I recently attended the American Planning Association’s annual conference in New York City, and I was alternately intrigued and exasperated. On one hand, I saw planners excited about the possibilities of utilizing parks in more innovative and creative ways in order to design more sustainable and resilient communities. They talked about the creative commons, place making, privately owned public spaces and exciting new ideas about building partnerships between the public and the private sectors.
On the other hand, I was frustrated by the parochial view that some had concerning parks. For some, parks barely factored into their urban design strategies. These strategies were detailed and thoughtful about health, transportation, affordable housing, community revitalization and economic development, but parks were an afterthought or a placeholder for future development. Parks were what you put in the spaces that were left after taking care of every other need.
Fortunately, there were many who saw parks as integral and essential to high- quality urban, suburban and rural design. One of the most interesting concepts I heard was the notion of “activating public spaces.” Activating public lands may not be a new concept to us, but for a number of planners and designers, it was a way to make livable and sustainable communities that are interesting and fun. For them, parks aren’t just what you have at the end of the block or in the center of the neighborhood. They are public places that can be transformed into exciting new spaces for recreation, enjoyment and thoughtful contemplation.
Active spaces are also proving to be a motivator for increased civic trust, civic engagement and informed local voting. The relationship between well-designed public spaces and increased public participation is being studied by the Center for Active Design (CfAD). This nonprofit organization promotes architecture and urban planning solutions to support healthy, engaged communities and is working to produce an evidenced-based resource guide for city leaders and designers. Perhaps this session resonated with me because I had recently reviewed the preliminary findings of an upcoming NRPA study that examines how elected and appointed local officials measure the importance of parks and recreation. These officials rated attracting and retaining business as their most important issue for their community. Unfortunately, they did not perceive parks as having a strong, positive impact to attract and retain businesses, even though they rated parks as a major contributor to a community’s quality of life!
We can activate public spaces for the benefit of people, which in turn, create greater civic engagement. However, we must use this increased engagement to our advantage by encouraging communities to push back on elected officials who continue to argue that park budgets are an easy cut. Let’s work to ensure that elected officials understand that their re-election rides on supporting a robust park system.
Barbara Tulipane, CAE, is NRPA's President and CEO