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Cities Can Have Health Promoting Park Systems Through Proximity, Accessibility, and Co-Location

The closer the park and the easier to get to, the more likely it will be used. Conversely, people who live far from parks are apt to utilize them less.

These obvious truths have implications for public health, but recognizing the problem does not automatically offer simple solutions for mayors, city councils, park directors, or urban planners. Creating new parks in a crowded, built-out city is a slow, arduous, and often expensive task. It can be done—it is being done in almost every city in the country—but it is not the only way to bring people and green space together. Much can be done outside the park fence, in the neighborhood, where the normal processes of urban construction, rehabilitation, and change occur at a faster pace.

Sometimes easiest to fix is the problem of accessibility. Some parks are underused simply because they are too hard to get to. Users may be blocked by steps, fences, walls, cliffs, railroad tracks, highways, waterways, or an unbroachable row of private residences. Some parks require a long jaunt to the other side just to gain entry. Others are literally visible from a home but unreachable by children without a chaperoned car ride.

Park access might be improved by constructing a ramp or pedestrian bridge in a key location, or by installing a traffic signal on a busy road. While such fixes might cost from $50,000 to several million dollars, that is a small price compared with what is routinely spent on highways and parking lots and would be more than offset by savings in health costs resulting from more frequent park use.

People are more likely to use parks that are close to places where they spend time: restaurants, shopping districts, libraries, gyms, and other meeting areas. In some cases parks can be sited close to such destinations. In other instances businesses and attractions can be allowed or encouraged to locate near existing parks. A mistaken Victorian sensibility sometimes holds that the “purity” of parks should not intersect with the “untidiness” of commercial areas. In fact, people like that proximity. They welcome the opportunity to buy picnic food or an ice cream cone to eat on a nearby park lawn or bench—and if that sojourn can be combined with a brisk walk, jog, or basketball game, so much the better.

Or, a large downtown destination park might be considered for a bike station, like the one offered at Chicago’s Millennium Park. There, for a membership fee, park users have access to one of 300 secure bike spaces along with lockers, showers, and a repair shop. For tourists, there are rental bikes. Completed in 2004 for $3.2 million, the facility today is so popular that it has a waiting list.

Best of all is the provision of plenty of housing near parks. This is an old concept with a new name: park-oriented development. From Lincoln Park in Chicago to Riverside Park in New York to Lake Harriet in Minneapolis, the parks surrounded by lots of people are the ones that can provide the greatest total amount of health benefits. But often U.S. cities are zoned so as to prevent that outcome. Some communities are averse to the look of taller buildings around parks; others may even think that the fewer people in the park, the better.

If denser development is not possible, park use can also be increased by improving accessibility through walking, bicycling, and public transit. (Automobile access is less desirable because it requires acres of parking and eliminates the health benefit of walking and cycling.) Ample park entrances, great sidewalks, and bike lanes on connecting streets; pedestrian-friendly perimeter roads with plenty of traffic signals and crosswalks; and easy grades and smooth trails for elderly and wheelchair-bound visitors: all these contribute to great access. In large parks, high-use destinations such as playgrounds, basketball courts, and swimming pools should be sited near the edge of the park, not deep in the interior.

"Catchment Circle." The area of a circle grows by the square of the radius. If a park is easy to reach by bicycle, 16 times as many people can get to it in the same amount of time it takes to walk from a mile away. Illustration: Helene Sherlock.

Bicycle access extends the “reach” of a park 16-fold over walking. This is because cycling is about four times faster than walking, and the “catchment circle”—the surrounding area from which park users can be drawn—increases by the square of the distance from the park (see diagram on right). Thus, improving bicycle access is an important way to get more people to the park (not to mention the health benefit from pedaling there and back).

Good public transit improves park access even more. It is no coincidence that eight of the ten most heavily used parks in American cities offer subway or light-rail access within one-quarter mile, and all of them have bus service that comes even closer. In New York City major parks almost invariably have subway service. Other parks well served by subway and rail include Boston Common, Forest Park in St. Louis, Millennium and Grant parks in Chicago, and the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

As new transit lines are built, it’s sometimes possible to align them with parks. Seattle’s new streetcar line terminates at 12-acre South Lake Union Park. The city is working to increase housing and commercial density in this near-downtown location, and the alignment of park and transit is particularly helpful in reaching the goal. “Especially at lunchtime,” says former Seattle Parks Foundation Director Karen Daubert, “you can see the crowds walking off the streetcar right into South Lake Union Park. It’s the perfect connection to this waterfront refuge.”

For larger parks, internal transit can also promote access. At 130-acre Washington Park in Portland, Oregon—home to the popular Rose and Japanese gardens—special Tri-Met buses not only connect to the nearest light-rail station but also make eight stops inside the park. The service is inexpensive (or free with a transfer), runs every 15 minutes, and is aggressively advertised by the park department, Tri-Met‚ and event promoters. The route gets about 500 riders per day on weekends and 420 on weekdays. From a health perspective, taking transit results in far more walking than accessing the park in a private automobile.

Here are a few examples of the ideas presented above:

Piedmont Park, Atlanta. Health-promoting park systems appreciate density. Credit: Ashley Szczepanski.

In recent years, Atlanta’s Piedmont Park has shown a marked growth in users. There are several reasons for this, including policies that have reduced auto traffic in the park, the rehabilitation of facilities, better signage‚ and additional programming. But also significant is the fact that more people now live in areas bordering or near the park. Unlike many other urban places, the Piedmont Park neighborhood is densifying, and the park itself is serving as a significant lure for development.

Between 2000 and 2009 alone, the City of Atlanta approved building permits for 16 new multi-unit rental and condominium apartment buildings within a half-mile of Piedmont Park, and the neighborhood gained nearly 100 single-family homes. All told, the park neighborhood gained 1,880 units, or about 4,500 people, over the decade. These people are the heaviest users of the park facilities. They compound their health benefit by often walking or running to the park rather than driving there.

“Piedmont Park is one of the single biggest assets we have in the neighborhood,” said Ginny Kennedy, director of urban design for the Midtown Alliance. “In everything we do, we encourage and try to reinforce access and visibility to the park.”

Perhaps most significant, the Midtown Alliance—whose goal is to make midtown Atlanta an “exceptional place to live, work, learn, shop, and play”—spearheaded the area’s 2001 rezoning. The changes enabled many more people to live and work near Piedmont Park and benefit from its health-promoting effects.

Midtown Greenway, Minneapolis. Health-promoting park systems locate parks and trails so as to benefit from other uses. Credit: Freewheel Bike Center.

Since its opening in 2000, Minneapolis’s Midtown Greenway has quickly become one of the best-used bike routes in the country, largely because it combines a park-like experience with true functionality. The mostly below-grade former rail line is quiet to ride, bordered with green, and unbroken by street intersections. Yet its almost six-mile length parallels a major commercial street only one block away, offering easy access to grocery and hardware stores, restaurants, video rentals‚ and pharmacies. “Fast, safe, and pleasant” is how Midtown Greenway Coalition Director Tim Springer describes the linear park—but it is also convenient. Instead of returning home from a bike ride and climbing into the car for errands, many Midtown Greenway users are able to multitask. The greenway leads them to their needs, and their needs lead them to the greenway.

The city has consciously helped. When a massive old Sears warehouse was converted into the Midtown Global Market, officials built a connection from the greenway and also landed a federal loan to create the Freewheel Bike Center‚ which provides storage, repair, rentals‚ and sales. Next door is a coffee shop. Nearby, the new Sheraton hotel has an outdoor patio overlooking the trail (and directs guests to rent bikes from Freewheel). The greenway also intersects with transit along the Hiawatha light-rail line, giving some Minneapolitans a car-free commute with morning and evening exercise to boot. All in all, the collocation of the park with diverse destinations has made this not only a greenway, but a “healthway.”

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

To Form a More Perfect Union Station: Redesigning Columbus Plaza for Pedestrians

Union Station and Columbus Plaza. Credit: Rob Ketcherside (Flickr Feed).

Washington, D.C.’s Union Station is a major destination for tourists and commuters, with about 29 million people visiting it each year.  As a first glimpse of the city for many people traveling by rail or car, Union Station was designed as a grand entryway to the nation’s capital.  It’s classical Beaux-Arts architecture influenced other popular landmarks in Washington, D.C., such as the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials.  But as public transit increases in the city, and the surrounding neighborhoods rapidly undergo redevelopment, it is clear that the 104-year-old-railroad facility needs a facelift.

We recently came across an article in The Washington Post about an 18-month reconstruction project to improve access and safety throughout Columbus Plaza in front of Union Station.  Many years in the making, the $7.8 million redesign will include new sidewalks and upgrades to the traffic signals to enhance the flow of pedestrians and vehicles throughout the plaza.  The plan also calls for eliminating a fishhook-shaped road that cuts through Columbus Plaza, restoring the plaza to its earlier appearance and allowing for easier pedestrian access to the station from the Capitol and other areas.  Additional transit improvements to the area include the very successful bicycle storage and rental facility added to the west side of the station, and laying tracks for the future H Street streetcar route that will terminate at Union Station.

As with any huge endeavor undertaken in Washington, D.C., there are many agencies and interested parties involved in this complex project, including the federal government (who owns Union Station), National Park Service (manages Columbus Plaza), city government (controls the roads), and the Architect of the Capitol (land on the other side of Massachusetts Avenue).  Other partners involved include Amtrak, Greyhound, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, and the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation.  And of course, any structural changes at all to Union Station must also take into account its historical prominence.

Because the “downtrodden appearance” of the plaza when compared to the magnificent train station often confuses the thousands of pedestrians and motorists who use it each day, locals and visitors alike are anxious to see how the reconfiguration will create a more welcoming transportation hub.  As Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, summed up, the idea is to have the space in front of Union Station “be more about a plaza and less about trying to walk across nine lines of vehicle traffic.”

San Juan: The Walkable City

Credit: Municipality of San Juan

 San Juan, Puerto Rico recently released a new plan to make the city more liveable and walkable. Titled The Walkable City, the plan calls for a redesign of the Isleta district, an island which is home to Old San Juan, the oldest planned city in the Americas. Isleta is separated from mainland Puerto Rico by a series of bridges and a ferry.  

The plan focuses on 10 strategic actions. Most significant is the introduction of the “Tren Satour”, a 5.3 mile light rail system to connect the historic center with the mainland. An integrated public transit system would also include buses and shuttles, water taxis, commuter ferries, and extensive park and ride facilities on the mainland. Other interesting features of the plan include mixed-use development, a waterfront loop for pedestrians, cyclists and joggers, and creating green corridors to connect the north and south waterfronts.  

The idea of including better public transportation options and connectivity to parks in urban design plans is nothing new. Many U.S. cities, including Houston, St. Louis, and Phoenix have recently been adding light rail or bus stops in parks as part of redevelopment plans. San Juan’s The Walkable City uses many U.S. as well as international cities as example success stories. View the full plan here.

Framework for Planning Parks Around Transit

We’ve been thinking more and more about the connection between transit and parks.  One useful resource in this area is the Station Area Planning Manual (pdf) prepared by Reconnecting America for the San Francisco Bay Area a few years ago. The manual is meant to be a guide for local governments as they plan areas around mass transit stations, and includes a basic framework for the role and types of public space. The report puts this issue in context:

Ultimately, the success of a plan is based on the quality and character of existing and new buildings, as well as the streets and open spaces within a station area. Different place types that are built using the plan’s guidance will have a mix of building types, and each building type will have a mix of architectural styles. In addition to buildings, there are different types of open spaces appropriate for TOD. The regional transit network should provide access to a range of different types of open spaces, from small transit plazas to large regional parks. While it
is unlikely that a single Station Area would include the full range of open space types, this typology is useful when making decisions about open spaces in Station Area Plans. The TOD Examples are Bay Area open spaces that are meant to illustrate the possibilities, not as examples to be replicated in every TOD location. The design of each open space should respond to site conditions, expected use patterns, and an analysis of station area open space needs.

The message is that there’s a variety of ways parks and public spaces can be provided. Transit stops are public spaces themselves and there can be plazas, parks, trails and connections to larger, more regional parks outside the service areas. And sometimes, large urban parks are destinations for transit themselves, as is the case with new light rail stations at Hermann Park in Houston, Minnehaha Falls Park in Minneapolis and Washington Park in Portland.

And while there is no concrete set of typologies related to parks and transit, the manual contains the following table that gives a basic framework of the different forms open space can take.

Trails and Transit: a Practical Combination

The trouble with light rail and subway, some say, is that it only serves a small area around each station, and that vast areas can be left to dependence on cars.  Planners consider mass transit service areas around light rail stations and subway stops to be about 1/4 mile — any farther and you’ll see significantly diminishing interest in making the trek.

But that’s for walking — and not biking.

DC Metro is easily accessible downtown, where most stations are within a 10-minute walk (light green circles). In the suburbs, however, convenient access by bicycle would tremendously increase service area (dark green area within 10 minutes bicycling distance of a metro station). RTC

In the DC Metro suburbs, convenient access by bicycle would tremendously increase service area (dark green area within 10 minutes bicycling distance of a metro station). RTC

A Rails to Trails Conservancy report from earlier this year addresses this very issue, noting that “bicycling in particular has great potential to allow more people to access public transportation conveniently. Accessing public
transportation by bicycle can shorten travel times significantly. Because bicyclists travel about four times as fast as pedestrians, convenient access by bicycle can increase the geographic area served by one transit station 16-fold (see map).”

Infrastructure can include on-street bike paths, bike storage facilities and off-street trails.

The New York Times just featured a story about bus rapid transit in Bogota, Colombia — noting that, terminal stations are equipped with huge bicycle parking facilities and a network of bicycle paths and sidewalks were built leading to the stations. (Transportation Alternatives provides more information on providing bike parking at transit stations.)

In Minneapolis, a bike trail runs alongside much of the Hiawatha Light Rail corridor and the city’s Midtown Greenway hooks up to the line. (The rail cars themselves feature interior bike racks.)

In Dallas, The Trust for Public Land has worked with the city to create the Chalk Hill off-street trail, which will directly connect to one of the city’s light rail stations. In fact, Dallas has a greater trail network plan in which there will be six different light rail stations directly connecting to trails currently funded and in the design process.  The trails also connect parks and neighborhoods. (A map showing the city’s trail plans with its existing and planned light rail routes can be viewed here.)