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Crowdsourcing Park History

Do you know when your childhood playground was created? How about when that large natural area at the edge of town was given benches and trails and turned into a state park? Or maybe the year they tore out the old railroad tracks downtown and christened the new bike trail park?

Here at the Center for City Park Excellence we are establishing the year of creation of every park in every big city in the U.S. That’s about 23,000 parks. This new database will serve as a priceless historical record of the growth and evolution of the American urban park system – its ebbs and its flows during different political periods, both on a national basis and city-by-city. We already have the “birth year” for 17,627 parks.

“You can’t figure out where you’re trying to go if you don’t know where you’ve come from,” said CCPE Director Peter Harnik. “There’s great documentation for national parks, but most city parks have been taken for granted. We aim to change that.”

In some cities, park departments responded to CCPE’s inquiry with enthusiasm and alacrity, either because they had already compiled the information on their own or because they had good retrieval systems and the capacity to answer our question. (New York, for instance, has an existing historical record on every one of its 1,978 parks; Philadelphia, in contrast, did not, but the agency saw the value of the research and specially brought on an archivist to carry out the work.) Other cities have struggled to find the information, either because the records have been misplaced or destroyed, or because the staff is stretched too thin to take on one more challenging project. Washington, D.C. proved to be a special challenge because every park there grew out of federal laws that sometimes preceded the building of a neighborhood. In some older cities, navigating the labyrinth of public records was just too much for the agency.

In Jersey, City, N.J., we had to come up with a completely different approach – crowdsourcing.

Jersey City’s Department of Recreation was able to supply a list of parks but not much more. It was Brian Platt, director of the city’s New Innovation Team, who had the idea to turn to the public for help. On June 1, Platt brought together local park organizations and members of a Jersey City park coalition to describe what information we were looking for and how to substantiate it.

Responses poured in, and 10 days later we had creation dates (and verifying sources) for fully half of Jersey City’s 64 parks. We still don’t have them all, but the picture of the city’s parkland evolution continues to become more clear.

Crowdsourcing is not free from challenges, of course, but it can prove valuable as a last resort. Currently, we are struggling to find park creation dates in Anchorage, Atlanta, Baltimore, Laredo and Newark. If you live (or have friends) in one of those cities and might be interested in joining a Crowdsourcing Park History project, please let us know by emailing max.ewart@tpl.org or calling Max at 202-330-4722.

Some News From Around…

  • This spring, ground will be broken on a $3.25 million renovation of Military Park in downtown Newark. (New York Times)
  • A federally funded survey has identified the top 10 cities for urban forests. (USA Today)
  • San Bernardino’s economic decline is having a negative effect on the city’s urban parks, but residents are looking for ways to save them. (San Bernardino Sun)
  • City Slicker Farms breaks ground on a new urban park and farm in Oakland. (East Bay Express)
  • Locals push back against a proposal to build a shopping center in one of Sydney’s most important urban parks.  (Sydney Morning Herald)

A New Park for New-ark

Newark kids participating in the design of Nat Turner Park.

There are some great things going on with parks and neighborhood renewal in Newark, New Jersey, the state’s largest city just a stone’s throw from New York City and struggling to recover after years of decline. Today, the city opened a new park, thirty years after the city purchased the land. The Newark Star Ledger:

The city purchased a multi-acre plot across from the Felix Fuld Housing Complex in the mid 1970s. It sat unused for decades. Bernard Chase III, 40, said he played pick-up football games in the vacant lot as a kid.

Chase, a member of the group Friends of Nat Turner Park and a Pop Warner football coach, will now be able to watch his team play on a brand new synthetic turf field.

That field and other features of the nine-acre facility were opened today in a ribbon-cutting ceremony that attracted, among others, Mayor Cory Booker, former New York Giant running back Tiki Barber, and an official from the White House.

Aside from the turf field, the park includes a 400-meter regulation track, picnic areas, and a playground. Nat Turner Park is part of a public-private partnership between the city and The Trust for Public Land. Mayor Booker and the city dedicated $3 million to the park’s construction, New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection provided about $5 million and the rest of the $9 million project came from private donations. More information can be found in TPL’s press release.

Newark: Site of Tragic Shooting Turned to New Playground

Mt. Vernon Playground (click image for more pictures)

Mt. Vernon Playground (click image for more pictures)

An excellent example of renewing cities through parks and playgrounds and private-public collaboration to do so was highlighted in Newark, N.J. last week, where The Trust for Public Land dedicated the Mount Vernon School Playground, completing the transformation of a site where the tragic shooting of four young people occurred just over a year ago.

From a cracked asphalt lot to a vibrant community playground, TPL created a safe haven for the nearly 900 students enrolled in Mount Vernon School as well as the 2,200 children who live within walking distance of the new park. Along with a coalition of community, civic, philanthropic, and nonprofit partners, TPL dedicated $1.3 million and countless hours of work to creating the park, which now features a multi-use field, track, playground equipment, a performance space, basketball courts, and a learning garden.

An in-depth participatory design process was used to help establish community investment, and TPL worked with the Greater Newark Conservancy and landscape architects to meet with students and local residents to create the design. “The transformation of this park is an incredible benefit for our students,” said Dr. Clifford B. Janey, superintendent of Newark’s schools.