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Urban Trails, Neighborhood Partnerships: DC’s Metropolitan Branch Trail

Abandoned rail lines running through city neighborhoods can be the perfect solution for creating a park in a high density city with little other available real estate. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) has nearly a 30 year history of providing leadership in the creation of more than 20,000 miles of new trail across the country. Today, it finds itself increasingly working in cities to forge the last connection to a regional trail system. This means tackling the shorter rail lines where their proximity to where people live, work and play make them a good choice for getting people walking and cycling.

But these urban trails require a lot more attention to get people to use them for recreation and transportation, and RTC finds itself increasingly involved in programming trails as well as building them.

“RTC used to say ‘build it and they will come,’” says Kelly Pack, RTC’s Director of Trail Development. “Now we say ‘build it, maintain it, program it and they will come.’ In urban areas people have a lot more choices. Being more engaged on the programming side really helps to build awareness and get people hooked on their own neighborhood trails – and then hopefully onto regional trail systems.”  Continue reading

March’s Frontline Park

Each month, City Parks Alliance recognizes a “Frontline Park” to promote and highlight inspiring examples of urban park excellence, innovation, and stewardship across the country. The program also seeks to highlight examples of the challenges facing our cities’ parks as a result of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures, and urban neighborhood decay.

Argo Cascades
Kayakers 2Canoeing and kayaking the Huron River has long been a beloved pastime in Ann Arbor, and a canoe livery has been in operation there since the late 1800s.  The most popular river trip is a 3.7 mile course that travels through the heart of the city.  Prior to 2012, this river trip required boaters to paddle through a quarter-mile stagnant millrace that ended in a concrete barrier and a difficult portage. The portage made the trip difficult and inaccessible to many people.

????????????????????????????The project that became the Argo Cascades began as an attempt to address structural deficiencies along the dam embankment and to improve river recreation opportunities.  The city pursued two options to mitigate infrastructure deficiencies: soliciting bids to repair the dam’s earthen embankment, and issuing an RFP for an entire embankment reconstruction that would provide boat passage. The Parks Advisory Commission and City Council ultimately approved a recommendation to build a boat bypass. The proposed design removed the millrace and replaced it with a series of drop pools, improved accessibility of the adjacent path, and addressed problems in the embankment that were identified by state officials. The design also preserved Argo Pond and Argo Dam, while greatly improving the river trip experience for canoers and kayakers, and included paving 1,500 feet of the Border-to-Border trail that was previously not ADA accessible.

Tubers3Not only did the Argo Cascades address a multitude of environmental and recreational issues, it has also had an immediate positive effect on the local economy.   The visitor count rose from 36,000 in 2011 to more than 50,000 in 2012, with a corresponding 58 percent increase in revenue.   With the portage gone, tubing and rafting have now been added to the list of activities that can be enjoyed on the river, attracting visitors who would rather float than paddle.  Tubing rentals alone accounted for $20,000 in new revenue in the first season.

The success of the project has had a ripple effect on other sites along the river.  Today the trails, the rock drops and grassy banks are utilized by many to picnic, walk, bicycle, relax, and to listen to the water cascading over the rocks.

For more information on Argo Cascades, please visit:

City of Ann Arbor

Washtenaw County Parks & Recreation Commission

The “Frontline Parks” program is made possible with generous support from DuMor, Inc. and PlayCore.

Healthier Parks Through Partnering with Public Agencies and Private Providers

Creating a health-promoting park system requires greater expertise and resources than any park agency can provide alone. What’s needed are partnerships with other public agencies, as well as with private foundations, corporations, citizens’ groups, and volunteers.

Partnerships can be immensely powerful by leveraging the strengths of one partner with those of another—financial capacity with legal authority, for instance, or communication outreach capability with large numbers of participants.

But for every triumphant alliance, there seems to be another partnership that ends badly. The key to a happy partnership is a mutual commitment to an overarching goal larger than the missions of the individual entities. If narrow goals take precedence—boosting income or donations, improving name recognition, or generating individual publicity—the alliance is almost certain to fail. Leverage is not possible when a partner is working primarily for its own interests rather than for the larger cause.

When the larger cause is advancing health, park systems and recreation programs offer one set of skills. But there are also other agencies that share the goal and have their own set of skills to bring.

These include:

  • Health departments. Health agencies possess vast knowledge, expertise, data analysis, and other capabilities that can make them ideal partners.
  • Water or sewer departments. These agencies often own significant quantities of land to protect drinking water aquifers and manage stormwater runoff. Depending on legal requirements and limitations, a partnership might make some of these lands available for  healthful recreation.
  • Public works or transportation departments. These agencies control the other big parcels of urban public land—streets, sidewalks, and bridges—and can serve as key collaborators in all kinds of physical activities—runs, walks, bike rides, and much more. The link between parks and streets should be seamless, but it takes a thoughtful partnership to make it happen.
  • Transit agencies. Good transit is the key to getting lots of people to and through major urban parks without overwhelming them with cars and the need for parking. Advertising space on transit and in transit stations is a good place to promote parks and park activities. Conversely, park users can become a new source of transit riders.

Private companies, individuals, foundations, and nonprofits that could serve as partners include:

  • Health insurers and their foundations. Health insurers have a special interest in keeping their members and the wider public healthy, and they often choose to fund programs that promote public health. Examples include support for fitness zones and trails by the foundations of insurers Kaiser Permanente and MetLife.
  • Hospitals and clinics. Frontline health care providers may be among the largest economic entities in a community. Like health insurers, they often look for ways to promote health in the community. Although there are numerous physical, practical, and legal constraints to partnerships, there are also opportunities for collaboration.
  • Doctors and nurses. What could be more natural than a prescription for physical activity? That’s what happens in Portland, Oregon’s voluntary pilot Active Youth Prescription Program. Overweight children ages 6 to 12 are given a doctor’s prescription to simultaneously reduce “screen time” and engage in programs at a city recreation center where staff are trained to provide them with support and encouragement.
  • Disease-fighting charities and recreation promoting organizations such as bike and running clubs. This is another natural collaboration. Such organizations can supply members and donors to partnerships, while park agencies can supply land, facilities, and trained leadership.
  • Sporting goods and sportswear companies. These include manufacturers and retailers of sneakers, bikes, skates, playground equipment, ski jackets, soccer balls, and so much more. Partnerships with these companies—particularly when they are hometown firms— represent an obvious alignment of interests.
  • Friends of parks groups. These, of course, are the classic partners in most cities. While few friends groups can bring any money to the table, they are an excellent source of volunteers, public outreach, advocacy, information, local connections, and other value to a park agency.

    New York’s “Shape Up” Program. Credit: NYC Department of Parks and Recreation

With eight million residents, New York has recreational programming needs that would overwhelm the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation on its own. The department therefore has an ambitious partnership with a large number of public agencies and private organizations.

Perhaps most significant is “Shape Up, New York,” a fitness initiative that encourages healthy lifestyles and improved self-esteem through noncompetitive exercise. Funded by the health department and managed by the parks department, Shape Up sessions are staffed by professionals in personal fitness, yoga, cardio kickboxing, and step aerobics and offered both in parks and at New York City Housing Authority facilities. Added to after-school programs, Shape Up provides an enjoyable, low-stress approach that can help ease even sedentary youngsters into a workable exercise regimen.

Another joint effort with the health department offers a 16-week course for diabetics at a Bronx recreation center that incorporates health instruction with an exercise regimen. A third, in conjunction with the city’s Commission on Women’s Issues, is “Step Out, New York City,” a program of organized community walks in which participants receive pedometers to track their daily steps.

New York Parks and Recreation also hosts and heavily markets four free seasonal festivals that are supported by companies including Red Bull, the Olympic Regional Development Authority, and the Mountain Creek ski facility. January’s Winter Jam encourages residents to try crosscountry skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding, sledding, rock climbing‚ and hockey. The goal, according to Marketing Director Christine Dabrow, is to try new things in the outdoors, hoping that “something will spark.”

The Medical Mile, Little Rock. Credit: Little Rock Parks and Recreation

Many doctors prescribe exercise for their patients. In Little Rock, Dr. Robert Lambert and his colleagues at Heart Clinic Arkansas prescribed a path.

The result is the Medical Mile, the centerpiece of Little Rock’s Arkansas River Trail. Located in Riverfront Park and adjacent to the Bill Clinton Presidential Library, the facility offers a healthful opportunity for running, skating, walking‚ and cycling while also serving as an educational museum of information and inspiration about wellness. Among many exhibits, there is a 1,300- foot, three-dimensional mural wall, a wellness promenade‚ and a body-mind-spirit entry plaza. The themes of exercise, smoking cessation‚ and better nutrition were developed by a project partner, the Arkansas Department of Health.

The heart clinic’s involvement was catalytic to the project’s success. In December 2003, clinic physicians unanimously voted to undertake a two-year, $350,000 fundraising effort to assist the parks and recreation department in making it happen. After reaching that goal in only three months, they expanded the concept and increased the budget to $2.1 million—a goal they also met. The physicians’ success demonstrates that the medical community can go beyond traditional park donors to tap the generosity of all residents.

In dedicating the facility, Mayor Jim Dailey said, “From the perspective of the City of Little Rock, the trail is an economic, health, and environmental conservation stimulator.” Diana Allen of the National Park Service—another project partner—has called Little Rock “a cradle of innovation with health care and recreation partnerships.”

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

An Interconnected Park Web: How Greenways Create Healthy Communities

We recently came across an article by Randall Arendt discussing how greenway networks are the “useful bridge between ‘new urbanism’ and conservation design.”  His article talks about using greenways as the connector to parks, neighborhoods, schools and mixed-use centers, allowing for urban and rural ideas to merge and produce a superior hybrid community form.  He argues that only when blending urban and rural designs can there be successful opportunities for improved public health and wellness.

Indeed, elements typical of rural environments can – and must – be part of any truly livable urban design, as Olmstead and Vaux‘s plan for Central Park in Manhattan demonstrates, and as further proven by the Olmstead firm‘s five-mile long “Emerald Necklace” around Boston, encompassing 1000 acres of parkland, connecting the Boston Common with the 527-acre Franklin Park.

We know that the better connected parks are, the more a park system can provide healthful recreation—and transportation, too. A recent publication from The Trust for Public Land shows how interconnected trails, greenways‚ and parks support bicycling, running, walking, skating, skiing‚ and even wheelchair travel—reaching all the way from home to work for some users. And several small parks can be connected to create a “large-park experience,” with a tennis court in one park, a basketball court in another, a swimming pool in a third. Connections can be a system of sidewalks or bike lanes, complemented by outstanding signage and perhaps dressed up with a catchy name, such as the Wellness Walk or the Fitness Funway.

The easiest way to create interconnections that also extend a park system is in stream valley parks, particularly where a small stream flows into a larger river and both are flanked with trails. This kind of intersection, comparable to a highway interchange or a train junction, more than doubles the usefulness of a given route. An even more effective connection can be made by bridging a river with a pedestrian crossing, either a new bridge or a repurposed old one. Wherever this has been done—including in Austin, Cincinnati, Chattanooga, Little Rock, Minneapolis, Nashville, Omaha, Pittsburgh, and Tampa—the bridges have become instantly popular attractions.

Another great connector is a rail-trail, a park path constructed out of an abandoned train track. Most of the more than 15,000 miles of U.S. rail-trails are rural, but an increasing number are in cities, including Atlanta; Chicago; Dallas; Houston; Portland, Oregon; Orlando; Seattle; and Washington, D.C.

Platte River Greenway, Denver. Credit: Darcy Kiefel.

Even without a stream or an abandoned railroad, it’s sometimes possible to create a linear corridor. It happened in San Francisco after the public utilities commission decided to retire an underground water main through Visitacion Valley, a lower-income immigrant neighborhood. The corridor had been kept free of weighty construction over the pipe, resulting in a six-block swath of weedy lots through the heart of the community. When the commission tried to sell the land, neighbors objected and worked with The Trust for Public Land to turn it into a park and garden. Today the Visitacion Valley Greenway supports both physical exercise and improved nutrition—and introduces visitors to the exotic Asian medicinal plants growing there.

Another example of a successful city creating connectors is Denver.  In 2009, the American Obesity Association rated Denver residents the least obese of big city Americans. The reason, in part, is their sporty lifestyle. Supporting that way of life is the Platte River Greenway.

It took 30 years to create the Greenway from a former industrial backwater. Today its 15 parks linked by 100 miles of trails attract hundreds of thousands of users. The middle 12 miles—which stretch on either end deep into the suburbs—are operated by the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation, with support from the private Greenway Foundation. Its centerpiece is 22-acre Commons Park, constructed as part of a new walkable neighborhood on a former railyard on the edge of downtown.

Not only does the Greenway lure a continual stream of cyclists, runners, and walkers, the South Platte River itself was reengineered with rocks, riffles, and inflatable dams so that it offers whitewater rapids for kayakers and rafters.

Public investment in the Greenway totaling about $70 million has fueled $2.5 billion in residential, commercial, retail, sports, and entertainment projects along the corridor. Denver, which for several decades was losing population, is now growing again—and recreational opportunities are one reason why.

Randall’s article appeared in the August/September 2011 issue of Planning magazine, available here.

Creating Parkland via Rail Trails

A ninth 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 created parkland by converting abandoned railroad corridors into rail trails.

In 1963 famed Morton Arboretum naturalist May Theilgaard Watts wrote a letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune. “We are human beings,” she wrote. “We walk upright on two feet. We need a footpath. Right now there is a chance for Chicago and its suburbs to have a footpath, a long one.” Her visionary and poetic letter led to the creation of the Illinois Prairie Path and marked the beginning of the rails-to-trails movement.

Until the interstate highway program in the 1950s, the world’s best-engineered rights-of-way were railroad corridors. Hills and cliffs were excavated, valleys filled, curves softened, tunnels dug, bridges built, all to provide routes of exquisitely smooth gentleness with little or no cross-traffic. They were also extraordinarily well routed from, to, and through the centers of activity–cities. Today, 130,000 miles of these marvelous linear connections have been abandoned. Already, 1,500 segments totaling 15,000 miles have been turned into trails for biking, skiing, skating, running, and walking. Most are rural but the urban ones almost invariably become the spines of city biking networks that also include on-road bike lanes and other feeder-collector routes. Rail trails have become focal points for nonmotorized transportation and recreation in Seattle; Washington, D.C.; Boston; Indianapolis; Dallas; Cincinnati; Spokane; Milwaukee; St. Petersburg; Albany, New York; Arlington, Virginia; Barrington, Rhode Island; and scores of other cities and towns. And there are still abandoned corridors available for conversion into trails.

The Stone Arch Bridge portion of the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Trail going towards Minneapolis. Credit: Brian Monberg, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

Minneapolis shows the multiple types of rail trails and their power to affect a city’s park, recreation, and transportation systems. Most dramatic is the Stone Arch Bridge over the Mississippi, built by railroad baron James J. Hill for his Great Northern route to Seattle. Opened in 1883, it was in rail service until 1978. Rescued from demolition, the bridge was refurbished for non-motorized use through a variety of federal, state, and local funds and ultimately turned over to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. Today it is the keystone of the bicycle/pedestrian network in both Minneapolis and St. Paul.

A few blocks away is the Midtown Greenway, created from a former Milwaukee Road track that maintained separation from traffic by being sunk in a box-shaped trench below street level. The 5.5-mile trail today serves several thousand bicyclists, runners, and skaters per day; in the future it will also host an extension of the light-rail system on a parallel track in the same trench. The corridor was bought for $10 million by the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority. Trail engineering and construction, which cost $25 million, was paid from a variety of local, regional, state, and federal sources. Annual maintenance, which includes lighting and snow plowing, comes to about $500,000 a year.

A couple of miles north, a different set of tracks has been converted into the Cedar Lake Park and Trail. This isn’t a rail-to-trail, it’s a rail-with-trail. When the Burlington Northern Railroad decided to divest itself of an underutilized freight yard, it kept one track for through service and sold the rest to the Park Board. The Board erected a fence and converted the wide industrial facility into a model nature habitat with three meandering, parallel treadways–two one-way paths for cyclists and skaters, and one soft-surface path for walkers and runners. With an extraordinary amount of community support, volunteerism, and sweat-equity, the 48-acre project cost only $3.5 million to acquire and develop, and it was finished in a record six years.

Six years is a record? Well, yes. Creating a rail trail, candidly, is not easy. The land ownership issues are confusing. Legal and regulatory complexities stretch from the local level to the state capital to Washington, D.C. A review of years-to-complete-a-trail validates the difficulty: for the Capital Crescent Trail in Washington, D.C., eleven years from conception to ribbon-cutting; for the Pinellas Trail in St. Petersburg, fifteen years; for the Minuteman Trail in Arlington, Massachusetts, eighteen years; for the Metropolitan Branch Trail in Washington, D.C., twenty-two years and (as of this writing) counting.

But the final results justify the heartache: These are truly “million-dollar trails.” Other than on a former railroad track, it is simply not possible in an existing built-up community to create a new pathway that is long, straight, wide, continuous, sheathed in vegetation, and almost entirely separated from traffic. And the annual usership numbers reveal the pent-up desire lines: 2 million on the Minuteman Trail outside of Boston; 3 million on the Washington and Old Dominion Trail outside of Washington, D.C.; 1.7 million on the Baltimore and Annapolis Trail; 1.1 million on the East Bay Bicycle Path outside of Providence, Rhode Island; and 1 million on the Capital Crescent Trail in Washington, D.C.

Many park directors initially shy away from taking on the challenge of a rail-trail. This is a serious mistake. In addition to all the connectivity and usership values, rail trails often have ecological and historical values very much in keeping with an urban park system’s mission. With corridor widths of 60 to 100 feet, or even more in the West, they frequently harbor interesting, unusual, and rare plant species on their margins, as well as having bridges, tunnels, and stations. Moreover, trails are so popular that they have radically increased the support base for virtually every park agency that has ever taken one on.

The reality is that creating one of these trails is so tough that it virtually requires a partnership between a park department (or sometimes a public works or transportation department) and the private sector (usually a citizen group, sometimes a foundation or corporation). The financial and legal issues are too much for a group of volunteers to handle alone, while the political issues are too intense for a government agency without citizen support. Some of these conversions are so difficult that a national organization, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, formed specifically to provide technical, legal, financial, and political assistance to communities around the country. The Trust for Public Land is another national organization that has been unusually active with creating urban rail trails.

More than that, trail advocates are fierce in their commitment to these facilities–many see them literally as “do or die” opportunities. In Seattle, when the Post-Intelligencer newspaper reported that the Burlington Northern Railroad had secretly sold off a piece of track that had been slated for a continuation of the Burke-Gilman Trail, cyclists were so outraged that they chained their bikes across the entranceway of Burlington Northern’s Seattle headquarters and began a vehement protest that stayed on the front pages for two months. (The railroad, which had sold the land to an out-of-state tycoon for a place to dock his yacht, found a way to rescind the deal and the corridor is now the trail extension.)

The Capital Crescent Trail as it enters Bethesda, Maryland, 7 miles from its starting point in Washington, D.C. Credit: Barbara Richey, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

In Washington, D.C., when the National Park Service was unable to get a quick congressional appropriation to save the Georgetown Branch from being developed by CSX Railroad into a string of million-dollar homes through a national park, land developer Kingdon Gould III loaned $12 million of his own money and held the land for a year until Congress acted. (The corridor is today the Capital Crescent Trail, centerpiece of what will eventually be a 20-mile “bicycle beltway” within the nation’s capital.)

The latest innovation is the overhead or trestle trail. Influenced by the creation in Paris, France, of the Promenade Plantée (“Planted Walkway”), activists in New York, Chicago, and St. Louis have all discovered abandoned rail trestles and launched campaigns to bring them back as trails. First to open, in 2009, was New York’s High Line, a sensational tour de force in the now-chic former meatpacking district. The walkway (which from day one was so crowded with pedestrians that bicycles were not permitted) includes sophisticated plantings, architectural landscaping reminiscent of railroad tracks, artistic benches and chaise longues, a viewing gallery with picture window overlooking 10th Avenue traffic, a large wall of glass panes dyed every hue of the Hudson River, food carts, seating areas, and more.

A bit less upscale but considerably longer and designed for cyclists as well as walkers, Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail is expected to open in segments as funds for the $45-million conversion are found. The Bloomingdale Trail should serve recreational cyclists as well as purposeful commuters since one day it could join an interconnected trailway linking all the way from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. St. Louis’s Iron Horse Trestle will also prove helpful to cyclists, runners, and walkers of all stripes since it passes over busy Interstate 70 and leads toward the popular Riverfront Trail along the Mississippi River.