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The Creative Culture of Parks: Moving from Pop-ups to Permanent

Can pop-up parks and public space projects trigger investment in new public parks?  Is there a role for community-generated projects in the formal planning process?

ccop2The Miami Foundation is working to find out with its Miami Public Space Challenge, now going into its fifth year.  The Public Space Challenge uncovers the best ideas for creating, improving and activating parks, plazas, and local gathering places. Since 2013 more than 1,432 project submissions have been made and $870,000 awarded for 70 projects.  Continue reading

Innovative Governance

“There should be more than one way to run a park.”  
                                                                –Adrian Benepe

So went the thinking behind the creation of Central Park Conservancy as recounted by Adrian Benepe, former New York City Parks Commissioner and now Director of Urban Parks for the Trust for Public Land.  Adrian was here in Miami this week, touring the city, talking with park advocates, and looking for ways that the national organization and its cadre of urban park experts could add value to Miami and Miami-Dade County parks.

Miami1Adrian talked about the challenges cities face in continuing to be the sole steward for their parks in the face of huge budget challenges, and a list of pressing needs longer than your arm.  Why not, he argued, find new models that not only bring more resources into the equation but also add more value?

His words ring true for cities across the country who increasingly see parks as part of their strategy for economic development while struggling to find new models for developing and operating them – or, as editor and columnist for Fortune magazine, Geoff Colvin sees it, “…developing the most crucial competency for every company today, innovating the business model.”  Substitute the word ‘parks’ for ‘company’ and all his ideas are relevant to our work.

In a recent interview with Urban Land magazine, Colvin extrapolates his ideas about business model innovation for real estate:

It’s a big story in commercial real estate, as the buildings tend to last a long time. But the buildings may last longer than the business model. In an awful lot of businesses, the model lasted for decades, if not a century. It just doesn’t anymore. The ability to envision different business models for a given property is going to be extremely valuable.

And, a source of competitive advantage.  The most important element of business model innovation for parks right now is around governance.   How can cities and their bureaucracies give way to more decentralized, resourceful decision-making?  Park visitors want so much more from their experience than one public agency can manage, even if they had all the financial resources to do so.  A better way is to find a structure that gives all the stakeholders the freedom to express their ideas – through social media to formal advisory roles to a full-fledged partnership stake.

The stakes here are high – as in the case of the High Line development, which has helped to trigger the construction of 40 new buildings, 12,000 new jobs and $200 million of new tax revenue (predicted to hit $900 million by 2020), not to mention the tourism dollars generated from nearly 5 million annual visitors.  Millennium Park, the subject of my next post, has generated $2.4 billion in new real estate construction in the last ten years according to a Texas A&M study.  If, as Adrian says, parks are becoming the linchpin for economic development strategies for cities, then we need to rethink our motivation for P3s as being about much more than a default option for governments due to a lack of money.

HighLine2The value of a conservancy as a private partner to park agencies is about constituency and constancy.  According to Adrian, in addition to Central Park Conservancy and Prospect Park Alliance, there are 200 ‘friends of the parks’ groups in New York City, as well as a set of city-wide park advocates – all working together to bolster parks.

It may be that we have to start thinking about the business model for parks as a system of interconnected activities and stakeholders; a system that demands flexibility and creativity in determining how a park does business in order to stay vibrant and relevant to its users.  Public agencies can’t have a monopoly on how they runs parks and continue to do it competitively and successfully; they will need to tap into partnerships, external resources and new programs to keep parks vital.

Colvin, in his interview with Urban Land magazine goes on to say,

The problem in doing [business model innovation] is primarily a cultural problem—people just having personal difficulty changing their view of what they do, what the company does. Anytime you change things, you threaten existing interests. Conceptually, making these changes is easy. Even technologically, it’s easy. It’s the human element that makes it difficult.

In Miami, we are challenged with bridging the gap between the city’s now well-established donors and advocates for arts and culture with a small but increasingly vocal group who care about the city’s parks.  Our parks, together with our extensive waterfront are our outdoor living room and another element of our urban culture.  Many of us see a need for a whole new way of thinking about our parks as the city and region experiences another real estate boom – before it becomes too expensive to do so.

Why not?  The weather here is fine, people are outside more than in most cities, and downtown Miami as well as Miami Beach are dense enough now to make bicycling an easy and convenient way to travel.  Why not green our paths and waterfronts and make it easier and more pleasant for residents and visitors to get around this beautiful place – and do it in a way that builds on our economic engine and strengthens peoples’ connection to the city?

Adrian reminded us that with Mayors Bloomberg (New York City) and Nutter (Philadelphia) leaving their jobs as two of the most high profile green mayors in recent history, there is a void in a national mayoral voice making the case for the value of investing in city parks. Who might step in and continue to lead us with innovative governance and business models for running our parks and enlivening our city life?

KBlahaKathy Blaha writes about parks and other urban green spaces, and the role of public-private partnerships in their development and management. When she’s not writing for the blog, she consults on advancing park projects and sustainable land use solutions.

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.

Grapeland Water Park and Mary Bartelme Park Selected as July’s “Frontline Parks”

Each month, City Parks Alliance recognizes two “Frontline Parks” to promote and highlight inspiring examples of urban park excellence, innovation, and stewardship across the country.  The program also seeks to highlight examples of the challenges facing our cities’ parks as a result of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures, and urban neighborhood decay.

July’s Frontline Parks are known for keeping patrons cool and for their unique water conservation technology.

Grapeland Water Park

Grapeland Water Park is the first public water destination attraction within the City of Miami.  With four pools that include slide play structures, a lazy river and recreation pool, the facility has brought splashy fun to the backyard of a community.  The bright and colorful environment was designed by acclaimed international artist Romero Britto.  A popular destination for families and groups, the park is located adjacent to an exit off a major highway in Miami, making it accessible for those who live in the neighborhood and surrounding counties.  During the summer, it’s common for the park to hit peak capacity several times a day.  The combination of innovative water conservation technology, creative design and fitness/recreation programs for people of all ages and abilities make Grapeland a wonderful warm weather neighborhood attraction.  Site furnishings in Grapeland Water Park were manufactured by DuMor, Inc.

Mary Bartelme Park

Occupying the site of a former infirmary, Mary Bartelme Park combines a sense of history with modern, innovative design elements.  This uniquely designed green space in the West Loop serves a community that has experienced tremendous growth over the last 10 years.  The Chicago Park District worked with the local elected officials, community members and nonprofit organizations to create a park that specifically caters to the neighborhood.  The size and amenities in this park give it the feel of a local space, but the unique design and location make it an appealing regional destination.  Innovation abounds in this park, from using pieces of the original infirmary building in seat walls to capturing and storing all storm water with permeable paver paths.  But one of the most popular features manages to conserve water and keep park patrons comfortable at the same time.  Using only three gallons a minute, each of the five stainless steel fountain gates emit a fine mist of vaporized water on hot Chicago days, cooling off families while immersing the area in a cloud.

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