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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.

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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.”

If It Doesn’t Have a Bench, Is It Still a Park?

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 first post in a three-part series on park benches. 

Think about the last time you visited a park. What did you do? Did you just pass through, or did you stay a while? Did you bring a book, your dog, a Frisbee? Did you sit down? Or did you want to sit, only to find that your single option was the ground?

In 2013, the city of Norfolk, Virginia removed almost 70 benches from three small city parks. The benches weren’t in disrepair and they weren’t in a bad neighborhood. In fact, they were located in the revitalizing historic community of Ghent, and, if anything, were more than popular. Unfortunately it was the wrong kind of popularity. Following complaints of loitering, drinking, fighting, and even prostitution, the benches vanished.

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Norfolk residents Carlton Pillar, left, and Gary Morton bring their own bench to a meeting about removals. Resident complaints had led to benches being taken out, but many others voiced outrage over the lack of seating. Photo credit: Hyunsoo Leo Kim, The Virginian Pilot

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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.

Getting Creative to Fund Water-Smart Parks

This is the final installment in a 19 part series on urban parks and stormwater. The following is excerpted from City Parks, Clean Water, a report by The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence.

Parks can help solve some city stormwater problems, and sometimes stormwater agencies can actually contribute funds to redesign or upgrade parks. However, stormwater funding alone is rarely sufficient for an entire park project, so it is usually necessary to piece together funding from multiple opportunities.

In many places, small-scale construction happens frequently and with little fanfare. Philadelphia’s water department routinely pays for park upgrades in conjunction with stormwater projects – from basketball courts to splash-pads to quaint pedestrian bridges. So do agencies in Austin, the Boston area, and Milwaukee (even if the water bureaus sometimes do so on their own land and avoid using the word “park” for legal reasons).

In Baltimore, a small but unusual source of funding is the Maryland Port Administration, proving that the number of possible cooperators is limited only by people’s imaginations. Because the Port of Baltimore is unable to operate without maintaining a vast acreage of paved surfaces, and because the state has a strict law protecting a 1,000-foot buffer around Chesapeake Bay, a compromise needed to be worked out. Thus, after doing everything possible to capture storm runoff on-site, the port agreed to remove hardscape elsewhere, depaving an acre for each acre it surfaces at the port. After experimenting in a rural state park’s parking lot, the port implemented the program in Baltimore, tearing out swaths of asphalt in nine schoolyards, trucking in good soil and providing the students with green ballfields and play areas. Next on the greening list may be venerable Patterson Park which over the years has accumulated more than an acre of miscellaneous asphalt that is ugly, unneeded, and adding to the runoff burden in the city and in Chesapeake Bay.

“We do a good job,” said Phillip Lee, a consultant to the port. “We’ll spend up to about $150,000 an acre taking out pavement and replacing it. Sometimes we put in swales, too. The rules are that the land has to be public and they have to promise that it will stay unpaved in perpetuity.”

Port-of-Baltimore

The Port of Baltimore requires extreme amounts of paved land. (Portstrategy.com)

In order to reduce delays to its own construction program, the port has gone a step further and created a “bank.” Now, when it completes a pervious project in advance, it puts the credits into the bank, allowing it to pave another acre of port land when needed without delay.

Funding may often pose a challenge for water management projects, but with some creative thinking there may actually be a win-win solution for everyone involved.

Using Funding From Water Agencies to Help Parks

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 eighteenth installment in a series of 19 posts.

Some city water agencies financially reward park agencies for collecting stormwater and keeping it out of the sewer system. That’s the procedure in Cincinnati, Minneapolis, and Chesapeake, to name just a few, with credit programs being planned in other cities across the nation. In Austin, where the water utility often uses parkland to manage stormwater, the Parks and Recreation Department has a formalized procedure to charge mitigation fees based on the level of damage to the park and the length of time that the park is impacted. Fees range from 35 percent of the park’s calculated annual value if a park is temporarily inaccessible (such as for underground utility work) to 75 percent if future park development is severely precluded, to 100 percent if the park becomes fully subsumed by an installation. Calculations are based on the number of square feet involved and the going price per square foot of private property adjacent to the particular park. Funds generated are spent to improve the affected park or a nearby site.

“Our mitigation fees aren’t popular with the other agencies,” admitted Parks Director Sara Hensley, “but this policy makes sure we take care of residents when their parks are temporarily closed.” The mitigation requirement has been used to acquire more land or install needed improvements. “We wanted to install a reclaimed water irrigation system at Hancock Golf Course – where we were irrigating with precious and expensive potable water – but we couldn’t afford the upfront costs to build the separate pipes,” she explained. “The water utility covered the $300,000 for us in exchange for easements to construct sewer lines under parkland.” Continue reading