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For years American urban parks fell into decay due to disinvestment, but as cities began to rebound—and evidence of the economic, cultural, and health benefits of parks grew— investmin urban parks swelled. The U.S. Conference of Mayors recently cited meeting the growing demand for parks and open space as one of the biggest challenges for urban leaders today. It is now widely agreed that the U.S. needs an ambitious and creative plan to increase urban parklands.
Urban Green explores new and innovative ways for “built out” cities to add much-needed parks. Peter Harnik first explores the question of why urban parkland is needed and then looks at ways to determine how much is possible and where park investmshould go. When presenting the ideas and examples for parkland, he also recommends political practices that help create parks.
The book offers many practical solutions, from reusing the land under defunct factories to sharing schoolyards, from building trails on abandoned tracks to planting community gardens, from decking parks over highways to allowing more activities in cemeteries, from eliminating parking lots to uncovering buried streams, and more. No strategy alone is perfect, and each has its own set of realities. But collectively they suggest a path toward making modern cities more beautiful, more sociable, more fun, more ecologically sound, and more successful.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities
By Peter Harnik, Mayor Michael Bloomberg
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2010 The Trust for Public Land
All rights reserved.
How Much Parkland Should a City Have?
"Does my city have enough parkland?" "How about bike trails?" "What is the farthest any resident should be from a park?" "How can I keep our soccer moms and our tree huggers from killing each other?" "My neighborhood has no parks—how do I get one?" "How much natural land do we need for stormwater retention?" "We have a very nice park that almost no one uses—what's wrong?"
If you run something called the Center for City Park Excellence, these kinds of queries roll in like waves in a wave pool. They are asked by reporters, academics, and the public at large. They are asked by park officials and they're asked by mayors.
Until the 1920s there were few answers to these questions. In fact, the questions weren't asked. Parks were such a wondrous new phenomenon, and they were so rare, that the goal was to get as many as possible. It was similar to America's attitude toward highways in the 1950s and jails in the 1990s—there almost couldn't be enough. But beginning in the 1930s, popular enthusiasm for urban parks began to slacken. More exciting things were in the air. For one, there were scores of awe-inspiring national parks coming on line, from the Everglades, Acadia, and the Great Smokies to Isle Royale, Big Bend, and Saguaro. For another, the movement to suburbs had begun and more people—influential people, taxpaying people—suddenly had yards. Even though yards didn't fulfill even one-tenth the many roles of parks, they seemed like little green parks. And it seemed redundant to pay a mortgage for a private yard and then pay taxes for a public park. (While there was a brief urban park resurgence with Civilian Conservation Corps projects during the Depression, that was, after all, a federally funded make-work program.) Beginning as a slight desiccation in the 1930s and then a drought following the Depression, after World War II the political will for city parks virtually dried up.
With the rug pulled out from under them, the reduced cadre of urban park advocates was put on the defensive. Needing to devise a substitute for the former grassroots momentum, they sought to erect a formalistic planning structure. To stave off a full-scale reversal, they created an apparently scientific scheme to replace the previous hurly-burly of political action. When asked how much parkland a city should have, park experts said 10 acres for every 1,000 persons. There were similarly official answers for other questions such as miles of multiuse trail (one for every 8,000 persons), picnic tables (ten to fifteen per acre), even the amount of sailing space (one acre of water for every four sailboats). It was as if it had come from the Bible: "And on the eighth day, God created a 100-acre district park with a service area radius of 5 miles, and he saw that it was good." This scientific prescriptionism continued for more than two generations, all the way into the 1990s.
There was only one problem. It didn't work for real cities. The amount of parkland that cities did have and the amount that they should have had bore no relation to each other (see table 1.1). Chicago, despite being home to the American Planning Association, is notably short of parkland. Jacksonville, located in a gargantuan marsh, is so far over any kind of prescribed standard that it would have to have sell off tens of thousands of protected acres or bring in millions of more residents to get down to the standard. In fact, over the years, crowded Chicago has barely made a dent in its parkland deficit while sprawling Jacksonville has continued to amass acreage that is hardly ever visited by a living human being.
This is not to criticize either Chicago or Jacksonville, each of which has a unique and outstanding park, recreation, and conservation program. But it is to make the case that standards do not a great park system make.
It is politics that makes a great park system—politics based on the muscle of grassroots support, the brains of sophisticated leadership, and the nerves of elected politicians who know when to stand firm and when to compromise. This kind of politics—the kind that created the great early park systems in Boston, Baltimore, Buffalo, Cleveland, Minneapolis, and other places—cannot be replaced by standards. It is this kind of politics that U.S. cities must return to if they are to use parks for all their benefits: promoting weight loss and healthy living, adding beauty, strengthening the urban core, limiting suburban sprawl, protecting the environment, and even fighting global warming.
In some situations, such as in rapidly urbanizing rural areas under the control of a few large builders, hard-and-fast standards may work. Because of the availability of land, some standards are even feasible, assuming skillful planning and strong government regulations. The Phoenix park system grew up almost entirely after the time of old-fashioned park enthusiasm and during the period of standards (Phoenix didn't reach a population of 100,000 until 1949), and it's a large and successful system. But even there it seems that politics played a bigger role than may be obvious. Nearby cities Mesa and Tucson, which also came of age during the "standards era," have small and less inspired systems. It wasn't just the standards that worked in Phoenix, it was the politics that propelled allegiance to them.
But in already-developed urban areas it is much tougher. Most of these recommended standards are unattainable. Holding them up as a goal serves only to make city park agencies look incompetent. There are far too many existing structures, streets, uses, patterns, customs, expectations, and general history to plop down new one-size-fits-all parks or to meet a dry mathematical formula in existing cities. The only way to strengthen an urban park system is to strengthen the political constituency promoting it.
In the 1930s, New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses said, "There is no such thing as a fixed percentage of park area to population.... Sensible, practical people know that [it] depends upon the actual problems of the city in question." Alexander Garvin, in his book The American City: What Works, What Doesn't, addresses the fruitlessness of the rigid acres-per-thousand approach when applied to true urban areas:
In 1943, the American Society of Planning Officials proposed lowering the standard to 10 acres for every 3,000 city residents in cities with populations above 1 million, because higher standards were not attainable in more densely populated areas. The absurdity of this numbers game eluded them, too. At a standard of 10 acres per 1,000 population, Manhattan at its peak population of 2,331,542 in 1910 would have required 23,315 acres of park, more than the island's entire 14,870 acres. Even at ASPO's lower standard ... half of Manhattan would have to have been set aside for parkland.
The most recent efforts to set a standard for the "correct" amount of parkland in a city were made through the auspices of the National Recreation and Park Association in 1971, 1983, and 1995. Each one entailed great amounts of work—the 160-page 1995 book took three years to complete. Unfortunately, each was carried out in a special kind of data vacuum. While the research professionals were the best and brightest in the parks and recreation fields, they were only modestly attuned to the complexities of urban life. They had the most comprehensive data on how many adults would swim if a pool was within a particular distance or how many children could be served by an average-sized playground, but there was no context. True-to-life data about true-to-life cities were not in the picture: housing types, zoning laws, transit (or the lack thereof), waterways, street widths, bike lanes, parking requirements, railyards, shopping districts, school locations, festivals, highways, wealth distribution, crime, language, culture. Parks represent only one "silo" out of dozens of intertwined factors that make up a city, yet those other silos have a significant impact on the need, design, and use of parks.
To be fair, none of us can fully comprehend the complexity of the urban labyrinth. It may be possible to construct something visually pleasing with evenly spaced green polygons on a color-coded map or to arrange artful golf courses in a "simulated city" computer game, but real-life cities have too many physical impediments, political interferences, and cultural and economic exceptionalities for simple standards to rule. Venice, Italy, is 700 years old and widely considered to be a wonderfully successful and inviting city, yet it has a miniscule number of trees, no traditional parkland, and no playing fields whatsoever. Even if one treats cobblestone plazas as parks (as one should), Venice's occasional courtyard opening falls far short of making it a park-rich town. Conversely, Buffalo, New York, has an interconnected park-and-parkway system that is ranked among the best of the iconic creations of Frederick Law Olmsted. There was a time when Buffalo was one of America's "Queen Cities," with more millionaires per capita than anywhere else. In fact, along with the Erie Canal, the park system was likely a part of its economic success. But today it is a struggling place with high poverty, low property values, and a population less than half of what it was in 1950. Buffalo's park system was the envy of American mayors in the 1880s, but it wasn't strong enough to overcome the city's decline. Today Buffalo consists of a wonderful and historic park system without much of a city to surround it.
The other challenge to figuring out the "correct" number of acres is the wide range of densities and forms of cities and the many different ways that Americans live on the land. From crowded New York to sparse Albuquerque or Oklahoma City, population density affects everything from transportation to retail to education to health to politics (see table 1.2 and appendix 1). It certainly affects the way people use parks. High-density living provides the opportunity for frequent positive human interaction, both planned and unplanned. It also, of course, provides the potential for conflicts around noise, privacy, smells, and demand for facilities.
Is it realistic to expect that dense cities—those that have, say, ten persons per acre (6,400 persons per square mile) or more—will be able to pack in as much parkland as lower-density cities, not to mention suburbs and rural areas? What about cities like Atlanta and Pittsburgh, which may not be extremely crowded with residents but experience a large influx of commuters every morning (see table 1.3)?
Or is the very concept of parkland and density a contradiction in terms? Let's consider the reverse: Is it realistic to expect that lower-density cities or suburbs will be able to pack in as much diversity of culture, retail, culinary opportunity, entertainment, and architecture as dense cities? Can every community provide a comparable level of service in every commodity to every resident? Parks make cities better, but at a certain point too much parkland means too little city. Perhaps one reason for the greatness of Central Park and Prospect Park is that Manhattan and Brooklyn are so short of parkland—less than 2 acres for every 1,000 residents in each borough. Like caviar, pearls, and true love, rarity makes it poignant. For this reason, it is much more instructive to compare the amount of park acreage in cities of the same approximate density type—comparing, say, Oakland with Seattle, or Phoenix with San Antonio, but not crowded Philadelphia with spread-out Tulsa (see table 1.4 and appendix 2).CHAPTER 2
The Different Kinds of Parks and Their Uses
Figuring out the proper balance between parkland, structures, and streets on the urban canvas is an art more than a science. Figuring out how to accomplish this art in a public arena requires, first of all, a clearer understanding of what parkland is. Many different spaces and places are grouped under the nomenclature of "park": ballfields, woods, meadows, gardens, overlooks, playgrounds, lakes and lakeshores, seashores, riversides, wetlands, picnic areas, memorial grounds, historic sites, trails, greenways, parkways, boulevards, commons, plazas, squares, quadrangles, and courtyards, among others.
Notice that Gertrude Stein, after speaking of roses, did not say, "A park is a park is a park." Nor did Ronald Reagan, after speaking of redwoods, say, "If you've seen one park, you've seen them all."
The large number of park types, ranging from insect-filled wetlands that have no human visitors to center-city brick plazas that have no grass and sometimes even no trees, can be confounding to any planning process and even to a conversation. The vast number of activities that can and do take place in parks makes the discussion even more complex (see box 2.1).
Traditionally, park uses have been divided into two classes: "active" and "passive." This unfortunate nomenclature has caused countless hours of confusion and wasted analysis. There is no official definition of these words, and, in fact, they're often used as a kind of code by those who want to save green space but at the same time hope to prevent the kind of park creation that could bring in noisy outsiders. At the extremes the presumption is easy: "Active" is something like rugby while "passive" is something like sitting under a tree. But there is no clear dividing line between the two—no definition, just a feeling in the gut of the beholder. Try coming down the active scale: rugby, basketball, tennis, golf, lawn-bowling. Try going up the passive scale: sitting, strolling, walking, power-walking, jogging, running. The two concepts pass each other, at least in terms of calories expended, without ever hitting a boundary. And what about bicycling? Cycling has many of the attributes of so-called passive recreation since it is trail-based and can be performed so casually as to barely raise the heart rate; yet, in other circumstances, the obvious evidence of sweat and heavy breathing (not to mention pedestrians sometimes scattered in the wake) makes it undeniably "active."
Why even bother to classify activities? Because of that fuzzy word "park." If one person is seeking a quiet outdoor spot to read and another wants a place for her son to do tricks on his skateboard, they need a more descriptive word than "park" to communicate with each other. To make a comparison with transportation terminology, the word "road" is generalized, but it has a range of well-understood subcategories from "path" through "lane" and "street" and "avenue" to "interstate." Unfortunately, when it comes to parks, "passive" and "active" don't do the trick. Some people have suggested substituting more accurate words like "competitive" and "noncompetitive," where the former tends to require some kind of playing field, generally open, mowed or paved, rather flat, rather large, and often fenced to keep in a ball; while the latter generally has no requirements other than places to sit or walk. Others have suggested the words "regulated" and "unregulated." Here's the reality: "Competitive" or "regulated" activities tend to involve greater speed and violence, thus posing a threat to babies, children, seniors, women, men, pets, sunbathers, picnickers, and others, thus necessitating boundaries if not fences. "Noncompetitive" or "unregulated" is everything else. Admittedly, tossing a Frisbee or rollerskating on a plaza does pose a small risk to other park users, but the fact that it takes place in a noncompetitive fashion allows the activity to stop if a toddler ambles past or a senior rolls by in a wheelchair. (This is why bicycling is so hard to classify and why trails are often laden with conflicts. The spectrum from very casual family pedaling all the way up to competitive racing is huge. Communities that are most advanced in trail construction, like Minneapolis, have taken to installing two parallel treadways for users of different speeds and capabilities.)
Is all this an irrelevant, complex, and senseless exercise, akin to counting the number of angels that can fit on the head of a pin? Not really. The park experience is intensely personal and can never be entirely quantified, but the size and composition of a park system certainly matters. As urban parkland gains in public attention and interest, many institutions from park departments to tourism agencies to travel magazines seek to put it into an understandable context. At first blush, sheer acreage seems to be the answer everyone is looking for (see appendixes 2 and 3), but it quickly becomes obvious that the issue has much more nuance.
Cities need space for both noncompetitive and competitive recreation. Competitive play is relatively straightforward since most sports have fields or courts with official shapes and sizes. But noncompetitive recreation varies widely—from people- oriented activities like watching and talking in plazas, meadows, lakeshores, playgrounds, dog parks, and on benches to nature-oriented activities like walking in forests, wetlands, deserts, and grasslands.
Excerpted from Urban Green by Peter Harnik, Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Copyright © 2010 The Trust for Public Land. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsAbout Island Press,
PART I - Of Cities and Parks,
CHAPTER 1 - How Much Parkland Should a City Have?,
CHAPTER 2 - The Different Kinds of Parks and Their Uses,
CHAPTER 3 - Is It Acres, Facilities, or Distance?,
CHAPTER 4 - Parks and Their Competition,
CHAPTER 5 - Neighborhoods Are Not All Created Equal,
CHAPTER 6 - It's Not How Much but Who and Why,
CHAPTER 7 - A Process Rather than a Standard,
CHAPTER 8 - Stop, Look, and Listen,
CHAPTER 9 - Analyze and Prioritize,
CHAPTER 10 - Don't Forget Money and Time,
PART II - Finding Park Space in the City,
CHAPTER 11 - Buying It,
CHAPTER 12 - Utilizing Urban Redevelopment,
CHAPTER 13 - Community Gardens,
CHAPTER 14 - Old Landfills,
CHAPTER 15 - Wetlands and Stormwater Storage Ponds,
CHAPTER 16 - Rail Trails,
CHAPTER 17 - Rooftops,
CHAPTER 18 - Sharing Schoolyards,
CHAPTER 19 - Covering Reservoirs,
CHAPTER 20 - River and Stream Corridors,
CHAPTER 21 - Cemeteries,
CHAPTER 22 - Boulevards and Parkways,
CHAPTER 23 - Decking Highways,
CHAPTER 24 - Closing Streets and Roads,
CHAPTER 25 - Removing Parking,
CHAPTER 26 - Adding Hours Rather than Acres,
Appendix 1 - Population Density, Largest Cities,
Appendix 2 - Acres of Parkland per 1,000 Persons, Largest Cities,
Appendix 3 - Parkland as a Percent of City Area, Largest Cities,
Appendix 4 - Spending per Resident on Parks and Recreation, Largest Cities Fiscal Year 2007,
Island Press Board of Directors,