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Let’s Pass a Law to Fund Urban Greenspaces

By Nanette Barragán (D-San Pedro)

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There’s nothing like greenspace for improving our quality of life.

Unfortunately, too many families and children are denied access to a neighborhood park. They may also lack recreational facilities like basketball courts.

Greenspaces and outdoor recreation aren’t luxuries. The most livable cities are dotted by parks, and they return countless health and economic benefits. Recreation brings out people from across the community. Urban open spaces make areas more appealing to live and invest in.

Continue reading

For Most Americans, Their Closest Park is a City Park

By Catherine Nagel, Executive Director City Parks Alliance

For many Americans, access to the outdoors is not a long drive away but can be found close by in their neighborhood park. As more people are moving back to urban areas without the luxury of a backyard the importance of close-to-home parks is only increasing. Parks are where people gather on weekends to spend time with family, exercise, and connect with their community. They are where children first experience nature. But beyond their role in recreation and social well-being, city parks also help grow local economies, create new transportation options, combat crime, and reduce environmental impacts such as storm water runoff. Urban planners, elected officials, and community advocates recognize these benefits and are taking a fresh look at parks as an important part of city infrastructures.

philly-stormwater-lwcf-graphicOne of the critical funding sources for parks, playgrounds, urban wildlife refuges, greenways, trails, and open spaces in all 50 states is the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). LWCF is funded through revenue from offshore oil and gas drilling royalties. Those funds are leveraged with state and municipal funds—public and private—to  provide close-to-home recreational opportunities and open space, which in turn benefit urban communities even more: attracting investment, creating jobs, spurring tourism, reducing public health expenditures, mitigating storm surges, and keeping the air and water cleaner. Permanent reauthorization and full funding of this important piece of legislation is critical for our nation’s future health and growth without tapping U.S. tax dollars.

Philadelphia’s 10,334 acre park system, for example, was developed in part with $12 million in LWCF funds and is saving the city $6 million per year in stormwater management costs. As part of its Green City, Clean Waters initiative, over the next 25 years Philadelphia will be investing $2 billion in parks and green infrastructure to capture 85% of the city’s stormwater, saving the city $16 billion that would otherwise be spent on underground pipes and tunnels. LWCF grants can match these water utility investments to ensure that stormwater management investments are simultaneously creating outdoor recreation opportunities.

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Catherine Nagel presents award to Secretary Jewell, photo credit Julie Waterman

This week, I was able to thank Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell for her leadership in supporting urban parks around the country. She has been a strong advocate for permanent reauthorization and full funding of the LWCF, and an active participant in many Mayors for Parks Coalition events.

Mayors for Parks, a project of City Parks Alliance, is a national bipartisan coalition of mayors who understand the importance of urban parks in their communities, and are advocating for a strong LWCF.  Secretary Jewell participated in events around the country with Mayors for Parks Coalition members Mayor Betsy Price of Fort Worth, TX, Mayor William Bell of Birmingham, AL, Mayor Jim Brainard of Carmel, IN and Mayor Greg Stanton of Phoenix, AZ to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passage of LWCF. Secretary Jewell also joined me and fellow mayors in a press event for the release of City Parks Alliance’s report “A Smart Investment for America’s Economy:  The Land and Water Conservation Fund.”

Urban parks are dynamic institutions that play a vital role in the social, economic and physical well-being of America’s cities and their residents. Secretary Jewell understands the multiple benefits of urban parks and the critical role they play inspiring and offering youth in particular a chance to interact with nature. As development pressures on urban land continue to grow, we must find new and innovative ways to make sure that our parks have the funding they need and the benefits of green space are integrated in development decisions. For most Americans, the closest park will continue to be a city park.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund Turns 50

By Julie Waterman

Today the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) celebrates its 50th anniversary.  Not all Americans are familiar with LWCF, but they are probably familiar with parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, urban wildlife refuges, trails and open space that have been protected or built with the support of this effective federal program.

As one of the most successful pieces of legislation in the nation, LWCF has supported more than 42,000 projects in 98% of the nation’s counties. And since its creation in 1964, LWCF has had strong bipartisan support.  Over the past half century, more than $4.1 billion has been appropriated to states not through tax payer dollars, but through revenues from offshore oil and gas drilling royalties.  This funding has been matched by state and local contributions, for a total LWCF grant investment of $8.2 billion–doubling the return on investment.

But in September 2015, LWCF will expire unless Congress decides to reauthorize it.

That is why the City Parks Alliance launched the bipartisan Mayors for Parks coalition. Mayors around the country recognize the importance of LWCF and are taking action to ensure it continues to serve their communities.  The coalition is urging full funding at $900 million annually and reauthorization of LWCF before its expiration date next year. Co-chairs of the coalition are Mayor Michael B. Hancock (D) of Denver, CO and Mayor Betsy Price (R) of Fort Worth, TX.  The Mayors for Parks coalition now has 28 mayors on board, representing cities of all sizes across the United States.   Continue reading

Not Buying It: Phoenix’s Save Our Parks Committee Helps Drive Transparent Parks Policy

By Gail LaGrander and Jon Ford

How does a community lose 2+ acres of prized urban parkland without learning about it beforehand? How does a city government follow open meeting laws but fail to connect with affected residents? Easy. The letter of the law gets followed, but not the spirit. Or worse, when you look more closely, maybe the letter of the law wasn’t followed in all aspects either.

Today Phoenicians are in a much better position to help protect, defend and determine the future of urban flatland parks. But not before crucial park acreage was lost, neighbors and stakeholders were organized, and some heavy lifting was accomplished that ultimately helped reshape municipal policy.

In May 2011, Phoenix lost 2.015 acres of critical municipal parkland from Little Canyon Park, impacting a neighborhood with minimal public park and open space amenities. Those key acres that linked a unique trail, the park and the neighborhood were sold to the private, for-profit Grand Canyon University, to realize a $200 million campus expansion plan. A year passed before residents learned about the actual sale, when the university expressed interest in buying the park’s remaining 13.8 acres in April 2012.

News that the entire park could be sold alarmed many residents and stakeholders, triggering a public records search and two key discoveries:

  1. The 2011 sale followed a seemingly “reasonable” process governed by open meeting law: Parks and Recreation Board meeting > Seniors, Families, and Parks City Council Subcommittee meeting > City Council meeting. Still, those affected by the sale knew nothing of it.
  2. The park was established in 1971 with federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) monies, requiring any sale or “conversion” to be filed and approved by the National Parks Service (NPS) via Arizona State Parks.

In other words, there were two problems that required two paths:

  1. Development and Adoption of a “Public Notification for Sales or Disposition of Parkland” policy. Given that no such process currently existed, residents and stakeholders formed the Save Our Parks committee that invested eight months in extensive research, deliberation and negotiation with city of Phoenix Parks and Recreation staff. It was no easy task. The committee drafted, deliberated, re-crafted, shepherded, provided “life-support” and finally gained adoption for the new policy on April 25, 2013.
  2. Analysis of the LWCF Conversion. Here, the Save Our Parks committee mustered legal and policy resources at the municipal, state and federal levels. Ultimately, the legal opinion was reached that the conversion does not comply with LWCF guidelines or requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.  Specific resolutions related to this finding are pending.

Of primary importance in getting to a better solution, the Save Our Parks committee focused on the following key elements:

  • Securing a transparent process.
  • Prioritizing public notification.
  • Affording impacted residents and park users with numerous opportunities (in different locations, formats, and venues) to make their opinions count.

In the end, answers came from within the city itself as much as they did from elsewhere. The committee identified a pre-existing city of Phoenix process with the most thorough and established review mechanisms for land use changes, and applied many of the same elements in the parkland sale policy. The team also turned to the Handbook on the Alienation and Conversion of Municipal Parkland in New York for development of two important checklists, and to many individuals in Arizona and across the nation who provided advice, encouragement, resources, and expressions of solidarity.

As important as anything accomplished, a strong network now connects Phoenix urban park advocates with local and national assets. Urban parks will continue to face challenges as a city like Phoenix evolves, but there now exists a layer of protection provided both by the policy and the network. Should it be activated by a potential buyer or other change, those who value our public parks for their myriad physical, mental, economic, environmental, and social benefits will be ready to act.

For those who believe that they are in a position to benefit from our experience, we welcome any opportunity to reciprocate and offer our support. For more on the Save Our Parks Committee of Phoenix, contact Gail LaGrander at gail.lagrander@slhi.org or 602.385.6509.

Gail LaGrander  is a member of the Save Our Parks committee and the project coordinator for Maryvale on the Move, an initiative to engage community residents in securing policy changes and modifications to the built environment that support access to healthy food and opportunities for active living for all  children and their families.

Parks Breathe Life (and Jobs) into Cities

The South Platte River has become a cherished recreational asset for residents and visitors to Denver. Thoughtful, visionary planning and public-private partnership have restored and transformed the city’s waterfront from what was once called an “urban dump” to refuge for wildlife and people alike. Local efforts to improve the river have created new jobs and inspired economic development, and places for picnicking, biking, boating, dining, entertainment and even sunbathing on a sandy stretch of beach.

Much of this progress would not have been possible, however, without essential funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), the nation’s primary tool for protecting open space in urban and rural communities nationwide. Denver, like cities across the country, relies on the fund to match state and local dollars to create and enhance urban parks and restore waterways.

Instead of using taxpayer money, the little-known LWCF is funded with fees paid by oil and gas companies drilling offshore. For nearly 50 years, the fund has protected national parks, wildlife refuges, rivers, parks, and ball fields in every state.

“The Land and Water Conservation Fund continues to be an essential tool to meet the increasing demand for livable communities in cities all across this country,” Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock said recently. “In Denver, we value our great open spaces and recreational facilities. These investments are as much economic investments for the city as they are quality of life investments for our residents. “

Denver isn’t alone. Recognizing the importance of parks to the vitality and health of their communities, 50 U.S. mayors joined Mayor Hancock in appealing recently to President Obama and Congress to maintain funding for LWCF during these difficult economic times.

With cities facing depressed property values, reduced tourism, and lower tax revenues, urban parks have incurred approximately $6 billion in deferred maintenance costs, according to Will Rogers, president of The Trust for Public Land. Newly released data from TPL’s Center for City Parks Excellence show that many city park systems are struggling to deal with budget shortfalls, resulting in fewer people employed in full-time and seasonal positions, and potential impacts on programs and services.

At a time when the nation is looking for every opportunity to create new jobs, mayors assert that parks are just as important to a city’s prosperity as banks, coffee shops, department stores, and corporate headquarters. In addition to luring tourists, parks bolster community home values. Mayors know that could mean more real estate tax revenue.

Furthermore, parks breathe life into communities. Urban parks are not just safe and beautiful retreats, but also help to address nearly every critical urban need from health to housing, education and environmental justice, countering sprawl, and combating crime.

Just last month, Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa announced a plan to create dozens of new parks throughout the city. The initiative is part of his goal to create a livable, vibrant and prosperous community, and at the same time drive economic development and create new jobs.

“Urban parks are more important than ever as cities grow larger and denser,” said Rogers. “Though budgets are tight everywhere, urban parks have consistently proven to be a wise investment, helping to improve health, increase environmental quality, and sustain property values.”

Are President Obama and Congress listening? Working together, we can revitalize and green our cities and create jobs. The Land and Water Conservation Fund is an essential tool for realizing that vision.

–  Catherine Nagel, Executive Director of the City Parks Alliance

This article was originally published in “The Hill” on December 20, 2011.