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Benches Can Pay Their Way

This article has been adapted from the September 2016 issue of Parks & Recreation Magazine, the official publication of the National Recreation and Park Association. Through its pursuit of key issues, trends, and personalities, the magazine advances American parks, recreation, and conservation efforts. You can read the full-length article here.

This is the third and final installment in a series on park benches. Read the previous two posts here and here.

Benches are some of the cheapest park furnishings or landscaping items (even cheaper than trees), but the cost of purchase, installation and maintenance still adds up. Steve Schuckman, superintendent of planning, design, and facilities with the Cincinnati Park Board, says that buying and installing a practical, aesthetically pleasing, and durable bench costs between $1,500 and $2,000. In Kansas City the standard design comes to about $900. The 2002 master plan for Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Commons put the cost of modest benches at $1,200 each.

One way to cover expenses is through an adopt-a-bench program. Flourishing in many cities across the U.S., sponsorships take the shape of a small memorial plaque in return for the purchase, installation, and maintenance of a bench. (Many park agencies or conservancies stipulate that the memorial lasts for either the lifetime of the bench or for a certain number of years, whichever ends first). The cost varies by city and by park, but is generally around $2,000. In Austin, eleven of the city’s parks have already reached their bench donation limit. In New York’s Central Park, the Central Park Conservancy’s program (at $10,000 per bench) has yielded benefactors for over 4,200 of the park’s more than 9,000 benches. Kate O’Brien, development associate for the Broadway Mall Association, calls the Mall’s bench sponsorship program “a really good source of revenue.” Of the 340 benches from 70th Street to 168th Street, 39 are adopted.


A plaque on a bench in Central Park. Photo credit: Flickr user gigi_nyc

Because of the popularity, some programs have had to institute rules. The Pittsburgh Park Conservancy gives wording guidelines, has a character count, and does not allow logos. “This program is a nice way to honor loved ones,” says the conservancy’s Susan Rademacher, “but if we have too many memorial benches, it may detract from the feeling that the park is a common space meant for everyone.”

For O’Brien, seeking bench sponsorships is a joy of her job. She says, “Donors always have a great story about their connection to the park. Something like, ‘I’ve lived here for 40 years and always drink my coffee on this bench.’” Benches often have an association with an important moment or a special person. There are plaques commemorating births, deaths, marriages, and everything in between, including pets. Beyond helping to fund conservancies or park maintenance, bench sponsorship programs allow people to interact with and form a special, and tangible, connection to a certain park.

As this series of posts has illustrated, benches can be both a joy and a bane for park-goers and parks departments. But it does seem to be clear that when a bench is removed, its park loses more than just a piece of furniture. Maybe Adrian Benepe, senior vice president of The Trust for Public Land and former commissioner of parks for New York City, is correct when he says, “It’s like everything else — you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.” Or maybe it’s more alarming, as put by Tampa Parks Director Greg Bayor: “If you start removing benches then you’re on the way to removing everything else too.”

Design Strategies for Downtown Parks: Dallas and Tampa

“Cities large and small are the most sustainable living models, and the viability of a sustainable city rests on the success or failure of its urban parks,” said Thomas Balsley, the landscape architect responsible for designing Main Street Garden in Dallas and Curtis Hixon Park in Tampa. But what kind of urban parks provide the best benefit to the health of a city? According to Balsley, “Smaller parks, not large destination parks, are the key to a vibrant city.”

Balsley, along with Willis Winters from the Dallas Parks and Recreation Department and Karen Palus from the Tampa Parks and Recreation Department, discussed their strategies behind designing Main Street Garden and Curtis Hixon Park in a session at the 2010 American Society of Landscape Architects Annual Meeting and Expo in Washington, D.C. The panel discussed their experiences and provided excellent insight into what it takes to develop a successful urban park.

Main Street Garden, Dallas. Credit: Neff Conner (Flickr Feed)

In 2001, Dallas was jolted by a decision unlike any other before. The Boeing Company chose to move its headquarters to Chicago rather than Dallas because there was a lack of vibrancy in the city center. At the time, only 240 people lived in downtown Dallas, all in a single apartment building. The numerous city employees vacated the area after their nine-to-five workdays and no real thought was given to attracting residents to live in the business district. This lack of a 24-hour tenant presence resulted in a stagnant city center, a place that Boeing did not want to call home for its new corporate headquarters. The decision was a wake-up call for city officials and a new emphasis was placed on revitalizing their downtown, with particular interest in urban parks.

In response, Balsley’s firm was selected to design Main Street Garden, a 1.7-acre park occupying a full city block on the east end of downtown. The site with its historic buildings offered an excellent opportunity to bring life back into the city’s center. As Winters said, “Main Street Garden served as the reason to revitalize the buildings surrounding the area.”

Main Street Garden was designed with an inviting streetscape encouraging people to stop and visit, not just pass through the park on their lunch break. Innovative lighting techniques such as study shelters encouraged use well into the evening hours. Other design elements included a large lawn that can be adapted to multiple uses, a green roof canopy over a concession kiosk, café and dining terrace, botanical garden, urban dog run, playground, stage and an interactive stream fountain that has proven to be popular with children of all ages.

As Balsley discussed the project, he explained that creating a successful design for the park is only part of the job. A large part of the work is managing an oftentimes-contentious public process. He offered some tips for success including:

  • Share your experiences: Be open about your past experiences, offering insight into your successes and setbacks.
  • Form client/designer collaboration: Work with your client encouraging communication and teamwork.
  • Advocate for a committee format: Be open to the idea of a community process.
  • Maintain reasonable expectations: Encourage stakeholders to understand what is possible and what may be unachievable.
  • Listen, and prove it: Encourage an open dialogue and act upon what you hear.
  • Avoid preconceived notions: Be open to all ideas and viewpoints.
  • Hang your ego outside the door: Avoid the “designer knows best” mentality.

Palus who shared the background behind the redevelopment of Curtis Hixon Park emphasized Balsley’s advice. “This is a story of a city that invested in its people by creating a meaningful public space,” she said. However, the park had many organizations and interested parties who had conflicting opinions as to how the park should be developed. Recognizing that differing ideas would be a challenge, the stakeholders agreed to be open to all options, yet keep in mind that the park would be developed for the benefit of the entire city, not one specific group. After navigating the public process, the result was a dynamic park that has proven to be a central gathering space for the entire city.

Curtis Hixon Park, Tampa. Credit: Graham Coreil-Allen (Flickr Feed)

Like his previous work at Main Street Garden, Balsley designed 6.0-acre Curtis Hixon Park with attention to incorporating the park into its present surroundings. Special awareness was given to connecting the park to adjacent cultural assets such as Kiley Garden and the Tampa Museum of Art. This was achieved through a terraced lawn and a promenade garden at the edges of the park. At the street entrance is a large Louver water fountain, frequently used by children and adults to cool down during the hot Tampa summers. When the water sprays upwards, it distorts the view of the park, revealing and hiding different features. The park also has a playground and dog park and even incorporates a segment of the Riverwalk, connecting the David Straz Performing Arts Center to the Glazer Children’s Museum and the Tampa Museum of Art. The paving along the Riverwalk contains a mechanism for misting and creates “fog clouds,” another clever strategy to promote cooling in the summers. Within the park is a large lawn sloping towards the river, featuring what Balsley described as “urban rafts,” large platforms rising out of the slope for sitting, lounging or gathering. These “urban rafts” have become a central part of the park, attracting both people watchers and visitors who want to be seen. People watching was a prominent feature in the design, with both overlooks and rotating chairs incorporated for users to choose views of the waterfront or park.

An attractive park is an essential part of a vibrant city. Both Main Street Garden and Curtis Hixon Park have strong elements that bring visitors to their parks. They also connect to the surrounding area, encouraging growth of businesses and housing. It would be interesting to see how usership has increased at these parks since their openings.

And for those who will be in Dallas today, Peter Harnik will be giving a presentation entitled “Rebirth of the City Park” at the 21st Century City Conference. Come learn more about the efforts the park movement has played in Dallas.

“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.