Thinking Beyond the Borders

June 1, 2014, Feature, by Dena Levitz

A recent roundtable discussion hosted by NRPA and the American Planning Association generated new ideas on the role parks play in shaping successful cities.Parks leaders and urban planners need to look beyond the borders of parks and think of the public spaces they manage as part of a comprehensive “public realm” that is much more inclusive than just the lands identified as “parks.” These open spaces provide a type of connectivity for communities that can have great benefits to cities and urban metropolitan areas, say the planning and parks directors of nine major cities who gathered recently in Arlington, Virginia, for a roundtable sponsored by NRPA and the American Planning Association (APA).

 In addition, the participating parks and planning leaders agreed that embracing such a view enables them to work across department lines. This allows planning, parks, health, water, public works and other agencies to create a new framework for collaboration at the municipal, regional, state and even federal levels to share ideas and resources to meet new challenges and contribute to solving problems.

These messages cut across each of the three sessions that comprised the invitation-roundtable titled “The Role of Parks in Shaping Successful Cities,” which was organized by Richard J. Dolesh, NRPA’s VP of conservation and parks, and David Rouse, APA’s managing director of research and advisory services. The event was groundbreaking in that it brought together planning directors and parks directors from several of the largest U.S. cities for the first time. The roundtable also included invited guests from a number of national organizations and think tanks who participated in the daylong presentations and discussions on three topic areas:

  • The role of parks in economic development and revitalization
  • The role of parks in planning for health outcomes
  • The role of parks in contributing to green infrastructure solutions for stormwater management 

NRPA and APA have begun collaborating on several initiatives to demonstrate the principle that high-quality urban parks are essential to smart cities. NRPA CEO Barbara Tulipane, who opened the roundtable, spoke about how NRPA is giving greater attention to urban parks and said NRPA’s hope is that the roundtable is not an end in itself, but merely a jumping-off point for these diverse stakeholders to come together on future initiatives and meeting challenges. “That’s how we’re going to change cities,” she said.

Specifically, big cities and urban metropolitan areas are grappling with a number of common challenges, such as growth and economic development, ensuring the health of urban populations, and replacing worn-out or outmoded infrastructure for stormwater with more environmentally responsible — and inexpensive — alternatives. More effective and creative use of public spaces can be an answer to meeting these challenges.

The concept of an all-encompassing public realm is one city planners have begun to embrace enthusiastically, yet their parks counterparts have been slower to do so. David Barth, a principal at the large design firm AECOM and keynote speaker for the opening session on how parks are critical to economic development and revitalization, said this idea of looking at “the public realm” is particularly key as parks officials take on more responsibility for lands and public spaces and use public lands in nontraditional ways. Parks leaders must not think of these public spaces in isolation, but need to look at parks in the context of how they function in achieving the goals of general plans and city and county master plans. 

Another critical factor for parks to contribute to the success of cities is to have only the highest expectations for public spaces, based around a set of 25 criteria Barth has developed that fall into the categories of social, environmental and economic benefits. “We must consciously, purposely design spaces so that every one of our public spaces is a high-performance one,” he says.

Rather than just concentrating on iconic parks like Central Park in New York City or Millennium Park in Chicago, cities should aim to have every part of the public realm generate the kinds of benefits that these iconic parks do.

Parks and Economic Development

From an economic development perspective, the Great Recession left many of America’s cities struggling, and public spaces can be part of revival efforts, especially for what are now called “legacy cities.” In Kissimmee, Florida, for example, which has a population of about 64,000, a $35 million renovation of a major waterfront park was undertaken specifically as an economic development initiative. Barth says people asked Mayor Jim Swan why, in the middle of a recession, the city would spend substantial funds on a parks project. “The mayor said, ‘Because we’re in a recession.’

“Here’s a small community that that saw the economic possibility of redeveloping a park,” Barth says. The result has been that people find the park and then they find downtown. In essence, both entities are bigger draws, which contributes to Kissimmee as a whole.

James Shelby, Atlanta’s commissioner of planning and community development, said leaders from different disciplines are trying to transform the city in ways never done before through a $3 billion project called the BeltLine, the transformation of a circumferential abandoned industrial railroad that served the city during its manufacturing days. Originally, the BeltLine was dreamed up by a Georgia Institute of Technology student as part of his thesis, and the concept caught the attention of planners and decisionmakers. The idea for a city-circling linear park featuring a hiking/biking trail is now becoming a reality. Eventually, the BeltLine will provide a network of public parks, multiuse trails and transit along a historic 22-mile railroad corridor. The 25-year pursuit is the most comprehensive transportation and economic development project ever undertaken in Georgia’s capital. It’s also an example of how enhancements in the public realm can cut across sectors to bring about monetary gain. 

Once completed, the project will add 1,300 acres of green space and 33 miles of trails. Financially, the massive project has created 48,000 construction jobs and 30,000 permanent jobs and added 5,600 affordable workforce housing units. “It has generated economic development along housing and retail corridors,” Shelby says. 

Chicago, long known for its outstanding park system, is engaged in an effort to quantify just how much of an economic benefit parks supply to the city. Parks have always been considered major tourism draws in Chicago, yet it’s not something on which economic development and tourism officials have kept tabs. That will change soon thanks to an almost-complete analysis of the Chicago Park District’s economic contributions. The study could become a model for the country going forward, according to Chicago Park District General Superintendent Mike Kelly. “We’re always clamoring, ‘The parks are important, the parks are important.’ The response is, ‘Show me the dollars,’” says Kelly. “I realized that we needed to really recognize the parks as an economic driver, which caused us to do this analysis.”

Chicago Park District also epitomizes what it means to stretch dollars. The park district works with a $425 million operating budget, 70 percent of which is derived from a property tax levy. The remaining $125 million comes from alternative revenue sources. Taxes have been reduced over the past 12 years, forcing parks administrators to get creative. Kelly says Soldier Field last year was the source of $30 million in revenue for the city, and the Lollapalooza Music Festival, held in Grant Park, generates $2.7 million in revenue and brings 270,000 people to the park.

Parks and Green Infrastructure

Cities are not just facing economic challenges, however. The effects of climate change, including rising sea levels, violent storms and rampant flooding, are also posing intense challenges for cities going forward. One of the answers to meeting these challenges is a focus on green infrastructure, says Michael Van Valkenburgh, president and CEO of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates.

Existing gray infrastructure is falling apart across the board in many urban metropolitan areas. Massive sewer, water and stormdrain systems are aging and must be replaced, and the costs will be enormous. To simply replace them with more of the same is far costlier than to creatively look for opportunities to put green infrastructure in its place, he says. Instead, cities need to think in new ways. It’s time to be more innovative while designing and building urban structures and spaces, according to Van Valkenburgh.

As the planning directors and parks directors from Philadelphia and Seattle demonstrated, these are two cities that are proving to be especially forward-thinking in adopting green infrastructure strategies, albeit in different ways. 

Seattle requires all developers of major projects to incorporate green infrastructure into their projects as they’re designed and built through a system called the Green Factor. Additionally, a year and a half ago, the city also enacted a climate action plan to help manage runoff in major storm events. Credits are awarded for integrating green roofs, permeable paving and other environmentally advantageous features to sites, with attention given to zones of the city that have a need to reduce runoff and improve infiltration.

Philadelphia has aggressively embarked upon a 25-year green infrastructure plan that is the only large-city, Environmental Protection Agency-approved plan to address stormwater management across an entire city. The price tag is a hefty $1.2 billion, but it is in contrast to an estimated $6 to $8 billion in gray infrastructure upgrades that it would have taken to accomplish the same ends. 

Mark Focht, Philadelphia’s first deputy commissioner for parks and recreation, says their long-range plan takes into account the historical development of the city and where residents live. “We have very dense rowhouses. So this is not about creating new public green space; this is about greening what we have,” he says of their plan to create greened acres.

Parks and Health

When it comes to health, cities are experiencing significant disparities in life expectancy rates and trying to turn around trends toward obesity and chronic disease, which tend to be concentrated in lower-income and underserved neighborhoods. Parks and planning officials can take the lead in treating these problems by executing more thoughtful, deliberate decisionmaking about how public space is funded and used.

Los Angeles sees an opportunity to change behaviors and lifestyle habits of its residents by establishing new close-to-home parks, all at the same time, through a grand vision to create 50 new parks in five years. Michael Shull, acting general manager of the Department of Recreation and Parks for the City of Los Angeles, said they have set the goal to have a park within a 10-minute walk of all city residents.

Right now, access to parks in some communities is “about as bad as it gets,” he said at the roundtable event. In some parts of the city, green space is abundant, but in others, it’s incredibly scarce and hard to get to for a variety of reasons. The less-served areas are also often the ones with populations exhibiting the  most severe health ailments. Parks officials are working with a variety of partners to build the 50 new parks, including the Trust for Public Land and area nonprofits, which are providing funding and other resources to help develop parks for the city. 

So far, 21 of the 50 planned parks have been completed and are open to the public. Los Angeles isn’t stopping at 50, however; 11 additional parks are being incorporated into the plan. According to Shull, 670,000 people live within a half-mile of these 61 sites. “We’re putting the [parks] in the right spot. In these communities, 170,000 people previously did not have a park within a half-mile of their home,” he said. Such access to parks will allow new ways for children to play and new opportunities for physical activity.

In Cleveland, Ohio, struggles with foreclosures are being turned into a positive influence, as 20,000 vacant lots take on new lives as community gardens, vineyards and even a six-acre farm for refugees. “Part of our planning is, how can we be a stopping point on someone’s bike ride or jog? How can we bring people to an area that maybe wasn’t as highly visited and give them a reason to go somewhere else?” shares Cleveland Metroparks Chief Operating Officer Joe Roszak. 

Florida’s Miami-Dade County similarly struggles with congestion and obesity and has the added complication of exceptional population growth as people move back into the city. Jack Kardys, director of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces for Miami-Dade County, said these problems create an opportunity to use public spaces to create more livable neighborhoods.

“Miami-Dade County is a car-driven, suburban sprawl community with an outdated zoning code, plain and simple,” he said. “We have nowhere to go but up. It has allowed us to rethink and reshape our development patterns around density.” They have incorporated parks and recreation initiatives firmly into their General Plan of Development, and are encouraging all cities and municipalities within their jurisdiction to incorporate these concepts to provide healthier public spaces into their Master Plans. They regard their park and open space Master Plan as “a health plan,” said Kardys.

Parks Shaping Cities

The first-of-its-kind roundtable left participants and invited guests buzzing with the possibilities for new collaboration between planners, parks leaders and national experts on economic development, revitalization, health benefits and green infrastructure solutions for cities across the country. NRPA and APA intend this roundtable to serve as a kickoff event for a larger Urban Parks Campaign that will include development of new evidenced-based research as well as new tools and resources for professional planners, park designers and park administrators. APA and NRPA expect to reach out to other disciplines, including landscape architects, health professionals and civil engineers, among others. If this roundtable is an accurate measure of the opportunities and possibilities, the role of parks in shaping successful cities will grow.

Please click here for a white paper on the roundtable.

Dena Levitz is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.