether teams are nonprofit and whether they are composed of city or non-city residents. The lights have a variety of operating systems, from old-fashioned manual control by onsite custodians to the latest in cellphone-activated, passcode-protected remote electronic management.

Lights can be controversial with neighbors, depending on the location of the park and layout of the fields. However, new technology seems to be helping there, too, thanks to the invention of better methods to focus the beam and reduce ambient light and glare. Fortunately, on this score there are no trade-offs: the less light “spillage,” the less the operating costs. A major sports illumination company, Musco Lighting, claims that it can cut both hourly costs and unwanted glare by 50 percent simply through the use of better designed luminaires, the bonnets that direct the light onto fields and away from others’ eyes. (Reducing the cost means less electricity used and less pollution generated, although lights, of course, do have a somewhat negative environmental impact.) There are still issues of activity, noise, cars, and ambient nighttime light, but for every complainant, someone else approves of a park that is busy and activated in the evening and that does not serve as a dark gathering place for clandestine, antisocial uses.

Lighting can also extend the hours for other parkland uses beyond traditional competitive sports on fields. The Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis and the Lieberman Exercise Trail in Houston’s Memorial Park are both lighted for bicycling and running, and both facilities are approaching round-the-clock use — the Midtown Greenway because it gets lots of purposeful transportation use, and the Lieberman Trail because parking at Memorial Park is so difficult that runners start showing up at 4:30 a.m. just to get a space.

The cross-country ski trails at Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis are lit, allowing for use even during long, dark Minnesota winters. Credit: Scott A. Schneider for the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board.

Synthetic turf is a much newer development that can also dramatically increase a park field’s usable hours. This is not “astroturf,” the first-generation artificial material that was created to deal with the problem that grass wouldn’t grow in the domed baseball stadium built for the Houston Astros in 1965. Early products were more rug-like and drew complaints for injuries, ambient temperature, ball handling, and water runoff. Several technological generations later, current synthetics come much closer to mimicking real grass, cause far fewer athletic injuries than older versions, and seem to be strongly supported by coaches, players, and park department officials. By allowing a field to be played upon continuously without any rest, artifical turf extends playing hours on a morning-to-night basis as well as month-to-month.

“Our natural grass fields are so old and so heavily used that in many places they’ve turned to bare dirt,” explained Mark Oliver, special assistant to the director of the Oakland Department of Parks and Recreation. “In dry weather that means dust, in wet weather it means mud.” Artificial turf has no such limitation. “We can use them twelve months a year,” Oliver said.

In Boston, with cold and snow sometimes keeping players out of parks in the depth of winter, the season for artificial turf is a bit shorter–generally March through December. But again it is significantly longer than with grass. “Up here, grass fields are unplayable in the spring,” said Stanley Ivan, director of design and construction with the Boston Parks and Recreation Department. “March and even April are very iffy for us with the wet weather.”

The hour-by-hour use is also extended.

“We are real happy with the FieldTurf as it is virtually maintenance-free,” said City of Miami Park Manager Jose Leiva. “The high schools love it and we increased our number of games we can hold on the turf by almost four times compared to what we were able to accommodate with natural grass, which is incredible.”

The downside is that synthetic turf is expensive–as much as $1.5 million per field, counting the price of preparation, materials, and installation. On the other hand, once the initial cost is covered, day-to-day maintenance is easier and cheaper. There is no mowing, no use of fertilizers or herbicides, and no irrigation (although the fields do need occasional hosing down and washing). Healthwise, the new technology seems to be a trade-off: more injuries due to foot-twisting, fewer due to falling into holes; more injuries from “turf burn,” fewer from concussions. As for its environmental ramifications, the verdict is still out. The latest synthetics are designed to allow much rainwater to percolate through the matting to the ground underneath, although they are probably not quite as pervious as natural lawns. Not needing fertilizer and herbicides is a major bonus for clean water and human health; on the other hand, the dust given off by embedded pulverized rubber granules, or by painted nylon fibers, may be harmful to users, and several state health departments have been monitoring the air around some of these fields.

Another technology that is helping to extend the hours of park use, both daytime and evening, is the video camera. Obviously, cameras in parks are not an ideal solution, but their presence does help people feel more secure in rougher neighborhoods, and anything that keeps parks more populated begins a virtuous cycle of use and safety. In MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, police credit the installation of cameras (plus a partial park renovation) with reducing drug dealing and crime and bringing more of the community into the famous and iconic park.

Almost every other aspect of city life is moving toward a “24/7” schedule, so it is not surprising that recreation and park use is, too (although we will probably never again see a time when thousands of residents grab pillows and sheets to sleep out in city parks on hot summer nights, as they did in the 1930s, and as was portrayed in the movie Avalon). The scarcity of land and facilities inexorably pushes park managers to maximize the efficiency with which scarce resources can be used, and adding hours to the day, and days to the year, is another way to please the crowds.

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