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Is Your Park System Fair?

Probably not. Maybe in the historically ethnic sections of town too many parks have broken-down playgrounds or a few too many weeds. Maybe over the past couple of years, dollars have been flowing heavily to the same few parts of town. If so, your city wouldn’t be alone in this. Many places are trying to do better. In Minneapolis, this has meant a revamped approach to park projects.

Since there is never quite enough funding to go around, the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board’s new 20 Year Neighborhood Park Plan includes a rigorous system to prioritize capital investment and large rehabilitation projects for neighborhood parks. The system is uniquely point-based, and also stands out in its emphasis on racial and economic equity. Continue reading

Change the Culture and the Rest Will Follow: Park Departments and Equity

If a Google search of parks and equity was your only measure of who is taking on this issue, it would seem that New York is miles ahead of other cities, as it appears over and over in the search results. But in fact, New York is one of many major cities in the US focusing on the equity issue as best as they can.

Norm Krumholz, Cleveland city planner in the 1970s, was one of the first to define “equity planning,” which he described this way: “You keep your eye on who gets helped and who gets hurt and for the people who usually get hurt – you try to make sure they don’t get hurt as bad.”

Who gets helped and who gets hurt in a city may best be seen through the lens of our public parks – a potent symbol of a city’s equity balance.  In this ongoing struggle, two park agencies, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) and Portland (OR) Parks and Recreation, have hired staff specifically to address equity.  Art Hendricks is the Equity and Inclusion Director for Portland Parks & Recreation, and Michelle Kellogg is the Equity and Inclusion Project Manager for MPRB.  Continue reading

Parks: One of the Most Important Ingredients of a Successful City

(Republished from NextCity)

An audience member at the Philly Parks Future Forum last week called the panelists assembled a “dream team.” The experts represented parks agencies from Seattle, New York, Minneapolis, San Francisco and Chicago. Presented by the City Parks Alliance, the forum wasn’t so much an event to unravel the issues that Philly parks will face specifically, but to discuss how city parks are one of the greatest assets to our country and how they are progressing nationally. Philadelphia Daily News writer Sandra Shea moderated the panel of parks and recreation officials, who shared what’s been working in their necks of the woods. Here are five important takeaways from the Forum.

1. Seattle’s New Park District Was 20 Years in the Making
Proposition 1, which called for the creation of a Seattle Park District, passed with 53 percent of the vote in August. Prop 1 did away with the need to return to voters to secure funding, permanently backing parks through property taxes. (This new source of revenue will be in addition to the $89.5 million that Seattle already receives each year from the city’s general fund.)

What turned the tide? Seattle Parks and Recreation Acting Superintendent Christopher Williams said it was Mayor Ed Murray’s outspokenness on the issue. Since city officials at Parks and Recreation don’t run for their jobs, they don’t campaign on their stances. Williams said having a public face mattered. “I can’t say enough about advocacy,” he stated.

Williams said the Seattle department knows it still answers to voters, and because of that responsibility, he suggested, parks departments everywhere should be using a strong performance management model, relying on spreadsheets and data and report cards to track success.

2. 96 Percent of San Franciscans Can Walk From Their Homes to a Park in 10 Minutes or Less
According to The Trust for Public Land, close to 10 million Americans live within a 10-minute walk to a park. According to San Francisco Recreation and Park General Manager Phil Ginsburg, some 800,000 of them live in San Francisco. Ginsburg got more than a few laughs from the Forum audience when he pointed out that many of those park visitors have four legs: San Francisco’s a city of 80,000 children … and 150,000 dogs.

Of course, just having abundant park space isn’t enough. Ginsburg pointed out that as San Francisco’s population continues to grow, his department is focused on modernizing one of the oldest park systems in the U.S. by acquiring more land to create new parks. He pointed out that prioritizing long-term capital planning (thanks to former Mayor Gavin Newsom and current Mayor Ed Lee) is making that expansion possible. Ginsburg emphasized that investing in children — in their health and public safety — with parks improvements was better than paying on the “back end in emergency rooms.”  Continue reading

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.

Cities Can Have Health Promoting Park Systems Through Proximity, Accessibility, and Co-Location

The closer the park and the easier to get to, the more likely it will be used. Conversely, people who live far from parks are apt to utilize them less.

These obvious truths have implications for public health, but recognizing the problem does not automatically offer simple solutions for mayors, city councils, park directors, or urban planners. Creating new parks in a crowded, built-out city is a slow, arduous, and often expensive task. It can be done—it is being done in almost every city in the country—but it is not the only way to bring people and green space together. Much can be done outside the park fence, in the neighborhood, where the normal processes of urban construction, rehabilitation, and change occur at a faster pace.

Sometimes easiest to fix is the problem of accessibility. Some parks are underused simply because they are too hard to get to. Users may be blocked by steps, fences, walls, cliffs, railroad tracks, highways, waterways, or an unbroachable row of private residences. Some parks require a long jaunt to the other side just to gain entry. Others are literally visible from a home but unreachable by children without a chaperoned car ride.

Park access might be improved by constructing a ramp or pedestrian bridge in a key location, or by installing a traffic signal on a busy road. While such fixes might cost from $50,000 to several million dollars, that is a small price compared with what is routinely spent on highways and parking lots and would be more than offset by savings in health costs resulting from more frequent park use.

People are more likely to use parks that are close to places where they spend time: restaurants, shopping districts, libraries, gyms, and other meeting areas. In some cases parks can be sited close to such destinations. In other instances businesses and attractions can be allowed or encouraged to locate near existing parks. A mistaken Victorian sensibility sometimes holds that the “purity” of parks should not intersect with the “untidiness” of commercial areas. In fact, people like that proximity. They welcome the opportunity to buy picnic food or an ice cream cone to eat on a nearby park lawn or bench—and if that sojourn can be combined with a brisk walk, jog, or basketball game, so much the better.

Or, a large downtown destination park might be considered for a bike station, like the one offered at Chicago’s Millennium Park. There, for a membership fee, park users have access to one of 300 secure bike spaces along with lockers, showers, and a repair shop. For tourists, there are rental bikes. Completed in 2004 for $3.2 million, the facility today is so popular that it has a waiting list.

Best of all is the provision of plenty of housing near parks. This is an old concept with a new name: park-oriented development. From Lincoln Park in Chicago to Riverside Park in New York to Lake Harriet in Minneapolis, the parks surrounded by lots of people are the ones that can provide the greatest total amount of health benefits. But often U.S. cities are zoned so as to prevent that outcome. Some communities are averse to the look of taller buildings around parks; others may even think that the fewer people in the park, the better.

If denser development is not possible, park use can also be increased by improving accessibility through walking, bicycling, and public transit. (Automobile access is less desirable because it requires acres of parking and eliminates the health benefit of walking and cycling.) Ample park entrances, great sidewalks, and bike lanes on connecting streets; pedestrian-friendly perimeter roads with plenty of traffic signals and crosswalks; and easy grades and smooth trails for elderly and wheelchair-bound visitors: all these contribute to great access. In large parks, high-use destinations such as playgrounds, basketball courts, and swimming pools should be sited near the edge of the park, not deep in the interior.

"Catchment Circle." The area of a circle grows by the square of the radius. If a park is easy to reach by bicycle, 16 times as many people can get to it in the same amount of time it takes to walk from a mile away. Illustration: Helene Sherlock.

Bicycle access extends the “reach” of a park 16-fold over walking. This is because cycling is about four times faster than walking, and the “catchment circle”—the surrounding area from which park users can be drawn—increases by the square of the distance from the park (see diagram on right). Thus, improving bicycle access is an important way to get more people to the park (not to mention the health benefit from pedaling there and back).

Good public transit improves park access even more. It is no coincidence that eight of the ten most heavily used parks in American cities offer subway or light-rail access within one-quarter mile, and all of them have bus service that comes even closer. In New York City major parks almost invariably have subway service. Other parks well served by subway and rail include Boston Common, Forest Park in St. Louis, Millennium and Grant parks in Chicago, and the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

As new transit lines are built, it’s sometimes possible to align them with parks. Seattle’s new streetcar line terminates at 12-acre South Lake Union Park. The city is working to increase housing and commercial density in this near-downtown location, and the alignment of park and transit is particularly helpful in reaching the goal. “Especially at lunchtime,” says former Seattle Parks Foundation Director Karen Daubert, “you can see the crowds walking off the streetcar right into South Lake Union Park. It’s the perfect connection to this waterfront refuge.”

For larger parks, internal transit can also promote access. At 130-acre Washington Park in Portland, Oregon—home to the popular Rose and Japanese gardens—special Tri-Met buses not only connect to the nearest light-rail station but also make eight stops inside the park. The service is inexpensive (or free with a transfer), runs every 15 minutes, and is aggressively advertised by the park department, Tri-Met‚ and event promoters. The route gets about 500 riders per day on weekends and 420 on weekdays. From a health perspective, taking transit results in far more walking than accessing the park in a private automobile.

Here are a few examples of the ideas presented above:

Piedmont Park, Atlanta. Health-promoting park systems appreciate density. Credit: Ashley Szczepanski.

In recent years, Atlanta’s Piedmont Park has shown a marked growth in users. There are several reasons for this, including policies that have reduced auto traffic in the park, the rehabilitation of facilities, better signage‚ and additional programming. But also significant is the fact that more people now live in areas bordering or near the park. Unlike many other urban places, the Piedmont Park neighborhood is densifying, and the park itself is serving as a significant lure for development.

Between 2000 and 2009 alone, the City of Atlanta approved building permits for 16 new multi-unit rental and condominium apartment buildings within a half-mile of Piedmont Park, and the neighborhood gained nearly 100 single-family homes. All told, the park neighborhood gained 1,880 units, or about 4,500 people, over the decade. These people are the heaviest users of the park facilities. They compound their health benefit by often walking or running to the park rather than driving there.

“Piedmont Park is one of the single biggest assets we have in the neighborhood,” said Ginny Kennedy, director of urban design for the Midtown Alliance. “In everything we do, we encourage and try to reinforce access and visibility to the park.”

Perhaps most significant, the Midtown Alliance—whose goal is to make midtown Atlanta an “exceptional place to live, work, learn, shop, and play”—spearheaded the area’s 2001 rezoning. The changes enabled many more people to live and work near Piedmont Park and benefit from its health-promoting effects.

Midtown Greenway, Minneapolis. Health-promoting park systems locate parks and trails so as to benefit from other uses. Credit: Freewheel Bike Center.

Since its opening in 2000, Minneapolis’s Midtown Greenway has quickly become one of the best-used bike routes in the country, largely because it combines a park-like experience with true functionality. The mostly below-grade former rail line is quiet to ride, bordered with green, and unbroken by street intersections. Yet its almost six-mile length parallels a major commercial street only one block away, offering easy access to grocery and hardware stores, restaurants, video rentals‚ and pharmacies. “Fast, safe, and pleasant” is how Midtown Greenway Coalition Director Tim Springer describes the linear park—but it is also convenient. Instead of returning home from a bike ride and climbing into the car for errands, many Midtown Greenway users are able to multitask. The greenway leads them to their needs, and their needs lead them to the greenway.

The city has consciously helped. When a massive old Sears warehouse was converted into the Midtown Global Market, officials built a connection from the greenway and also landed a federal loan to create the Freewheel Bike Center‚ which provides storage, repair, rentals‚ and sales. Next door is a coffee shop. Nearby, the new Sheraton hotel has an outdoor patio overlooking the trail (and directs guests to rent bikes from Freewheel). The greenway also intersects with transit along the Hiawatha light-rail line, giving some Minneapolitans a car-free commute with morning and evening exercise to boot. All in all, the collocation of the park with diverse destinations has made this not only a greenway, but a “healthway.”

Want to know more ways urban park systems can best promote health and wellness?  Read this publication from The Trust for Public Land.

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