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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Importance of City Parks

Below are selections from an article by Larry Houstoun

Secondhand Parks: New Opportunities for Urban Public Spaces

Opportunities that residents need and like

by Larry Houstoun
Urban public spaces are parks and plazas within walking distance of major concentrations of people, leisure places that can be reached on foot or by bike or public transit. They can be destinations where people go to have fun or they can be urban linear parks that take people somewhere else. Urban public spaces in America are as old as Savannah’s colonial public squares. In the 21st century, the unprecedented expansion of populations in and near downtowns has triggered the generation of new and more popular urban spaces in communities large and small.
Within the past 50 years, the composition and number of urban open space users have changed greatly. As demand and preferences change, so have park design and responsibilities for care and financing, along with expectations about users. This article is about changes in urban open spaces and leading ideas for expanding and adapting this essential amenity.
Today, more are being created, they are closer to their beneficiaries, they offer greater benefits to nearby properties, and they reflect greater concern about the quality of urban life. Importantly, they display civic imagination at its best.

Here are nine of the changes that are shaping urban open spaces today:
New Residents
First has been the change in local government populations. Locality centers are drawing residents in unprecedented numbers, households that can afford to live almost anywhere. They include all ages. As a generalization, people aren’t moving to communities for employment opportunities; many of them have had a net job loss. The new migration is largely amenity driven. There are more amenities per square mile in metropolitan centers than elsewhere in their regions.
New Places
Urban public spaces are cropping up in new places as civic leaders see the opportunities for leisure where manufacturing, commerce, and transportation had long dominated. Reusing municipal streets has been successful in Manchester, England, where a new street was created in order make it into a pedestrian way. Another such street was created on one of New York City’s busiest streets. So crowded by cars was Broadway at Times Square that the intersection was considered obsolete.
Boston built a linear pedestrian way over a subway tunnel and a destination park over a reconstructed parking garage. Hartford has created an elevated park over a rail line and a highway, one that that connects the commercial center with the Connecticut River. Earlier, San Francisco created pocket parks by replacing one or two parking spaces in some blocks with small leisure places.
In Arlington County, Virginia, athletic fields have been created out of a former PCB-filled brownfield. Inserted between a major highway and active CSX tracks and beneath the flight path of planes leaving Reagan National Airport, in an all but forgotten dump, the county park has already seen soccer competitions. Nearby Marymount University has shared some of the acquisition and development costs and will use the park as its home field for lacrosse and soccer games. The area of the worst lead contamination is beneath the small, paved parking lot.
New Sponsors
Entities other than general governments have become the creators, designers, and maintainers of urban public spaces. At one time people looked exclusively to governments to fulfill these responsibilities, but today the largest and best-financed of the business improvement districts (BIDs) are seeing the creation or re-creation of parks as important elements of their overall economic missions. Real estate interests have paid to restore such parks as New York’s Bryant Park, capturing the value added to nearby buildings as bait for higher office rentals.
New Tests for Success
In decades past, success was measured by such tests as “Are they cheap to maintain?” Today, public spaces are being examined in terms of their benefits to residents, to visitors, and to real estate values. Are they well used?
Success is measured by numbers of users. If urban public spaces are crowded, they are successful. People are not satisfied with mere space fillers, those vacuous, tax-exempt places where the public cost of security and maintenance far exceeds their civic benefits. In pursuit of low-cost maintenance, many localities simply poured concrete and installed inhospitable benches that seemed to attract only panhandlers.
Urban public spaces enrich host communities, serving as rarely acknowledged economic assets. City Beautiful, a 2008 report published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, described a study of 250 metropolitan areas that found that the extent of amenities present, including parks, produced the third-highest rates of growth. Convenience of parks and golf courses were among the 15 factors studied. The report urged officials to invest more in recreational capital as the digital age has produced new priorities for selecting residence and work locations.
New Reuse Opportunities
Just as new concentrations of amenities attract newcomers to downtown, changing economic purposes have made redundant and reusable land and structures available to accommodate increased population and expanded leisure facilities. The decaying waterfront in Wilmington, Delaware, has been transformed into a mixed-use complex with an active theater company, farmers market, restaurants, minor league baseball stadium, and a river-edge walkway. Washington D.C.’s Anacostia River sports a handsome new water-edge park in a segment of the river earlier considered useless and virtually poisonous.
New Opportunities
Two major forces contributed to the urban real estate revolution benefiting urban centers. First, the commercial centers of U.S. cities were grossly overbuilt a century ago for today’s retail markets and are obsolete for today’s office requirements. Retail stores were replaced by vacant lots. With dwindling demand for small-office space and much shopping moved to out-of-town locations, land prices crashed in downtowns. Yet arts and cultural institutions kept alive by public and private subsidies continued to draw culture patrons to eating and drinking establishments.
Second, tastes change. Old is in. Suburban life palled. Downtown property had become inexpensive, and New York’s success with converting attractive older office towers into popular residential units stimulated conversions elsewhere. About the only asset missing was readily accessible leisure space, and urban centers began to overcome that deficiency.
New Values
Decades of fear of crime had dampened enthusiasm for living and visiting downtowns. This concern has since passed in all but a few commercial centers. Five years ago, a survey of those who newly moved into central Philadelphia listed the neighborhood’s absence of crime, second only to walking to work, as the two principal appeals of inner-city living.
Newcomers found that handsome town houses and apartment towers were appealing and affordable. Suddenly central cities bloomed with strollers and pets and new restaurants and swanky town houses. Demand has spread to additional blocks and long-dormant neighborhoods. Once marked by widespread blight, downtowns have become the metropolitan centers of places to have fun. The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway in downtown Boston is an economic generator, attracting hordes of tourists and residents to its varied attractions, even in winter.
New Appreciation for Communities
In the scramble for park financing, more costs are being shared with nonprofit corporations, developers, and other businesses. Owners of substantial structures are paying for air rights to build along side of or above New York’s High Line, and BIDs are recreating, maintaining, and programming long-neglected parks in Philadelphia and elsewhere. The increasingly shared financing with nongovernmental entities may also produce more shared responsibility for open space governance.
A mixed board of directors—local officials and assessed property owners—illustrates a decision-making structure that is a promising improvement over one composed of only government or only residents. Although BIDs are not entirely composed of leisure facilities, the public-private successes of more than 1,000 BIDs are impressive. Most BIDs are authorized to finance urban open spaces.
New Places for Urban Spaces
Probably the most remarkable new urban space in America is Manhattan’s High Line, an abandoned, elevated freight line that served the Meatpacking District for a half century. Traveling at approximately the third-story level, the High Line made it possible to make pickups and deliveries by rail at the sides of warehouse-style structures.
In one instance, the tracks passed entirely through a building, adding interest to what has become a national attraction, an elevated and landscaped linear park. Confirming what scores of real estate studies have shown, the elevated park has stimulated billions in private investment in a district previously known as a neighborhood eyesore. On a sunny Saturday in late November, the place is mobbed.
Central Philadelphia sits between two rivers. At the westerly one, the Schuylkill, a linear park shares space with an active freight line. Along the Schuylkill, the first of several planned segments of an urban linear park has been cleaned, landscaped, and expanded, linking residential centers to 25 miles of trails to Norristown and Valley Forge.
The trail follows CSX on the city side and overlooks the new 25-acre recreation space between the river and the University of Pennsylvania, a reuse of land long occupied by rail yards serving U.S. mail trains. Plans call for pedestrian bridges linking the east and west sides of the Schuylkill and at least one segment to be cantilevered over the river to permit people to pass uninterrupted around a still-active factory. The responsible nonprofit corporation, Schuylkill Banks, encourages fishing and conducts boat tours among various historic points of interest along the shore.
On the east side, a former shipping pier has been converted to a half-acre park complete with grassy slopes, trees, and seating for public presentations and river watching. The Race Street Pier Park is an early phase of a seven-mile linear park.
Can We Capture More of This Resource?
The supply of abandoned or undesirable urban land seems inexhaustible at the metropolitan centers. When rail transportation was an essential resource, for example, rail lines converged at the centers. Much of that redundancy remains unused.
Similarly, there is little evidence that the residential appeal of these centers will diminish as it is principally appealing to the three-quarters of American households who are without children and even some who have them. The National Association of Realtors released a study of householders suggesting a rosy future for inner-city living. Its 2011 survey reported, for example, that people want a park within a three-minute walk. That’s not a prescription for a low-density, suburban lifestyle.
Mixed uses are especially important for successful parks. The late urbanist Jane Jacobs, upon studying a park that was particularly popular, observed that users were continually coming and going—early morning dog walkers, then businesspeople walking to work, then mothers tending children, then sunbathers, and so on.
She noted that mixed uses produced a constant flow of users, the ultimate test and unlikely where a park attracts only baby tenders or office workers. Jacobs wrote that the greatest influence on park use is the number and variety of potential users in the surrounding blocks, much more so than what is in the park.
Philadelphia has begun a process that other towns and cities would do well to watch. A complete inventory of land potentially converted to urban open space (from concrete playgrounds) has been completed for the entire community, and the city has set bold, yet attainable goals that all residents should have a park within a half-mile walk of their homes.
Maps in Philadelphia’s 2010 report show where this standard is met and where it is not. Although much work has been accomplished in center city, some large opportunities exist despite the existing density. An elevated, abandoned rail line, for example, remains unused and is highly suitable for conversion to open space.
Urban public spaces attract and retain populations. They help support local growth, and living is healthful and stimulating. Parks make better neighbors than all that wasted land we’ve inherited. This may be a golden age in terms of the accessibility, utility, and popularity of urban public spaces. Business and governments should treat these amenities as investments in economic development and antidotes to sprawl.
Walkable has replaced driveable among the baby-boomer and millennial generations in selecting residential locations, wrote Charles B. Leinberger in the November 25, 2011, New York Times opinion piece, “The Death of the Fringe Suburb.” Conversion of secondhand land to urban public spaces is a wise course for this century.
Lawrence Houstoun is partner, The BID Experts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (lhoustounjr@verizon.net).

As gas prices and the cost of transportation continue to increase, walking remains a great way to get around, get exercise, and have fun!

Rogers City is the "City of Parks and Trails."

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