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Community Gardens


Infographic from City Park Facts, 2017

Community Gardens continue to grow in the parks of the 100 largest US cities. In 2017, there are a total of 1,138 community garden sites with 23,883 individual garden plots. This is an increase of 115 garden sites, adding 1,839 plots in the past year.

We measure community gardens in two ways for City Park Facts. Primarily, we focus on community garden plots – which are the specific garden plots or spaces that individuals or families get access to use for a season. A varied number of plots make up one community garden site, depending on the site, the parks agency and a host of other factors.

Further, it’s important to note that there are many more community gardens in other public and semi-public lands, including sites that might be targeted to build schools, housing or other public facilities. These are not counted in our totals, we we focus specifically on public parkland.

However, there are a number of organizations in US cities focused on providing information, tools and resources to locate and create public spaces, especially community gardens in non-park spaces.  A great example of the tools that these organizing efforts produce is in New York City with LivingLotsNYC.org, which one of several public is mapping tools developed by the Brooklyn based non-profit group, 596 Acres.

The 100 largest US cities with the most community garden sites are New York City with 346, Chicago #2 with 88, Portland #3 with 52, Washington DC with 49, and Seattle #5 with 48.

In terms of community garden plot totals, New York City is #1 with 3,420, Portland with 2,246, Washington DC with 2,300, and Los Angeles with 1,741 and San Francisco with 1,384.  

In terms of plots per 1,000 residents, Portland leads with 3.6, Washington, DC second with 3.5, Madison third with 3.0, and Milwaukee fourth with 1.8 and Seattle fifth with 1.7 plots per 1,000 residents.

Learn more about City Park trends in the 2017 edition of City Park Facts, coming April 20th to tpl.org. If you have questions or comments about this or other city park facts, contact us at ccpe@tpl.org

The Living Laboratory

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 environmental education programming, Washington Park has been named a Frontline Park.

“The Urban Ecology Center first came across City Parks Alliance as the ‘go to’ place to learn and share best practices for urban parks and are deeply honored that our Washington Park branch has been recognized on the national scale,” said Beth Fetterley Heller, Senior Director of Education and Strategic Planning for the Urban Ecology Center. “Washington Park is a gem in the heart of Milwaukee that has seen amazing revitalization in the past decade.  This award belongs to the community, as we could not have created a safe place for children and families to learn and play without deep engagement from community partners, businesses, neighbors and supporters.”

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Green Gyms and Medical Miles: Promoting Public Health with Parks

A group looks into a net near a stream at the Milwaukee Urban Ecology Center. Credit: Jeff McAvoy.

We’ve previously looked at ways in which the medical community is using exercise prescriptions as a way to combat obesity and inactivity.  Park prescriptions are only a portion of the spectrum of exercise prescription programs. Fortunately, the growing awareness of the benefits of outdoor exercise – in addition to the cooperation of parks departments, environmental nonprofits, and individual parks – means that these programs should continue to grow.

Once patients have left the doctor’s office with a prescription in hand, there’s still plenty of work to be done. Someone has to ensure that public parks are meeting the needs of people trying to develop good exercise habits, and that newly inspired patients can find interesting and engaging ways to exercise in local parks.

A growing body of evidence that suggests that exercise in the outdoors provides some quantifiable benefits over indoor exercise. A study released February in the journal Environmental Science and Technology analyzed data from 11 different studies that compared benefits from outdoor and indoor exercise programs, and found that outdoor exercise was associated with “greater feelings of revitalization, increased energy and positive engagement, together with decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression.” Not surprisingly, those who participated in outdoor exercise “stated that they were more likely to repeat the activity at a later date.”[1]

Promoting these mental benefits, which in turn lead to physical benefits, is one of the most effective ways for parks to remain at the center of exercise prescription efforts.  Green Gym, a program in the UK, exemplifies this approach. Green Gym began in 1997 as a project of Dr. William Bird and the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers. Green Gym groups meet at least once a week to do several hours of gardening or conservation work, and results from the program demonstrate both physical and psychological benefits, according to a study done by The School of Health and Social Care at Oxford Brookes University. Researchers found a strong trend in decreased depression scores, as well as increases in muscular strength and improvements in cardiovascular fitness.

Another strategy for encouraging repeat park visits is helping to get family members and pets to join in.

Yes, pets – Albuquerque’s Prescription Trails program, in addition to human park prescriptions, offers walking prescriptions for overweight dogs (whose physiques often mimic that of their owners). Charm Linblad, Executive Director of New Mexico Health Care Takes on Diabetes, quips “from experience, you can’t turn down the dog when it is time for a walk, so when the veterinarian writes a prescription for the pet we get a double bonus – the owner gets a walk!”

Milwaukee’s Urban Ecology Center has seen success in encouraging repeat visits by offering inexpensive family memberships. The Center brings in school groups year-round to its “outdoor classrooms,” and then inspired kids often bring their families back to go cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, rock climbing, or canoeing. The center is committed to never turning away visitors who cannot pay the full membership price, and has built a substantial base of four thousand households, undoubtedly in part due to the welcoming and exciting atmosphere that their website describes:

  • We want to get you outside! We love helping people have positive outdoor experiences and don’t mind at all if your experience starts by borrowing our equipment.
  • We don’t have sugar. Remember when you had to borrow a cup of sugar (or milk, or doughnuts) from your neighbor? Well, just substitute “kayak” for “cup of sugar.” We’re really just trying to be a good neighbor. A neighbor who shares lots of stuff.

Individual parks also have a role to play in forging connections with health. The Medical Mile, which winds through Little Rock, Arkansas’ Riverfront Park, is a good example of how parks can actively tout their contributions to public health. It is accented with motivating and informative information about the benefits of exercise, good nutrition, and smoking cessation. The Medical Mile is part of the 14-mile Arkansas River Trail, perfect for those who want to gradually ramp up their activity.

In an upcoming series of posts, we will excerpt a new report from the Center for City Park Excellence that looks at the specific relationship between health and parks, how individual parks – and entire city park systems – help people be healthier and more fit.  The report details more than 75 innovative features and programs – including 14 case studies – that maximize a park’s ability to promote physical activity and improve mental health.  We will show you how today’s efforts to design urban parks for their health benefits and to create health-enhancing park programming close a circle that extends all the way back to the beginning of the parks movement.

[1] Does Participating in Physical Activity in Outdoor Natural Environments Have a Greater Effect on Physical and Mental Wellbeing than Physical Activity Indoors? A Systematic Review. J. Thompson Coon, K. Boddy, K. Stein, R. Whear, J. Barton, M. H. Depledge Environmental Science & Technology 2011 45 (5), 1761-1772

Increased Funding for Parks Not An Option In Milwaukee?

Many city park systems around the country are faced with increasing deferred maintenance costs to repair or replace facilities. This ranges from neglected Olmsted-designed parks to aging playground equipment, benches and walkways.

One system that embodies this is Milwaukee County, which runs the city and county parks and has an estimated $200 million backlog of fix-ups. A new report from the county auditor, as reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says leaders have “shortchanged upkeep on some of its 156 parks comprising 15,000 acres over three decades, with resulting widespread deterioration except at the system’s showcase venues.”

The report also gives the parks department praise, noting that is one of the best run agencies in the country. In short, the agency has learned how to do a lot with very little.

The audit recommends that the county should consider selling parkland, adding more private ventures in parks and replacing some park facilities with lower-cost buildings.

Nowhere in the report is a recommendation (or even a presented option) to provide more public funding. Ironically, a sales tax dedicated funding parks was approved in an advisory referendum by county voters. The article in the Journal Sentinel indicates that the report did not include this “hot-button” issue, inferring that it shied away from it on purpose (even though it included the very contentious idea of selling parks).

When auditors undertake such reviews, it is necessary to look at all options. When considering that the County system ranks low in funding among its peer cities, an obvious option (along with other solutions) would be more money.

Referenda for City Parks

Milwaukee park

Milwaukee park

A few big cities are trying to pass large bond measures to fund parks and recreation capital costs (acquisition, development and/or improvements) and we’ll watch for what happens on election day. Charlotte/Mecklenburg County has a $250 bond for parks up for consideration. Columbus, Ohio has a $124 million referendum. Seattle, Washington one for $145 million. And Long Beach, Calif., Corpus Christi and Greensboro, N.C. are also looking at them.

In Milwaukee, a question about how much money should go to parks will go to voters, who will decide on whether they want to fund parks, transit and some property tax relief in Milwaukee County through an additional 1% sales tax. Milwaukee currently spends $49 per resident on its parks, well below the $91 dollar average of the nation’s 75 largest cities. And this dedicated funding stream would bring it up a bit in the rankings. A local group, the Quality of Life Alliance has a website with more information on the effort. (We’ll come back after the election and let everyone know what happened, and we’ll also do a review of other cities using the sales tax for parks.)

Those interested in an extensive list of municipalities and other levels of government with voter referendums for parks and conservation can do so through TPL’s Conservation Finance program’s www.landvote.org.