• 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

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.

Cromwell Park, Shoreline, Wash.

Cromwell Park

(City of Shoreline)

The following is an excerpt from City Parks, Clean Water, a report by The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence that examines the role of urban parks in managing stormwater. This is the fifth installment in a series of 19 posts.

After the Seattle suburb of Shoreline passed a parks and open space levy in 2006, the city sought renovation projects that could meet multiple city goals. One opportunity arose at 9-acre Cromwell Park, a flat field on the site of a former school in a neighborhood with frequent floods. The surrounding Meridian Park community had already been targeted for a major stormwater upgrade by the city’s public works department.

CromwellDrainageProblem before

Before renovations. (City of Shoreline)

“It was filled with a lot of dead grass and not much else,” laughed Kirk Peterson, who oversaw the project for the parks and recreation department. The two agencies partnered on Cromwell Park’s redesign, radically restoring the site’s natural topography and redirecting runoff to a wetland for treatment. They built new inlets from adjacent residential streets and a nearby county building, where most of the runoff percolates into the ground. (In a deluge an overflow outlet releases excess water to the sewer system.) The 1.33-acre wetland can hold an acre-foot of water (almost 435,000 gallons), enough to eliminate the neighborhood flooding problem.

Most noticeable to residents are the recreational improvements. The renovation added a new playground, a full-size basketball court, and a new baseball field. Walking trails encircle the wetland, even crossing it on a bridge. Neighbors were adamant that the wetlands not be fenced off, Peterson noted, although the city eventually had to install safety cables by a particularly steep-sided section. One of the best investments, Peterson added, was the selection of diverse, native wetland vegetation that makes the park look good even in dry spells.

Changes in the park sacrificed some recreational space, but Peterson said the wetlands have become one of its most popular features. “In the design process, neighbors were skeptical. They were worried about mosquitoes and bad smells. But now people love the space. There is often interesting wildlife, and people are fascinated to see the basins fill up with water after a rainstorm.”

Design and construction, which lasted from 2007 to 2010, cost $1.6 million, with about
two-thirds coming from the park bond and one-third from the Surface Water Utility Fund. The two agencies share maintenance responsibilities, with the park costing about $60,000 a year and the stormwater features about $11,000.

Cromwell Park credit City of Shoreline

This sculpture helps show the wetlands’ work, disappearing and reappearing with fluctuations in water levels. (City of Shoreline)


Alewife Stormwater Wetland, Cambridge, Mass.

The following is an excerpt from City Parks, Clean Water, a report by The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence that examines the role of urban parks in managing stormwater. This is the fourth installment in a series of 19 posts.

Before the development of today’s Massachusetts communities of Cambridge, Arlington, Medford, and Somerville, the area was a low-lying, spongy wetland. Over the years its ecology was severely disrupted by dredging, mining, and dumping, and most of the land — which once protected the water quality and modulated the flow of Little River, Alewife Brook, and the Mystic River — has since been developed for housing and industry.  However, back in the 1890s the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had the foresight to preserve 130 natural acres, now managed as the Alewife Brook Reservation by the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).

Continue reading

Atlanta’s Historic Fourth Ward Park

The following is an excerpt from City Parks, Clean Water, a report by The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence that examines the role of urban parks in managing stormwater. This is the second installment in a series of 19 posts.

New plants and water fountain at the Historic Fourth Ward Park

One of several water features in the park. (Darcy Kiefel)

One of the nation’s most celebrated marriages of recreation and green infrastructure,
Atlanta’s Historic Fourth Ward Park is a $23-million triumph of engineering over flooding and landscape design over stop-gap asphalt.

Continue reading

Developer Impact Fees Pay for Parks

Residents in downtown Los Angeles are leaping for joy because a brand new park is coming to the revitalized historic core.  Spring Street Park, which broke ground last October, will be the first public park in the neighborhood.  According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 15,000 residents moved into downtown between 2000 and 2010, without the addition of new public greenspace.  The city purchased the property from Council District 9 in 2009 with $5.1 million in Quimby funds.  California state law requires the dedication of land or in lieu fees for park or recreational purposes as a condition of new residential subdivision.  These fees are known as “Quimby fees.”  The 1965 Quimby Act authorizes the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks to spend Quimby funds within one to two miles of a new subdivision.

California is not the only state that uses developer impact fees to purchase or maintain parkland.  According to the Center for City Park Excellence, 36 of the main park and recreation agencies within the 100 most populous U.S. cities have some variation of a developer impact fee and received $55.5 million and over 200 acres of parkland in FY 2010.  Even more impressive, cities spent $64.5 million from their developer impact fee accounts in that same fiscal year (fees collected do not have to be spent in the same year received).  At the top of the list was the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks (spending $15.7 million), followed by the San Jose Department of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services ($9.1 million), Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department ($9 million), Riverside, CA Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department ($8.4 million), and Portland, OR Parks and Recreation ($4.5 million).

It is interesting to note that, due to the current economic situation, develop impact fees are actually a declining source of revenue.  In FY 2008, 28 of the major park and recreation agencies received $101.6 million and almost 600 acres of parkland.  Of the $101.6 million received from developer impact fees, $71.6 million was spent in that same fiscal year.

Developer exaction programs have been adopted by many communities to help offset a variety of costs associated with new development.  A sizable percentage of these localities, recognizing that public parks, trails, open space and recreational facilities are critical to ensuring residents’ health and quality of life, have specifically set fees and/or required land dedication for parks.

The majority of these ordinances apply only to residential plats or subdivisions that create additional dwelling units.  A few ordinances also apply fees to office construction, hotels, schools, churches, nursing homes and other types of commercial or even industrial development.

The formulas used to assess the fee or generate acreage vary; some are based on the number of new residents, others on the number of units, others on the square footage of construction.  In addition, the ordinances differ in allowing a developer to substitute land or facilities for paying a fee; in setting the size of the geographical “nexus” within which the funds or land can be applied; in permitting uses for the funds (i.e. land acquisition, facility development, maintenance and even administration); in being flexible as to the types of facilities for which funds can be used; and in setting a time limit within which the funds must be spent or committed.

There is no nationally agreed-upon standard for land (or dollar) donations by developers, and different city or state ordinances use substantially different formulas to determine the exactions. In some cases the ratio is based upon population, in others on dwelling units; some cities prefer outright land gifts while others prefer money with which to buy land.

For more information about the role of developer exactions in the creation of new city parks, read an article here.