• Who We Are

    City Parks Blog is a joint effort of the Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land and the City Parks Alliance to chronicle the news and issues of the urban park movement. Read more about us.
  • Urban Park Issues

  • Enter your email address to receive notifications of new City Parks Blog posts by email.

  • Archives

  • Urban Green Cover Ad

Visions of Closing Roads and Creating Parks

A previous post highlighted a few cities that closed roads through parks to increase pedestrian and non-motorized use. We’ve recently learned about a proposal to temporarily close streets to traffic during weekends and holidays in Buenos Aires and bring in portable playground equipment and benches to turn these roads into parks. A video of this concept is below:

The “Plaza Movil Street Park” was one of three winners of the Philips Livable Cities Award, a global initiative designed to generate innovative, meaningful and achievable ideas to improve the health and wellbeing of city-dwellers across the world. The creator of the Plaza Movil Street Park received a grant of €25,000 to help translate his concept into reality.

Also worth viewing is the video of one of the five finalists, who brings a plan a little closer to home. The “Design Your Own Park Competition” in Binghamton, NY would turn neglected, urban spaces into parks by having neighborhood residents and groups submit designs in a contest, with the winning vision ultimately created and maintained as a public park.

Going From “Parkway” to “Park”

A third 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 examples of boulevards and parkways used as parks.

Boston Women's Memorial along Commonwealth Avenue. Credit: Swampyank (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

When the parkway was first invented by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvin Vaux in the 1860s, it was much more a “park” and less a “way” than it is today. Of course, that was before the automobile. Eastern Parkway and Ocean Parkway, both in Brooklyn, New York, were wide boulevards with a center carriageway, narrow access roadways on each margin, and two attractive, maple-, oak-, ash- and shrub-filled median malls for promenading, sitting, seeing, and being seen. The malls had a cinder equestrian trail. In 1894, the walkway on Ocean Parkway was split to form a bicycle path–the nation’s first. There is also memorable paving-work and even chess tables.

The concept was enticing for reasons of both beauty and economics: parkways were not only pleasing to users but also provided a maximum amount of park edge upon which developers could construct homes. Many cities, from Buffalo to Chicago to Kansas City to Denver eagerly followed suit. Over time, though, most urban parkways and boulevards have been chipped away by transportation engineers and modified by new regulations and insurance requirements so that they do more for cars and less for people.

Some, like the Grand Concourse in New York, essentially lost all vestiges of their original human element. Lanes were widened and speed limits raised. Trees were severely pruned or removed and not replanted; muscular guardrails were installed; and intrusive directional and regulatory signs erected. Meanwhile, on some older boulevards benches have been removed; on new ones they were never even contemplated. By the time of the automobile era, almost every aspect of parkway design was for windshield pleasure, not actual use.

According to researchers at the University of Minnesota, making parkways into something more than just pretty roads requires that they be treated as places. “Parkways become places,” they write, “by creating outdoor rooms that are shared by a broad community, not just the automobile….The integration of sidewalks, bike paths, adjacent civic institutions, and other important cultural amenities with the road support the image of place. The orientation of buildings to the street also strongly influences the character of parkways.”

Back in the nineteenth century, Eastern Parkway and Ocean Parkway served many different users, and even today they accommodate far more than just drivers. The 6-mile-long, 210-foot-wide Ocean Parkway contains about 110 acres of non-car space. Kansas City’s Ward Parkway has spectacular fountains with benches, community-tended flower gardens, and Mirror Pool, which is used for ice skating in mid-winter. Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue features a center walkway that has benches, public art, and monuments, along with majestic shade trees, bushes, and gardens.  In contrast, the median on Pennsylvania Avenue in southeast Washington, D.C., contains only small cherry trees and is designed solely as visual relief for drivers – it has no walkway, seating, or any other pedestrian-oriented amenity.

Beyond squeezing more value out of existing parkways and boulevards, it may be possible to create new ones. Most cities have one or more streets that are extraordinarily and unnecessarily wide and that could be reconstructed as parkways with planted medians. This might be particularly effective in an old industrial area that formerly handled trucks or railcars but is now transforming into a residential or office district. Even urban highways are fair game for reconsideration. In many cities, the widest “streets” are the interstates that were bulldozed through preexisting neighborhoods and are now being reevaluated. Unlike expressways, which serve as noisy, blighting barriers in cities, parkways are known to add substantial value to nearby residences, often resulting in enough additional tax revenue to cover the cost of their creation and maintenance.

Minneapolis is now in the forefront of the parkway retrofit movement. While the city and the Park Board are justifiably proud of the Grand Rounds, that famous route is in fact also a bit of an embarrassment due to a 3-mile gap through the northeast quadrant of the city. The gap, and the decline of the area, has lasted for more than a century while real estate values (and social capital) in other sections of the city have flourished. After drawing up plans yet failing to fill the missing link in 1910, 1918, 1930, and 1939, the effort went dormant until 2007 when the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board listed it among the top priorities in its comprehensive plan. A route has been selected that mostly involves using and redesigning existing roadways. There are formidable land acquisition challenges and a projected price tag in excess of $100 million, but the Park Board, under the slogan “Keeping the Promise,” seems determined to achieve success. If and when it does, it will serve as an influential example that great parkways and boulevards are not only a memento from the past but can link recreation with transportation in the 21st century, too.

“Park Above, Park Below”: Rooftop Parks Reach New Heights

In a series of posts, we will begin featuring excerpts from the recently released book from Island Press called Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities.  In this first post, we look at rooftop parks and some best practices.

St. Mary's Square, San Francisco. Credit: BrokenSphere (Wikimedia Commons)

New York landscape architect Thomas Balsley delights in promising to show friends what he calls “the greatest untapped open space opportunity in America.” He then takes them to the top of the Empire State Building and points to the ocean of rooftops visible to the horizon in every direction.

A city receives exactly as much sunlight and rainfall as it did before development when the area was a virgin forest or grassland, but now much of the meteorological action is off the ground on top of structures. Although most individual houses have sloping roofs that are perhaps better suited for solar collectors or conduits for rain barrels, most large institutional or residential buildings have flat ones that could potentially be used for parks. Rooftops represent the rare resource that is increasing. Most are private, but a significant number are publicly owned. And some of those are large–the tops of schools, libraries, government office buildings, post offices, concert halls, convention centers, parking ramps, and bus stations can all extend to well over an acre. Moreover, large private rooftops, such as those on shopping centers, big box stores, and warehouses, are purchasable or leasable, just like any other private property.

The green roof movement, still in its infancy, is mushrooming in popularity along with the green building movement in general. But merely being green does not make a roof a park. That oft-cited Chicago City Hall green roof is a marvelous creation but it isn’t a park, just as the much older green roof on the Time-Life Building in New York City isn’t a park–neither is freely open to the public. There are already thousands of rooftop gardens, pools, and recreational facilities on top of luxury condominiums, apartment buildings, office buildings, and hotels across the country, but they are private facilities for residents, workers, guests, and members only. They are the vertical equivalent of parks inside gated communities.

At present the majority of rooftop parks are ones at ground level built over subsurface parking garages–places like Millennium Park in Chicago, Hudlin Park in St. Louis, and Yerba Buena Garden in San Francisco. This wonderful urban solution is referred to, at Boston’s Post Office Square, as “Park Above, Park Below.” Older facilities are of relatively conventional ornamental design; new ones increasingly incorporate more ecological features. Both Nashville’s new Public Square and Austin’s new City Hall collect all the gathered rain for later use as pumped irrigation water.

Putting parks on rooftops higher than street level is, thus far, much rarer. For one thing, keeping the plant material alive is a challenge because of more extreme conditions of wind, sunlight, thin soil, and lack of trees. For another, there are concerns about the structural strength of buildings and potential water leakage as well as issues of human access and security. Also, what park uses are appropriate on rooftops? Flower gardens, lawns, benches, and pathways? Courts (surrounded by cages) for basketball, tennis, and volleyball? Community gardens? Playgrounds? Dog parks? Miniature golf?

These are complex questions that require a good deal of research–both into the issue of “rooftops” and of “parks.” Some of the investigation is generic, some of it needs to be highly specific, on a city-by-city basis. How many flat rooftops does, say, Miami have? What is the total combined acreage? How many are on public buildings and what is that combined acreage? How many of them are large, say, an acre or more? How many of those large ones are relatively uncluttered with air conditioning units and other paraphernalia? How many are accessible by the public? How many happen to be in areas underserved by parks? This entire field of inquiry is so new that there are almost no data available, although there will be breathtakingly quick progress now that aerial photography is so widely available through Internet programs.

One of the most famous, and one of the oldest, rooftop parks is NCNB Plaza (also called Kiley Garden) in Tampa, Florida. Rarely known for urban innovation, Tampa backed into its moment of leadership as a result of authentic civic outrage over the sale and destruction of its historic rose garden for the erection of a 33-story bank tower. In a creative (and expensive) gesture of repair, North Carolina National Bank agreed to restore the lost green space by putting a park on top of the new tower’s parking deck. Designed by (and named after) prominent landscape architect Dan Kiley and opened in 1988, the plaza is 8 feet above ground level.

Kiley Garden represents all that is great and all that is problematical about rooftop parks. On the positive side, it provides outstanding views of Tampa’s downtown and of the Hillsborough River and its riverwalk. It came into being in a high-land-value location which, under other circumstances, would never have yielded a public park. On the other hand, there were design and construction shortcomings that ultimately–nineteen years later–forced a total and complete renovation, including the removal of every tree, shrub, and blade of grass, as well as the many architectural elements. Of course, almost every aspect of technology has evolved in the past two decades, and the lessons of Kiley Garden can be used to help make rooftop parks more successful in the future.

The two places that have taken rooftop parks the furthest are New York and San Francisco–not surprisingly, since they are the two most crowded big cities in the country.

At 28 acres, New York’s Riverbank State Park is so large that it contains a pool, a skating rink, a theater, four tennis courts, four basketball courts, a wading pool, a softball field, a football field, four handball courts, a running track, two playgrounds, a weight room, a boat dock, and a restaurant. It was built on the roof of a new sewage treatment plant on the Hudson River and provides an exciting template of how large public buildings can be constructed to do double duty.

San Francisco has St. Mary’s Square, a full-fledged, off-the-ground, up-in-the-air park amid the high rises in the Financial District. Moreover, St. Mary’s Square will soon be getting an addition (on another rooftop) thanks to a far-reaching law–Proposition K, The Sunlight Ordinance–passed by voters in 1989. That ordinance, aimed at preventing the proliferation of shadows in already-chilly San Francisco, restricts any new construction that would block sunlight on a public park. (Among other things, the law gave birth to a unit of measurement that has probably never existed anywhere else in history: the “solar-year square-foot-hour of new shade.”) St. Mary’s is the place where the irresistible force of San Francisco’s development pressure met the immovable object of the arc of solar radiation.

Because of its location and open-space importance to workers and residents, St. Mary’s was given the most stringent designation under Proposition K: zero tolerance. The square could not have a single additional square-foot-hour of sunlight taken away. An office tower was proposed that would have blocked a small amount of sunlight–only in the early morning, four months out of the year–but that was enough to kill the proposal, until a wonderful solution was proposed. The developer offered to create a public park on the second-floor roof of the building’s garage. The 5,000-square-foot roof was located in such a way that it received much more sunlight; in fact, the developer calculated that the amount of sunlight hitting the rooftop park addition would be 40 times greater than the sunlight lost to the old park by the building’s shadow. And, because of the steepness of the site, the second-story location actually intersected with the ground plane of a portion of St. Mary’s Square, removing the need for steps or handicap accessible designs.

Overcoming the hurdles of rooftop park technology and getting people up off the ground can be challenging. But rooftop parks could make a big difference when it comes to urban beauty, livability, and recreation. This abundant resource beckons, particularly in extremely dense communities that are very short of parkland.

The Times Square Transformation

We found a very nice video discussing New York’s goal of being the “greatest, greenest big city in the world,” according to NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.  While the video focuses more on transportation improvements in the city, specifically bicycle infrastructure and bus rapid transit, there is a brief discussion on the success of closing Broadway to vehicular traffic (about 3:20 into the video). 

According to Sadik-Khan, there are 356,000 pedestrians each and every day in Times Square, and although there is a 10:1 ratio of pedestrians to cars, 90% of the space was allocated to cars.  By removing Broadway from the road system, the city created 1.8 acres of new pedestrian space, which has led to a 63% reduction in injuries.  In addition to the decrease in accidents, there has also been a substantial reduction in noise levels.

We’ve written before about the effects of road closures in cities.  For a more in-dept discussion on this topic, please visit our earlier post.

Engaging Immigrants in City Parks

A unique project in New York City has been devising better ways to engage with immigrant communities. The Immigrants & Parks Collaborative, funded by the JM Kaplan Fund, City Parks Foundation and New York Immigration Coalition, has supported work with ten community-based organizations in eight parks to provide a dedicated staff person for participatory planning, outreach and programs in each park. This on-the-ground effort has helped connect to these communities and literally hear their needs, and in turn, help make their parks successful public spaces. Urban Omnibus (of the Architectural League of New York) provides an overview of the effort, listing the following lessons learned that can be transferred to parks across the city:

  • Parks are tools for immigrant communities. It is a myth that worries about housing, employment, and financial security prevent immigrant involvement in parks and community life—inadequate outreach and improper public processes do.
  • Immigrant social networks are tools for government and service organizations. Government agencies want to allocate resources effectively and provide relevant public services, but they need help from local leaders and service organizations to access immigrant communities. Outreach and policy implementation that connect to existing social networks are more effective than independent outreach through traditional methods, and secure broader input on park programming, services, and improvements. This leads to better suited, well used investments, and builds trust.
  • Precedent-setting affects policy. The types of partnerships the Collaborative supports illustrate ways to use local knowledge and existing social networks to promote inclusivity and integration, rather than creating new programs that may not be as effective. When HSC and AAFE facilitated their participation, immigrants in Chinatown provided input for their playground and pedestrian malls because the process was made accessible, engaging, and relevant. These methods were a striking contrast to the traditional process of presentations followed by a feedback session. The Parks Department is now incorporating more “listening sessions” and opportunities for public input into appropriate park projects. Practitioners can learn from experiences like these to improve existing processes, or learn where obstacles to engagement lie and provide more guidance, transparency, and clarity around them.

Engaging immigrant communities is something that many U.S. cities are dealing with, and their parks are at the forefront of this. Many immigrants flock to the compact neighborhoods of central cities, or live in apartment buildings with little private yard space. In these places, parks are a key place for socializing and activity. The lessons learned in New York can provide lessons for any of those areas. The group has put together a great short video (see below) showing the Collaborative’s partners in action, and an interview with Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe.